Demand for whiskies has recently seen record sales across the demographics used for alcohol beverages. It is no longer seen as an “old man’s drink” and many ladies have now developed a palate for it. With so much at stake amongst whisky distillers, controversy can be expected. Recently a Japanese whisky was rated the best in the world by whisky critique Jim Murray. Eloquent and entertaining as a writer, Murray has had his fair share of detractors and his exclusion of a Scotch whisky from his top picks have caused tremendous chatter in the whisky world as to what his agenda is.
In spite of this new interest in whiskies there is still a wide gap in the understanding of what whisky is made from and its different forms. This is evident even amongst those who have been drinking this noble beverage for decades.
The classification of whisky is complicated by the different rules of production and bottle labelling by each whisky producing country. Typically the longer the country’s whisky industry has been organized and legalized, the more stringent these rules are. One striking example from the traditional producers namely Scotland, Ireland, USA and Canada, is that they categorically forbid blending in whiskies from other countries. Logical one might think, but several whiskies from Japan have traditionally been bottled with a blend of malts from Scotland. Rules governing whisky production in India, Thailand and Taiwan can be even more ambiguous and some of these spirits cannot be imported into the EU as whiskies.
Therefore it is important to state that from here on, the general classification and rules of whiskies will be aligned to that of Scotland as they follow a robust regime that most of us are familiar with.
Technically, malts are merely the germinated state of a whole grain; however in the context of whisky it is only the malt of the barley grain - with the exception of malted rye whiskies from the USA - that defines malt whiskies.
Thus, a whisky distilled solely from malt is a malt whisky and is referred to by various names such as blended malt, vatted malt, pure malt, 100% malt, all malt or a single malt. Although the first five descriptions refer to the same product category, The Scotch Whisky Association mandates using “Blended Malt” as the official term. As we shall see further on, this has and will cause confusion when we discuss another category namely Blended Whiskies. For now let’s look at another misnomer - Single Malts. Single Malts are simply a malt whisky produced by just one distillery. It can be a mix or blend of many barrels, all of which must be distilled at the same distillery. So, is a single malt superior to a blended malt? It is the combination of the quality of the barrels used and the balance of the final mix that determines its value, be it from one distillery or several. For example, the $2,000 Johnny Walker’s Odyssey which is a superb blended malt is considerably more expensive than the average single malt.
That understood, let’s discuss grain whiskies. Without this understanding, we will not know what goes into the ubiquitous blended whiskies such as Black Label or Chivas. There are four whole grains that can be used for whisky production. They include corn, wheat, rye and barley which can be used both in their dry form as well as in their germinated state. Hence we have a possible combination of up to eight ingredients, with the proviso that the mix must include the malt of barley. The malt of barley gives the final whisky depth, weight and structure. For this reason, malt whiskies on their own tend to be fuller and richer whiskies. As with Single Malts, a Single Grain whisky merely indicates that it was distilled at one distillery. Many confuse “single grain” to mean that only one of the whole grains is used. This is incorrect.
If malt whiskies are richer and more flavoursome why then make other types of whiskies? The answer lies in cost. Barley is the most expensive of the grains and its conversion to malt even more so. It should be explained that in the early years of whisky production, malt whiskies were what was most commonly produced. It was a combination of the development of the industrial column still around the 1830s and then the change of the Spirit Act of 1860 which allowed blending of the more expensive malt with that of cheaper grain whiskies, thus creating a more affordable whisky that blended whiskies became popular. The blended whisky trade got an unexpected fillip in their sales when the phylloxera outbreak in Continental Europe brought wine production to a trickle and blenders of Scotch Whisky were only too happy to step in and fill the demand for a substitute alcoholic beverage. This trend would continue up to the 1960 when Glenfiddich once again started to market whiskies made entirely from malt. It has been claimed that the recent rise in malt whisky consumption has been linked to the Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s when excess malt whiskies not taken up for use in Blended Scotch Whisky were marketed in its pure malt form to clear the overhang in stocks.
By Lewis Mitchell
Le Vigne Pte Ltd
originally appeared in The Business Times