Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Ask the Enthusiast: Frequently Asked Questions

If you know me in real life, you may be hesitant to ask me a question about anything, let alone engage me in a discussion about whisky, as I have a proclivity for circumlocution. I rarely give brief or direct answers. Ergo, I've created this handy-dandy reference guide for anyone who has questions about whisky but doesn't want to spend twenty minutes listening to me carry on ad nauseam with all my anecdotes and digressions. If you don't know me in real life, count yourself lucky; you can come and go as you please. If there are questions I don't address here and you're too lazy to Google the answer, leave me a comment and I'll do my best to find the answer for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What's the difference between "whisky" and "whiskey"?

A. The letter "e". Seriously though, it doesn't really matter much. A general rule is if the country of origin has an "e", so does the spelling of whiskey; no "e" in the name of the country, no "e" in whisky. So it's (mostly) spelled whiskey in Ireland and America, and (mostly) spelled whisky in Scotland, Canada, India and Japan. But anyone who gets worked up over the spelling of whisky/whiskey can be ignored. Make no sudden moves and back slowly away from them.

Q. What's the difference between rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, and scotch?

A. All are types of whisky. Each has its own legal definition, for example bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in new oak barrels (among other things). Rye is a grain often used to make whisky in North America. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, Irish whiskey is (surprise) whiskey from Ireland. So while all rye, bourbon, Irish, and Scotch are whiskies, not all whiskies are rye, bourbon, Irish, or Scotch. Make sense?

Q. What does "Single Malt Scotch" mean?

A. "Scotch" simply means "whisky distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland". "Malt" refers to a whisky made entirely from malted barley. "Single" means the whisky is the product of a single distillery.

Q. Is Single Malt Scotch better than all other types of whisky?

A. It depends on who you ask. The best whisky is the one you like best. Single Malt Scotch is not a homogeneous category either. Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Glengoyne 10 Year Old have very little in common other than the fact that they're both malt whiskies from Scotland. Laphroaig is big, bold and smoky while Glengoyne is completely unpeated, with a sweeter flavour profile. Think of it this way: Rory McCann, best known for his portrayal of Sandor "The Hound" Clegane on Game of Thrones, and Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are both Scottish actors, but have little else in common. A whisky's country of origin doesn't tell the whole story.

Q. What does the age on my bottle of whisky mean?

A. In Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, and Canadian whiskies, the age statement represents the youngest component whisky in the bottle. A bottle of Glendronach 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch might contain 14, 17, or 18 year old whisky (in fact, this was the case for Glendronach 12 bottled around 2012-2013), but if there's even a teaspoon of 12 year old whisky in the vatting, that's the age that must be indicated on the label if the bottle carries an age statement.

Q. Why doesn't my bottle of whisky have an age statement?

A. Many reasons. The simplest reason is that the company doesn't want to tell you how old the whisky is. There are a ton of marketing yarns about "age not telling the whole story" and "it's about maturity of flavour, not age". And while these answers may be true in a manner of speaking, it's a lot like a politician's clever play on words, and most marketing people are about as trustworthy as your average politician. Age may not tell the whole story, but it tells you a part of it. More knowledge is always better than no knowledge, in my opinion. When a bottle of Canadian, Irish, or Scotch whisky doesn't have an age statement, all you know is that it's at least three years old. A "Straight Bourbon" must be aged for at least two years, and it must disclose its age if it is less than four years old.

Some NAS-labeled whiskies may be "multi-vintages" of (for example) 5, 8, 12, and 17 year old whiskies, but without the relevant information readily available, there's no way to be sure. There are practical reasons some whiskies don't carry age statements as well. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey, has stated on a few podcasts that Wild Turkey 101 is "mostly 8 year old bourbon" but the consistent flavour profile is what matters most to him. So Wild Turkey 101 may contain some barrels as young as 6 years old and some barrels as old as 10 years old but the flavour profile should be as consistent as can be expected.

Q. Are age-stated whiskies better than non age-stated (NAS-labeled) whiskies?

A. No. The best whisky is the one you like best. Marketing shenanigans aside, there are great whiskies whose labels don't state an age; Laphroaig Triple Wood, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Wiser's Dissertation, Lot no.40, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Stagg Jr. and more. Trial and error, while expensive, is the only way to know what you like and what you don't like.

Q. Is older whisky better than younger whisky?

A. No. Some older whiskies can be too woody for some people's tastes. Some peated whiskies lose some of their peaty, smoky goodness if they're aged over 20 years. As with everything else, your taste is paramount. That doesn't mean age "doesn't matter". Age matters tremendously. Age affects whisky because of evaporation, esterification, interaction of the spirit with the wood, and a host of other factors. Older whisky is different, not necessarily better, than younger whisky. As a general rule, the longer a whisky is aged, the more influence the cask will have on the final product, all other things being equal.

Q. What does "unchill-filtered" mean? What is "chill-filtration"? Is chill-filtering good or bad?

A. The process of chill-filtration is fairly simple to understand. Before a whisky is bottled, it is chilled down to a low temperature then passed through a filter to pick up tiny particles. When a whisky is bottled at less than 46% abv (which is the case for the vast majority of whiskies on the market), it will typically form a ‘haze’ at low temperatures. It may also get cloudy or hazy if water or ice is added. This poses no health hazard nor does the cloudiness impact flavour, it may be off-putting to some customers¹.

The chill filtration process yields a clear whisky free of cloudiness, but some enthusiasts feel it also takes something away. A certain well-known YouTube critic insists, as he broadcasts from his cozy Manx bothy, that chill filtered whiskies have been robbed of some of their flavour, texture and mouthfeel. Blind tests have been done and people have argued passionately for or against the process. As far as I know, science has not fully explored this question, so you're best using your own taste as a guide. Just know that an unchill-filtered whisky may get cloudy, but that it's nothing to fear. I tend to prefer unchill-filtered whiskies, but most of my favourites are bottled above 46% abv, so I'm not sure the lack of chill filtration is the most important variable in that equation.

1. Source: Ask the professor

Q. What is a Pot Still? How does it turn barley into the nectar of the gods?

The glorious pot stills of the Laphroaig distillery
A. A pot still is a type of distillation apparatus or still used to distill Scotch Single Malt Whisky or Irish Single Malt Whiskey, or Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey. They're traditionally made out of copper, and their shapes and sizes play an important role in the quantity and  character of the final spirit. By law, Irish Single Pot Still, as well as Irish and Scotch malt whiskies must be distilled using a pot still. During first distillation, the pot still (or "wash still") is filled about two-thirds full of a fermented liquid (or wash) with an alcohol content of about 7–12%. The pot still is then heated so that the liquid boils. The liquid being distilled is a mixture of mainly water and alcohol, along with smaller amounts of other by-products of fermentation (called congeners), such as aldehydes and esters. Alcohol (ethanol) has a normal boiling point of 78.4 °C (173.12 °F), compared with pure water, which boils at 100 °C (212 °F). As alcohol has a lower boiling point, it is more volatile and evaporates at a higher rate than water. Therefore, the concentration of alcohol in the vapour phase above the liquid is higher than in the liquid itself.

During distillation, this vapour travels up the swan neck at the top of the pot still and down the lyne arm, after which it travels through the condenser, where is cooled to yield a distillate with a higher concentration of alcohol than the original liquid. This distillate, called "low wines" has a concentration of about 25–35% alcohol by volume. These low wines can be further distilled a second time in a pot still to yield a distillate with a higher concentration of alcohol. In the case of many Irish whiskeys, the spirit is further distilled a third time. However, most single malt scotch whiskies and some Irish single malt whiskies produced at the Cooley distillery  are only distilled twice.

You can read more about pot distillation here.

Q. What is a column still? How does it make whisky?

A. A more efficient alternative to the pot still, the column still (also called continuous still or Coffey still) is capable of continuous distillation by reheating the liquid, rather than requiring distillation in batches (as a pot still does), and can produce higher ABV spirits than pot stills. The column stilll consists of two columns which contain a number of compartments separated by heated plates. The plates are perforated with small holes to permit the upward passage of steam and spirit vapor, which is condensed to become spirits. Column distillation is widely used for making bourbon, Canadian whisky, rye, as well as Irish and Scottish grain whiskies. The distiller’s beer (or "wash") is fed into the column still at the top and begins descending, passing through a series of perforated plates. Simultaneously, hot steam rises from the bottom of the still, interacting with the beer as it flows downward, separating out the solids and unwanted substances, and pushing up the lighter alcohol vapors. When the vapors hit each plate, they condense, which helps get rid of heavy substances like congeners and increases the alcohol content. Eventually, the vapor is directed into a condenser. Column stills can produce spirit up to 95% ABV, although most whiskies are distilled to lower proofs.  (adapted from Whisky Advocate)

A fine example of
Single Pot Sill Irish Whiskey
Q. What's the difference between Irish Single Malt and Irish Single Pot Still?

A. Irish Single Malt is whiskey distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland from 100% malted barley. Irish Single Pot Still is distilled (in a Pot Still...d'uh!), aged, and bottled in Ireland, but is made from a mix of at least 30% malted and at least 30% unmalted barley.

Q. What is "virgin oak"?

A. Virgin Oak is most often used in bourbon maturation, since it is required by law. Virgin Oak refers to a barrel (or cask) that has never contained any alcohol of any kind. Before it is used for whiskey maturation, virgin oak barrels are charred, usually for no more than 1 minute. A No.1 Char is 15 seconds, No.2 is 30, No.3 (more common) is 35 seconds, and No.4 Char is 55 seconds. Number 4 Char is known as the “alligator char,” since the longer charring gives the interior of the oak wood staves the rough, shiny texture of alligator skin. Virgin oak imparts a ton of flavour (vanilla, coconut, brown sugar, toffee, etc.) and is rarely used in Scotch  whisky or Irish whiskey because whisky makers there believe virgin oak can overpower the other flavours. Canadian whiskies use virgin oak to varying degrees in their blends. On the subject of virgin oak, Dr. Don Livermore, Master Blender/Distiller at the Hiram Walker distillery, has said that "60 days of aging in new wood will get more vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than 18 years of ageing in a used barrel." (source)

Q. What is a "Sherry cask" and what does it have to do with my whisky?

A. In case you didn't know, Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. Sherry is produced in a variety of styles ranging from light versions such as Manzanilla and Fino, to darker and heavier versions that have been allowed to oxidise as they age in barrel, such as Amontillado and Oloroso. Sweet dessert wines are also made from Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes.

Sherry used to be exported in large 500 litre Casks called "butts" ('s adapted from the Spanish bota). Wine merchants used to sell these transport casks to whisky makers who noticed that aging whisky in ex-sherry casks imparted fruity flavours to their spirit. However, Sherry must now be bottled in Spain before it is exported. Most of the Sherry casks used by the whisky industry are sherry-seasoned casks, which have never contained sherry destined for the parlours of British aristocracy.

Q. Should I drink more Sherry so the whisky industry has more sherry casks at its disposal?

A. I'm a fan of Sherry, but the answer to this question is "no". Why? Because the sherry you drink has nothing to do with sherry casks used by the whisky industry. Sherry sipped by the characters on Downton Abbey is generally matured using a solera system and the casks can be used for hundreds of years. Unlike other wine-makers, Sherry producers make strenuous efforts to avoid wood flavours in the wine. New barrels are useless for Sherry as they give off unwanted tannins and woody flavours. The Sherry casks used by the whisky industry are generally made through an agreement with a Spanish bodega. The process of envinado involves taking virgin oak casks, toasting them to whatever level the whisky makers  want, and then seasoning the casks with a Sherry-type wine for 12 to 24 months. This "sherry" is not fit for drinking and is usually made into sherry vinegar or distilled into sherry brandy. If you're interested in learning more about sherry casks, you can read more here and here.

Q. What is peat and what is its effect on whisky?

There's no such thing as too much peat
A. Peat is generally associated with smoky single malt scotch, but there are peated Indian, Irish, American, Japanese, and Canadian whiskies. Large parts of Scotland are covered with peat bogs which have been formed over thousands of years by decayed vegetation and can be up to several meters thick. People have been using peat as an energy source in Scotland (and many other parts of the world) for thousands of years. Peat is cut in small slices and piled up into small pyramids for drying. The water drains off the peat very fast and turns the soft slices into hard briquettes similar to coal. To create malted barley, the grain has to be soaked in warm water for about five days. It then needs to be dried. This is where peat comes into play. In many parts of Scotland, malted barley was traditionally dried using a peat-heated fire, which imbued the final product with a smoky flavour. The level of smokiness of a whisky, measured in phenol parts per million (usually abbreviated ppm) is determined by the time the barley grain is exposed to the peat smoke during drying.

Q. Is all Scotch peated?

A. No. In fact, very few Scotch single malts are peated. Some of the best-known peated malt whiskies are:
  • mildly peated: Bunnahabhain (3 ppm), Springbank (8-10 ppm), and Ardmore (10-15 ppm)
  • moderately peated: Highland Park (20 ppm), Talisker (25 ppm), and Caol Ila (30 ppm)
  • heavily peated: Ledaig (35 ppm), Lagavulin (35-40 ppm), Laphroaig (40-45 ppm), and Ardbeg (55 ppm)
  • insanely peated: the Octomore series from Bruichladdich (Octomore 8.3 tips the scales at 309 ppm).
Q. How do I pronounce those crazy names?

A. Brian Cox did a pretty good series of short videos on YouTube here. The excellent Aquavitae channel also did a few here and here. But in case you don't want to watch, here's a little cheat sheet of some of the more common ones:
  • Aberlour: ABBA-lau-er (rhymes with hour)
  • anCnoc: A-knock
  • Balvenie: bal-VENN-ee
  • Bowmore: buh-MORE
  • Bruichladdich: brook-LADDIE
  • Bunnahabhain: BOO-na-ha-ven
  • Caol Ila: cull EE-lah (according to the bottle) or cull EYE-lah according to other sources
  • Clynelish: KLEIN-lish or klen-LEESH depending on who you ask
  • Craigellachie: cray-GELL-a-key (hard "g")
  • Dailuaine: dall-YOU-inn
  • Glen Garioch: glen GEE-ree (hard "g")
  • Glenfiddich: glen-FID-dic (the last "ch" is softer and throatier than a hard "k" sound)
  • Glenmorangie: glen-mORANGE-ee (think of "orange" in the middle of the name)
  • Kilchoman: kil-HOE-man or kil-OH-man depending on who you ask.
  • Laphroaig: la-FROYG
  • Ledaig: le-CHIGG or LE-chick depending on who you ask
  • Oban: O-bin (rhymes with open)
  • Tomatin: to-MA-tin (rhymes with satin)
Q. What are your favourite whiskies ever?

A. That's a tough question. It changes all the time, but here's an idea as of this writing.

Scotch: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength, Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Laphroaig  15 Year Old, Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira Cask, Ardbeg Uigeadail (OO-gah-dahl), Laphroaig Triple Wood

Irish: Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Yellow Spot 12 Year Old, Redbreast 15 Year Old, Tyrconnell 16 Year Old, Green Spot, Jameson Black Barrel

Canadian: Lot no.40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old, Lot no.40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old, J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, J.P. Wiser's Legacy, Forty Creek Confederation Oak

Bourbon/American Whiskey: Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Stagg Jr. (any batch), Old Grand Dad 114, Weller Antique 107, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (any batch)

There you have it, the answers to some of the most common questions people ask me. If you've got more questions you're too lazy to Google, drop me a line below. Slainte !

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