Whisky Trivia and Facts

Scotch Whisky can only be called Scotch Whisky if it is mashed, fermented, distilled, aged a minimum of 3 years, bottled and labeled in Scotland.

No whisky can be made in Scotland which does not adhere to the rules of Scotch whisky.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky must be made only of malted barley, water, and yeast, and aged in casks for a minimum of 3 years. “Malted Barley” means that the barley is sprouted before it is mashed up to be food for the yeast to turn into alcohol. Some distilleries use fires made of peat to stop the sprouting process, and this adds the flavors of peat and smoke into the whisky.  Other distilleries use electric heaters or even air drying, to stop the sprouting, and therefore do not add to the flavor. But the cask, always oak casks because oak is the best wood for this job, and by law it must be oak, really adds its own flavor as well, and all of the color. (Unless they add caramel coloring, which is allowed.) When whisky ages, it can pick up tastes from the surrounding area, like heather from the Highlands and seaweed and salt from the islands. These ingredients are not actually added to Scotch whisky, but their flavors are often tasted in the final product. Finally, many single malts are finished in sherry casks, or other wine casks, to add interesting flavors to the Scotch. So technically there are three ingredients that make Scotch Whisky – Malted Balrey, Water and Yeast.  But in reality, to this list I would add time and oak casks, and sometimes peat fires, caramel coloring, wine casks, heather, seaweed, and salt.

“Malted Barley” is barley that has been soaked, started to sprout, and then stopped in its germination process at the moment when the grain has all the sugars it would then use to grow. This is not only used to make whisky, but also many candies and sweet things like milkshakes.

“Mash” is the malted grain mixed with water and heated. Typically this happens in a “Mashtun”. This process is to extract all of the sugar from the malt.

“Wort” is the liquid extracted from the mash. Yeast is added to wort to ferment it. This takes place in the “washback”, very large vessels made of wood or stainless steel.  The amount of time each whisky takes to ferment is individual to the distillery and one of the key factors in each whisky’s signature style. When the wort and yeast have been in the washbacks the correct amount of time, the resulting liquid is known as “wash”.

Wash is typically 5-7% alcohol.

By law, Single Malt Scotch Whisky must be fermented in pot stills.

The wash is then put in a still to start distilling.  Distilling is the process of heating the wash in a controlled process which allows the alcohol to evaporate and be collected and cooled. This can happen because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water and it will turn to vapor while the water in the still remains in liquid form. The Latin verb “spirare” means “to breathe” and gives us the term “spirit” for distilled liquids, from the vapor breathing out of the wash and into its new form. What kind of still is used, how the vapor is collected, and how it is cooled to condense into the spirit are all individual elements that each whisky maker chooses to define her or his whisky.

“Worm” and “Wormtubs” are a type of spirit collecting and cooling apparatus used to condense the newly collect spirit from the wash. The worm is a coiled copper tube and the wormtub is the tub of water the tube is in. The spirit flows into these tubes from the still and is condensed back into liquid. There are more modern ways to do this now, but many distilleries insist this method contributes to the best taste of their whisky and stick with the tried and true method.

Most Scotch whisky is doubled distilled.  The first distilled product is called “low wine” and it is placed in the second still to be redistilled. The spirit that comes out of the second still is called ‘new make spirit’ and generally speaking is 60-70% alcohol. Some whiskies distill this again, hence “triple distilled” in the description. Whiskies other than Single Malt Scotch Whisky can be distilled in column stills.

Stills are made of copper as the spirit will gain certain flavors from touching the copper. It influences the sulfur compounds and the length of time the distilled spirit is in contact with the copper in the still before it is condensed will determine how “meaty” or “floral” your final product will be.

New make spirit is divided into the”foreshot”, also called the “head”, the “middlecut” also known as the”heart”, and “feints”, also called the “tail”. To know when to cut the heart from the head and tail takes a very practiced whisky maker.  There are smells, tastes, measurements and instinct that go into this. The heads and tails are often discarded, though some redistill them with new wash. The new make spirit is placed in a “Spirit Safe” which allows the whisky maker to make these cuts more easily.

New make spirit is clear. The color should come exclusively from the wood, but unfortunately, caramel coloring is allowed to be added. (Straight whiskey in the U.S. does not have coloring.)

The heart of the new make is usually diluted with water to 62.5% alcohol before it is placed in the cask for aging.

Scotch Whisky must be bottled no lower than 40% alcohol by volume and no higher than 63.5%. Most Scotch exported to the US is sold at 43% ABV.

Most Single Malt Scotch Whiskies are aged in used Bourbon barrels from the U.S. By UK law, the barrel can be no larger than 700 liters. (By US law, all Bourbon must be aged in NEW Oak barrels so this creates many of the barrels that the Scotland then imports to age their whisky.)

The liquid put in casks is called spirit.  It is not whisky until it has aged.

“Barrel” in Scotland refers to an oak cask that holds 40 gallons (180 liters) of spirit.

A “hogshead” or “hoggie” is a cask which holds 55 gallons (250 liters) of spirit. Barrels and hoggies typically come from the Bourbon industry.

A ‘butt” cask holds 110 gallons (500 liters) of spirit. These are typically from the Sherry industry.

A “quarter cask” refers to a quarter of a butt and hold about 28 gallons of spirit. In theory, the larger the vessel the longer time needed to age. In using a quarter cask, you also allow more of the spirit to touch the wood, so aging in a smaller cask can increase wood imparted flavors and compounds.

The Angels’ Share is a term that refers to the evaporation of the whisky as it ages. The expansion and contraction of the wood drives the whisky into the wood and out over time.  In climates warmer than Scotland, like Texas, whisky can age much faster. The Angel’s generally take about 2% per year of the whisky for themselves. In Scotland this is maybe about 10 gallons in 10 years of aging. Of course the longer the whisky is in the barrel, the more they take.  The climate, both temperature and humidity really affect the taste of a whisky as the Angel’s share is different under different conditions. Whisky cannot stay indefinitely in a barrel.  It must be removed at its peak time, and this is determined by very skilled whisky makers.

Scotch Whisky is often finished in other types of casks, like sherry, port, Madeira, sauternes, rum and cognac.

The age at which is whisky is bottled is the age it stays forever. The age statement refers to the youngest whisky that was used to make the whisky in this bottle, and that age is determined by how many years it was in its cask, or casks, if it was also aged in a wine cask to finish the flavoring and aging process.

“Cask strength” whisky means that the whisky is bottled without further dilution with water, usually above 60% alcohol. Most whiskies are diluted with water prior to bottling to 40-50% alcohol. So if you would like to add water to your whisky, go right ahead.  This will dilute the alcohol, but you should make it taste the way you like it.  The bottle strength is what the mater distiller and whisky maker thought was the pinnacle of deliciousness for their product, but every whisky professional I know encourages us to drink whisky how we like it.

“Chill Filtered” means that whisky has been cooled and then run through a fine filter or filters to remove some of the esters and other oils that can make the whisky go cloudy when it is cold, and also sediments.  These fats and oils are full of flavor and so many people prefer only “non chill filtered” whisky”. Non chill filtered whisky is usually viscous enough to stick to your finger when you dip it in a glass and lift it out.  The whisky will stick to your finger and not drip off. This contributes to a nice mouth feel as well. Chill filtering is an aid to making whisky look good and consistent the way some distillers think the public wants the whisky to look. This is also why they may add caramel coloring, which helps keep the color exactly consistent every time.

A Single Malt Scotch Whisky is the product of one specific distillery and has not been mixed with whisky from any other distilleries. Most single malts are blends of many casks from that distillery, from many ages and maybe finishes. The master blender has the task of creating a consistent flavor profile year after year for very popular single malts.

While the term “double malt” is almost never heard, “triple malt” has started to crop up. The better term, in my opinion, is “blended malt”. A blended malt is a blend of only single malts from different distilleries. This is the key.  If a distillery wants to use their own spirit from different casks in different ways, that is still called a “single malt”.  Once you add in another distillery’s single malt, then you have a “blended malt”. This gets confusing because this can also be referred to as “pure malt” or “vatted malt.” The Scottish law allows only “blended malt” and prohibits “pure malt” and “vatted malt”, now.  I am all for eliminating the other terms just to keep the confusion level low.

“Blended Scotch Whisky” is a term that refers to whisky made in Scotland, that is a mixture of single malts AND mixed grain whisky, usually corn, rye and wheat. The whiskies can come from any of the distilleries in Scotland and this is in fact how most Scotch was made and thought of for most of history. The recipes from blends are highly kept secrets but you can figure that if a group who makes a blend owns a single malt distillery, that whisky is very likely in the blend. However, distilleries or different drinks groups do swap casks of whisky all the time, and also buy other distillery’s casks, often through brokers. These are only used in making blended Scotch, of course.

“Single Grain Scotch Whisky” is a whisky made from any grains, and can be more than one, but made only at one distillery.  The single in the title refers to the distillery, not the grain. All Scotch whisky must contain some barley, so even single grain Scotch whisky will have some barley.

“Blended Grain Scotch Whisky” is a whisky made from two or more “single grain” whiskies. Remember single grain whiskies mean a multi-grain whisky made at one distillery. “Blended Grain Scotch Whisky” takes a single grain whisky from two or more distilleries and creates one whisky.

Scotch can be made anywhere in Scotland and the region does not always tell you more than the geography of where it is made. Generally speaking, the regions are Speyside, Islay, Island, the Highlands, and the Lowlands. Each region can be broken into sub categories, or Island Names. Islay technically is one of the Islands, but its history with whisky making and the concentration of active and inactive distilleries there give it special status. Speyside is also part of the Highlands, but its history and concentration of distilleries make it notable apart from its larger category. Finally Cambletown, a southwestern peninsula of the Scottish mainland is an area also rich in whisky history and distilleries.  It lies among the Hebrides like an island, though, of course, being a peninsula, attached to the mainland.

The greatest concentration of malt whisky distilleries can be found in the Speyside region of north-east Scotland. The iconic style of Speyside is heather, honey and light. Of course this does not describe every whisky made here.

Islay is a Hebridean Island, the Queen of the Hebrides, which has 8 Whisky distilleries! Though not true of every Islay (pronounced Eye’ -la) Scotch Whisky, the typical style is very peaty and smoky.

The other islands with distilleries are Skye, Jura, Okney, Mull, Lewis, and Arran.

Whisky from Scotland and Canada is usually, and almost always, spelled without and “e”. Whiskey from Ireland and America is usually spelled with an “e”. There are exceptions to this.  Usually if someone is making whisky in the Scottish style, they will spell it without an “e”. The reason for this is that spelling has always been a fluid art form and people who speak and write English in different countries often choose to spell the same word differently to help make it more their own word. British English varies from American English in spelling many different words, like “gray” and “grey”, “theater” and “theatre” and “plow” and “plough”, just to name a few.

“Scotch” is short for “Scotch Whisky” and should always be capitalized as it is a proper adjective, that is an adjective formed from a proper noun. “Scotch” is the adjectival form of Scotland.

All Scotch is whisky.