I would like to start a loose series of articles on common misconceptions about whisky that are often found among whisky lovers. They may not be sensational revelations for experienced maltheads, but might contain facts that are new to at least some of you.
Single malt Scotch whisky is regarded by many as being superior to blended whisky. This is largely due to two notions:
- Blended whisky contains cheap grain whisky which at a young age is usually not at an improvement of taste. This wears off with increasing age, but that’s another story I may tackle in a later post.
- Blends are a potpourri of whiskies from usually dozens of distilleries. Single malts allow you to enjoy the product of a single distillery with all of its specific characteristics.
And it’s that second point I want to address here.
Is There Pure Scotch Whisky in the Casks?
As is well known, Scotch whisky is matured in used casks to almost 100%. There is no legal requirement to do so, but in the past centuries, this way of doing it has proven very successful. Mostly used bourbon or sherry casks are used for maturation, and it is no secret that in any “new” empty cask there are up to a few litres of the previous contents hidden in the pores of the wood staves. During maturation, this liquid will slowly diffuse into the whisky, effecticly creating a mix of perhaps 99.5% whisky and 0.5% sherry, bourbon or whatever.
Of course this is not quite the same as pouring a few bottles of other booze into a freshly filled cask because of the complicated phisicyal and chemical interaction between spirit and wood. But everyone should be well aware that any single malt from a first fill cask (or a finishing cask for that matter) contains a notable amount of “foreign” liquids.
Not very exciting so far, I admit. But let’s move on.
And What About Refill Casks?
The Scottish are said to be very tight with their money, that’s basically why they invented this whole used cask buisness in the first place. And they took it even a step further by re-using their old casks after bottling (up to five times for some whisky that goes into blends).
Distilleries can obviously refill their own casks again. So every new malt from distillery X will contain a small amount of older malt from distillery X along with a small amount of bourbon etc. Still not very exciting, I know.
But – and here it starts to get interesting – some distilleries also use casks from other distilleries for refills. Distilleries like Bowmore of Laphroaig are proud of using only first fill casks to get that full injection of foreign booze into their spirits, and they will happily tell you that they are selling their used casks to other distilleries.
Now what does this mean for our single malts? In this case, every refill cask of distillery X will also contain a small but not neglectable amount of malt from distillery Y.
A strinking example is the Glenfiddch Caoran Reserve that was finished in an Islay cask. My bet goes for Laphroaig by the way because they have lots of casks availabe and it is the malt with that kind of peat punch you would like for a finish. They surely wouldn’t have chosen a Bunnahabhain.
Single Malts Can Be Blended Malts
Now technically, we have a vatting of malt whiskies from two different distilleries. This should be properly called Blended Malt according to the current legal definition. But it’s called Single Malt nevertheless. Don’t tell the SWA, or they’ll be going to sue all of those distilleries for breaking their rules…Nah, just kidding.
Am I just nitpicking here? I don’t think so.
Cross Distillery Refills are Worse Than Teaspooning
Some of you might not know the term teaspooning. This is what some distilleries do to prevent the casks they sell to blenders from being bottled as single malts by an independent. For example Glenmorangie is said to have trifled a little of Glen Moray into every cask not going to their botling plant.
Casks “tainted” this way immediately lose their right to be called single malt and have to be sold as vattedblended malts or even blends (when grain whisky is added), even if the actual amount of added whisky is extremely small.
But refill casks from different distilleries contain much more tainting whisky than teaspooned ones, as should have become clear by now. And it is perfectly legal to call them Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Does anyone in the whisky industry care? I would be very surprised.
Know what you drink!