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Whisky Basics 1/4 – Types

by Oliver Klimek on July 22, 2009

This is the first part of a series of four articles about the basic properties of whisky. Although it also contains some very basic information, it is not a necessarily a beginner’s guide. I want to investigate the influence of four principal factors on the character of whisky.

  1. 1. Types of whisky
  2. 2. Whisky regions
  3. 3. Production
  4. 4. Storage and maturation

Of course virtually anything you can imagine may have an influence, but I think all can be assigned to one of these four areas. And of course, for rating whisky any knowledge about what can affect its taste is useful.

What is Whisky ?

First we should define what whisky really is. As it turns out, this is not so easy, because there are so many different types. The most generic definition would be “a spirit distilled from a mash of grains”, but this would also include Vodka and its German cousin “Korn”. The main difference between those two and whisky is the lack of aging. But there are also whiskies that are sold unaged, especially from newly opened distilleries to generate cash-flow. Laws in many countries (but probably not in all) prohibits them to be called whisky, but the producers would never think of marketing these spirits as Vodka. Instead it is called “Newmake” or “New Spirit”. And then there also is the infamous Irish poteen, a moonshine that is drunk more or less straight from the still. I also doubt that the earliest whiskies from the middle ages were aged for years.

Another common misconception is that whisky must include malted barley. But this is only the case for Scotch. For example, legal requirement for US Bourbon is a minimum content of 51% corn. Malted barley is used as well, but it is not strictly required.

You see that a specific “whiskyness” is rather hard to grasp. But now let’s move on to more solid territory:

Types of Whisky

1. Malt Whisky

This is the kind of whisky that is produced in most distilleries in Scotland. It is made from pure malted barley, distilled mainly (but not necessarily) in pot stills and aged for several years in oak casks (3 years minimum in Scotland). If there is an age statement on the bottle, it has to be that of the youngest of the whiskies that have been used for the bottling.

Malt whisky is usually the most flavoured of all whiskies, if you don’t take into account the effects of aging. This is because in the malting process not only the starch of the barley is converted to sugar, but it is also subject to the Maillard reaction which accounts for the creation of a large amount or aromatic substances. There are many parameters that can influence the taste of a malt. These will be addressed in later parts of this series.

1.1. Single Malt Whisky

A single malt is a malt whisky from a single distillery. This does not necessarily mean that the bottle is from a single cask. There are also single cask bottlings, but usually a bottling is made from batches of multiple casks, sometimes also from different years.

1.2. Vatted or Blended Malt Whisky

When malt whiskies from several distilleries are mixed for a bottling, it was used to be called Vatted malt. A few years ago the whisky industry decided to rename this term to Blended Malt.

2. Grain Whisky

Grain whisky is made from a mixture of grains. Malted barley is usually included. In Scotland it must be used by law although there is no set minimum amount. Other grains can include corn, wheat or rye. Grain whisky is distilled in a continuous Patent or Coffey Still, that allows a higher output than a traditional pot sill.

Because only a fraction of malted barley is included, the taste of a young grain whisky is notably less complex than that of a malt whisky. Again, cask maturation can have a significant effect on the character. Old grain whiskies can play in the same quality league as old malts.

Technically, American whiskies like Bourbon or Rye fall under this definition of grain whisky. But that term is usually only used for Scotch.

3. Blended WhiskyWhisky Tumbler

When malt and grain whiskies are mixed, it is called Blended Whisky or just Blend. The invention of the Coffey Still in the 19th century allowed to produce large quantities of cheap grain whisky that builds the base for the blend. Malt whiskies are added, but apart from some top-notch blends only in a fraction of significantly less than 50%

The mass production of blends was the motor for the internationalization of whisky. Many of today’s brands already existed in the 19th century.

The taste of a blend is dominated by the grain whisky. Malts are added to round off the flavours. Most blends are produced with profit in mind, so they cannot really cope with the quality of malt whiskies. But even so, blending whisky is a very difficult task. Especially when you have to make sure that your blend will taste the same year after year it is not easy to adjust your recipe for the fluctuations in character that are inherent to the production of malt whisky.

The next part will deal with the regional variations in whisky. Read on…

Pictures from flickr by chakchouka and Kyle May.

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