Become a scotch whisky expert in just 5 minutes
You enjoy a dram, you’ve tried a few and you may have even visited the odd distillery. Now it’s time to amaze your pals, wow your guests and gain gold star status amongst other scholars of scotch. However, there’s a problem. To you whisky still remains a dark and mysterious art, and when someone asks you what a dram tastes like, the best answer you can think of is... err whisky.
Well do not fear, because at Crafty Distillery we are passionate about breaking down barriers, making great taste accessible and generally removing the waffle from whisky. By the end of this five minute guide you will have become a whisky expert, you will have acquired the fundamentals of what scotch whisky is all about and your appreciation for whisky may well have increased too.
What is scotch whisky?
While some may believe that scotch whisky is made inside copper bagpipes, from heather, haggis and the tears of highland cows, scotch can only be made from three ingredients: water, yeast and grain. Grains such as barley, corn, wheat or rye. Scotch whisky can be made from any of these grains, however malt whisky must only be produced using malted barley.
In Scotland there are certain other rules that must be adhered to in order to avoid waggily fingers from the whisky police. It must be matured in an oak cask, on Scotland’s fair land, and for no less than three years and one day. It must be bottled at a minimum 40% alcohol by volume (abv), and it’s flavours can only be derived from the raw ingredients and maturation in oak barrels. Although scotch can be artificially coloured with spirit caramel, which doesn’t impact the taste whatsoever… allegedly.
What is single malt scotch whisky?
To carry the grand title of single malt scotch whisky, the only grain allowed in it’s production is malted barley (keep reading to learn about malting). The spirit must be distilled on no less than than two pot stills, one called the wash still for the first stage and the other called the spirit still for the second stage (more on this shortly). Pot stills are essentially industrial size kettles which must be made almost entirely from copper. It even has a spout called a lyne arm, however, whisky spout would be a far more entertaining name.
It must follow the same rules for maturation and bottling as any other scotch whisky. The single malt component ensures that all of the whisky in the bottle comes from only one single distillery. However, it can be a combination of any barrels of whisky from that distillery and a mix of ages also. When a single malt whisky carries an age statement, it merely dictates the minimum age of the whisky inside the bottle.
What is blended scotch whisky?
Scotch whiskies that are produced from wheat, corn or rye plus of course water and yeast, are termed grain whiskies. However the process is quicker and cheaper than for making malt whisky. Hence grain whiskies tend to cost less but also have a less complex taste. When they are blended with a variety of different single malt whiskies, the result is called a blended whisky. These blends can vary in quality from the stuff that puts teenagers off whisky for life, to the eye-wateringly expensive status symbols that can be acquired at popular airports around the world.
How is single malt whisky made?
As the name suggests, malt whisky must be made from malted barley. Malting barley is the process of tricking the barley grains into germinating just a tiny bit, but then halted through being dried inside a kiln. This process initiates the release of enzymes that help to turn starches inside the grains into sugars during the mashing process. The dried grains are ground into a coarse flower, known as the grist before being mixed with hot water to extract all the aforementioned good stuff.
This sweet liquid is then introduced to yeast and the magic begins. Yeast cells are living organisms that eat sugars and produce alcohol as a by-product. The end result after a number of days is a basic beer that can be around 7-8% abv.
Thousands of years ago some undisclosed individual or forward-thinking group figured out that alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature to water. By heating this beer towards the boiling point of water, the alcohol separates from the water, evaporating, passing along the Lyne arm until it is cooled back into liquid form. This first stage is called the wash distillation and creates a stronger alcoholic mixture of around 20-25% abv, known as the low-wines.
To achieve the new make spirit strength of 70% abv or above, this distillation process is repeated a second time on the spirit still, and in some distilleries even a third time or even 2.5 times (one for another article). This is what is meant by double distillation or triple distillation. The final new make spirit is then reduced in strength with water down to 63.5% abv before being filled into oak barrels or casks that are usually between 200 litres and 500 litres in capacity.
At this point the spirit is clear, all of the colour will come gradually over time from the tannins in the oak and what ever was in the cask before, such as red wine. Lots of magic things happen inside the cask. Some flavours are added by the oak, some flavours change, and some flavours disappear altogether. In addition some of the spirit will evaporate through the porous fibres of the wood, never to be seen again and referred to as the angels’ share. As a side note, the process of whisky maturation is extremely complex and not yet understood in its entirety. Treat anyone who professors to understand it with caution and ask to see their credentials.
How to taste whisky
Returning to where we began, if you happen to find that whisky, on the whole just tastes of nothing more than whisky, we have a simple cheat that will transform you into an instant aficionado adorned in the finest tweed or tartan troosers. It’s astonishing that whisky can be so diverse in flavour when it is made from just water, yeast and grain plus the influence of oak. However, due to this aspect, common flavours can be found in many single malt whiskies. When tasting a whisky, mentioning any of the following notes will be unlikely far from the mark for many scotch whiskies.
When yeast consumes the sugars from the grains to produce alcohol, the process also produces compounds that can smell extremely fruity and similar to pineapples, citrus fruits or stone fruits. This is especially true for very long fermentation times, such as the seven days it takes for us at Crafty Distillery. While there are many more components to a whisky’s taste, talking about any tropical fruits is a solid starting point.
The majority of scotch whisky is matured in American oak barrels that once contained bourbon whiskey. The characteristic aromas that this type of wood infuses into the spirit are coconut, vanilla and obviously wood. If the whisky has been in a cask that once contained sherry it is likely to be darker in colour and you will be in a safe place to ramble on about Christmas cake or any of its ingredients.
Congratulations, you are on your way to becoming a whisky expert
Unfortunately we have run out of complimentary gold thistle pin badges to demonstrate your superiority, but be rest assured that you now have a very sound grasp of the basics on which to build your understanding, appreciation and distillery credibility.
All joking aside, whisky can seem like a slightly complex world to understand. The taste of whisky can range from the lightest heather honey to licking the inside of a chimney, and anything in between. So do not be put off if you have not found a whisky you love yet, it will be out there waiting for you, perhaps even our own Billy&Co Single Malt Whisky when it’s ready. If you share our passion for breaking down barriers and making whisky more accessible, why not join our Blue Bolt Bulletin mailing list (go to bottom of home page), for more insights, helpful guides and news from us at Crafty Distillery.