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The following whisky notes are meant as a primer for beginners but also includes lots of other information not readily available.
1. A “single malt” whisky is still a blend of various malt barrels. The term “single” simply means that all the barrels used in the blend come from a single distillery.
2. On the other hand, a “single cask” whisky is a truly unblended whisky from a singular cask or barrel which can fill only 150 to 350 bottles. To be selected as a single cask whisky, all the positive elements of flavour and balance must be present. Each cask delivers a unique whisky.
3. The co-father of Japanese whiskies, Masataka Taketsuru was trained in Scotland’s Longmorn & Hazelburn Distilleries from 1918 to 1920. In 1923 he helped set up Yamazaki but in 1934 he left over stylistic differences and founded Nikka.
4. The two major Japanese whisky brands are Suntory that make Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki & Hokuto. Yoishi, Miyagikyo & Taketsuru are made by Nikka.
5. Japanese whisky distilleries import malted barley from Australia and Scotland. Some Japanese blends were mixed with Scotch.
6. The age statement of a whisky is ONLY a rough guide to its quality as younger whiskies from the same distillery often perform better than their older counterparts.
7. Factors that can add to the quality of a whisky are; type & size of barrels use, slower distillation, quality and mix of grains, small batch distillation, use of pot stills, lower alcohol in the final distillate, a tighter “Heart”, water compatible with the style of whisky and masterful blending.
8. The absence of chill filtering can add complexity to the whisky but may cause it to be cloudy when water is added.
9. Whiskies do not age in a bottle, only whilst they are in barrels.
10. As with people, each barrel of whisky is unique, maturing at different ages and reaching different potentials.
11. Blending is a good way to soften extreme flavor in any individual barrel as well as to impart flavors from other barrels that it may be lacking in. Balance is Key.
12. Whiskies should be evaluated objectively and not on personal taste. Each whisky should be judged on its intensity of flavor, the dominance of attractive flavors over less favorable ones (if any), the balance of the difference flavours and the ability of each sip to deliver satisfaction over an extended period.
13. Whisky is used for Scotland, Japan & Australia whilst the US & Ireland uses the spelling Whiskey.
14. The Scotch Whisky regions are; Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Island(Orkneys, Skye, Mull, Jura, Arran) & Islay.
15. Islay is categorized separately from the other Islands due to its importance as a malt whisky region as well as its contribution of “malts” used in blending other Scotch Whiskies. The nine distilleries that are currently in operation are; Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Gartbreck, Kilchoman, Lagavulin & Laphroaig.
16. As a catalyst, copper is preferred for use in the manufacture of stills as it softens the vapours that hug the sides of stills. Copper contact is thought to remove unpleasant smells, volatile sulphur compounds whilst imparting fruity aromatic esters to the distillate.
17. Higher contact with copper increases the “reflux” of the condensed vapours that trickle back into the still and hence re-distillation resulting in a purer and lighter spirit. Many Irish distillers do triple distillations for this same reason.
18. There is however a tradeoff between having a purer spirit and one that retains “congeners” or flavor compounds. These compounds give backbone but may be seen by some as hard, on the other hand an extremely delicate whisky can lack flavour. A balanced spirit is one that is smooth or rounded yet packed with many of the complex elements that add to character, texture, taste and a long finish.
19. The 4 whole grains most used in whisky making are barley, wheat, rye & corn.
20. As they can be either raw or germinated, a total of 8 elements can be considered for whisky making.
21. Although the term malt can be used for all germinated grains, in the context of whisky making we only refer to germinated barley as Malt.
22. There are 3 categories of whiskies; Malt, Grain and Blended.
23. Malt whiskies come entirely from malted barley. Grain whiskies can use any combination of malted or unmalted barley, wheat, rye or corn - although malted barley is almost always used in the mix.
24. When the completed Malt and Grain whiskies are mixed, a Blended Whisky such as JW Black or Chivas results.
25. In Scotland, Malt whiskies must be distilled in Pot Stills. However, Grain whiskies can be distilled in either Pot or Column stills.
26. Column (Coffey) stills are very efficient at producing high volumes of spirits, but these spirits tend to be more neutral, lighter and less flavoursome.
27. Malts are richer and fuller than the other grains. They are also more expensive and the application of Pot Stills again adds more expense as the process is slow.
28. Unlike Malt whiskies, there are fewer Grain whiskies bottled as such, as they are used mainly for making Blended whiskies ie a mix of completed Malt and Grain whiskies .
29. Independent Bottlers in Scotland are unique to the global whisky world and have had a symbiotic relationship with distilleries.
30. They have in the past been the distribution arm for many distilleries with excess whiskies and/or whiskies whose flavours vary from the distilleries house style – even though many may be exceptional.
31. Through the many economic troughs experienced by the whisky industry, Independent Bottlers have played an important role at absorbing excess productions from distilleries as well as buying up stocks from distilleries that have gone out of business. Despite the “fire-sale” prices of these excess barrels, other active distilleries may not choose to purchase then unless they have brands that cater to blends that can mix whiskies from various distilleries.
32. With the permission of the distilleries, Independent Bottlers can use the name of the distillery on the bottle labels. Even when distillery names are not mentioned, strong hints are given.
33. Independent Bottlers have often been credited with offering very good value across the board as they spend relatively very little on marketing.
34. Consistency of style is less important to Independent Bottlers than absolute quality achievable for each batch of whisky. When barrels show exceptional flavours they are often bottled as “Single Cask”. These barrels are usually very well balanced thus mixing the barrel would take away or dilute the unique expression or quality of that cask.
35. “Small Batch” releases are also a method used to maintain good unique flavors with the use of only a few selected barrels without diluting the batch with lower quality whiskies.
36. However, the uniqueness of single cask and small batch bottlings mean that customers may not be able to find the exact whisky on their next purchase.
37. As each barrel matures at different rates, Independent Bottlers have the flexibility to bottle at that whisky’s optimal showing. Hence there will often be non-standard age statements beyond the customary 12, 15, 18, 21 yrs etc. that proprietary or house brands use from year to year.
38. Independent Bottlers also have the freedom to bottle the whisky anywhere from cask strength to a minimum of 40% ABV. Again the optimal strength for each batch of whisky is chosen rather than following a fixed house style.
39. They are often more able to offer very rare releases but as they are often Single Cask, quantities are limited to 150 to 500 bottles.
40. Independent Bottlings are often non-Chill Filtered to retain the important oils and compounds that add to complexity and flavor. However this may cause clouding when water is added to the whisky. They are able to do this as they have been traditionally less commercially oriented than the Proprietary or House Brands where aesthetic qualities are given high importance as they appeal to a wider audience.
41. Independent Bottlers seldom colour their whiskies with caramel. Colour consistence is commercially very important for Proprietary or House Brands as they bottle from batch to batch or year to year.
42. Independent Bottlers are certainly less commercialized in their offerings of whiskies at a more natural state than their Proprietary or House Brands counterparts. Despite the benefits of price and releases of very rare and unique whiskies they face the danger of not being able to replenish their aged stocks especially when demand for quality whiskies spike as we are currently experiencing. This means that many distilleries are retaining their barrels for their own Proprietary or House brands leaving less for Independent Bottlers. This has led some Independent Bottlers to begin to operate their own distilleries to ensure supplies for the future.