Answers to 10 essential scotch whisky questions (part one)

Sean Ludford is a regular contributor to TaylorEason.com. He is a veteran spirits educator and publishes at BevX.com. Check out Sean’s bio here.

There is no reason to fear Scotch Whisky. Be assured that there is no secret handshake, no Gaelic password, and no initiation rights to be performed (although a kilt doesn’t hurt). Your curiosity for new flavors and experiences is all that is required. If you have made the leap to distilled spirits and have acclimated to their inherent strength, easing into Whisky will be an easy transition. If you are a wine lover flirting with the idea of discovering whisky, come on in – the water is warm.

1. What is Scotch? First know that Scotch is purely Scottish. It is not a style of whisky rather simply a whisky that is made in the nation of Scotland. It also has to be aged in oak barrels for at least three years to legally be called Scotch Whisky – more on barrel aging later.

2. Varieties of Scotch Whisky. Scotch Whisky is typically divided into four categories: single malt, grain, blended, and blended malt (sometimes called “pure malt” or by its former moniker, “vatted malt”). Blended whisky is by far the largest category by volume and sales. Blended whiskies are a blend of grain whiskies and malt whisky. Brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewars, and Chivas are popular blends. Blended malts are a blend of two or more single malts.

3. What does Single Malt mean? Single refers to a single distillery. Malt is the sole grain material used to produce the whisky. So a single malt is a whisky made at one distillery and made with 100% malted barley. Simple.

4. Scotch Whisky Regions. For centuries the Scottish whisky industry has sub-divided the nation for tax purposes. Over time, vague regional styles emerged and remain to some degree today. While the decisions made by the individual distiller have more impact on the subsequent whisky than does the distillery address, it is useful to familiarize yourself with Scotch Whisky’s regional styles: Lowland whiskies are the most delicate and lightest in body. They do differ from other Scottish malts, as they are triple-distilled as opposed to double-distilled, as are all other Scotch malts. Island malts, most notably Islay, are noted for their assertive notes of peat and notes of the sea. While these would logically be the toughest malts to get cozy with, they are presently wildly popular. The Highland region encompasses the largest number of distilleries. It is commonly further sub-divided with the Speyside region being the most famous zone. Speyside malts are rich with malted barely flavors and noted for being slightly sweet and fruity. Campbeltown, a dangling peninsula on the western coast was once a thriving distilling center but now it is home to just three distilleries.

Whisky barrels

5. Where’s the “E”? Scotch Whisky has traditionally been spelled without an E while Irish Whiskey uses an E. No special reason for the difference although some Irish producers have suggested (in jest) that the Scots are too thrifty to spring for the additional vowel.

6. Age statements, what do they mean? Most Single Malts bare an age statement boldly printed on the label. If the label says 12 years old (or any other age) it means that 100% of the whisky in that bottle has aged in an oak barrel for at least 12 years and not one day less.

7. Does Scotch Whisky age in the bottle like wine? No. Whisky is aged in oak barrels. Once it makes it into a bottle, the aging stops and the spirits flavor and aroma profile is captured.

8. What kinds of barrels are used to mature Scotch Whisky? Barrel aging is absolutely essential to whisky. Whisky, like all spirits is clear and colorless when it comes off of the still. All of the natural color observed in whisky comes from the barrel – as does many of its aromas and flavors. The majority of barrels used for aging Scotch Whisky were originally used to age bourbon in the USA. Scotch Whisky is (almost) always aged in used barrels while bourbon is required to be aged in new oak barrels. It’s a great symbiotic relationship that exists between bourbon and Scotch Whisky producers. Other types of barrels are used as well with ex-Sherry being the second most common barrel type. There are no rules regarding the former use of an oak barrel. Read more about whisky barrels.

9. Finished in “Port Wood”. What does this mean? In the past few decades, the practice of special wood “finishing” has become popular. This is a creative way for a distiller to add an additional flavor component to their whisky. A year or two in barrels that have freshly housed Port, Madeira, rum, Sherry, or any wine or spirit adds a bright and distinctive flavor and aroma component. This is far from a marketing gimmick as it is an additional tool utilized by the distiller to make tasty and unique whiskies for us to enjoy.

10. What is “Single Cask” Whisky?
As the name suggests in a very literal sense is a whisky that comes from one single cask as opposed to a marriage of casks as is the norm. Most single cask whiskies are also typically free of added color and are bottled at “cask strength.”

Stay tuned for the second ten in two weeks…

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