The world of whiskey is a complex maze of grains, flavors and distillation processes. Four countries produce distinctly different whiskies: Ireland (Irish Whiskey), Scotland (Scotch), America (Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Blended American Whiskey), and Canada (Canadian Whiskey), although whiskey is made throughout the world. This wide market ensures that almost everyone will find a brand or type that they prefer and, when asked, every whiskey connoisseur has a pointed opinion on which is the best whiskey.
Considered to be the father of all whiskey, Irish Whiskey is often a blend of pot-stilled malted and unmalted whiskey and column-stilled corn-based grain whiskey or, as in the case of Bushmills, triple distilled malted barley (single malt). This complex blend and the fact that Irish Whiskey malt is dried in a closed kiln, away from fire and smoke, distinguish it from its closest whiskey cousin, Scotch. Great care is taken during distillation to keep the temperature low so as not to break the delicate sweet, toasty honey flavor. It is aged in used bourbon (or various wine) barrels for at least 3 years.
By tradition and standard, Scotch Whisky uses the spelling for whisky without the "e". The distinct smoky flavor of this distilled classic is due to the malt drying process. Part of which is done over a peat-fueled fire, which allows the smoke to come in direct contact with the malt. Although smoke does define Scotch, each region of Scotland produces a different and distinct flavor characteristics. When choosing a Scotch you will find either "single malt" or "blended" on the label along with an age statement. In the case of blended, the age is that of the youngest whiskey in the blend.
- Single-Malt Scotch Whisky
Single-malt Scotch is produced by a single distillery. There are around 100 distilleries in Scotland that produce a single-malt whisky and each has their own distinct flavor characteristics and notes. After double distilling the malted barley in pot stills, a 140 proof spirit called "plain British spirit" is pumped into oak casks and is aged for at least 3 years. Single malt Scotch whiskies have more flavor blended Scotch and are also used to create those blends.
- Blended Scotch Whisky
The majority of Scotch sold is blended and it is preferred for Scotch cocktails. The harsher tones of single-malts are dampened by blending them with grain whiskies in a cask for several months after each has been aged separately. Scotch blends are an art and each Scotch house has it's own secret recipe. While exact blends are unknown it is typical for 20-25 whiskies to be used in a blend with around 20-50% of those comprised of single malt whiskies. The higher end blended Scotch will have more single malt which leads to a deeper flavor. Blending Scotch is an art and some brands (i.e. Compass Box) focus on this.
How Smoky is Scotch?
I attended a tasting and blending seminar with Johnnie Walker's Master Blender, Andrew Ford, and in that experience we sampled a variety single malt Scotch from the different regions of Scotland, along some of the country's grain whiskey. Listed below are the different varieties ranked by their level of smokiness from least to greatest. In a good blended Scotch you will probably find a myriad of these flavor characteristics, and you can use this to gauge your personal taste when choosing a single malt Scotch. Of course, each distillery within a region will produce whiskies within a range of smokiness because it is the amount of peat used to "smoke" the barley that truly determines how much of that characteristic comes through, those below are generalities. More about Scotch Whisky Regions
- Grain Whiskey - Light, vanilla notes and not much flavor. The blender often uses around 50% of this aged whiskey (at least as old as the bottle's label indicates) distilled in continuous column stills to add sweetness and drinkability to the single malts.
- Lowland Malt - A light flavor with a touch of smoke that takes a well-tuned pallate to recognize. Typically aged in used bourbon barrels, this Scotch has sweet vanilla characteristics
- Speyside Malt - This style remains light, but has fruity notes - that of apple and pear - with grassy tones and little to no smokiness. The fruit tones are sometimes imparted from aging in used Scotch casks, or "refill" casks, and forms a nice background for blends.
- Sherry Cask Malt - Due to this whiskey's aging in used sherry casks this style is fruiter, but finds a balance with a slightly more intense smoke. It is a long lasting, dry fruit with a rich, full body.
- Highland Malt - Now we're getting some smoke. This Scotch is characteristically warm and robust, and the location of the distilleries add a salty, "maritime" flavor aspect to the whiskey.
- Island Malt - Ford calls this amount of smoke "Johnnie Walker Black Label territory." It has a hearty peat and is considerably smoky although within reason. The finish is most remarkable with notes of pepper.
- Islay Malt - Although this usually the lightest single malt in color because it is often aged in refill casks. Islay's are famous for their smoke, especially their ember-like finish that some pallates can handle and some cannot. It is very warm and intensely smoky with a dry finish. More about Islay Scotch
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