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The basics of whisky

The basics of whisky
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First Published: Thu, Sep 08 2011. 11 24 PM IST

Illustration: iStockphoto
Illustration: iStockphoto
Updated: Thu, Sep 08 2011. 11 24 PM IST
Greetings!
Welcome to my column, an area of the magazine where I hope I can act as your sherpa up the mountain of drinks, your guide on the cocktail trail, your supplier of wisdom on whisky. Over the coming months, I shall be writing a regular piece covering various spirits from across the globe.
In my first piece, I shall start with some basics about whisky. Why? Because India seems to have a voracious appetite for the distilled spirit.
The country currently stands as the world’s largest consumer of whisky.
Congratulations, a gold medal in the Booze Olympics for India! Climb atop the podium and await your National Anthem.
But what is it you order when you go to the bar? If, like me, you are a Scotch drinker, it may well be that you choose a blended Scotch whisky such as Johnnie Walker Black Label or Ballantine’s Finest with soda and ice to chill with before dinner. Or maybe you’ll take a well-aged single malt such as The Macallan 18 year old to sip after. Whichever it maybe, sales of blends make up the vast majority of Scotch whisky sold worldwide (around 93% at last count), but what is a blended Scotch and how does it differ to single malt Scotch whisky, or even Indian whisky for that matter?
The majority of the whisky sold in India is home-grown with big sales from brands such McDowell’s No.1, Bagpiper and 8pm.
These differ in make from Scotch, being made with a mix of malt whisky and some molasses (sugar)-based spirit. Scotch, on the other hand, must be made using a base ingredient of just malted barley and other whole grains of cereal.
So what makes up a single malt Scotch? It is a whisky made from just three ingredients: malted barley, where we get the term “malt”, water and yeast.
To gain the word single before it, the whisky must be made at one distillery only, and, to be “Scotch”, it must be made and matured in Scotland, in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, and be bottled at no less than 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). Single malt Scotch whisky tends to be seen in higher regard to blended Scotch and is often taken neat, with ice or with a dash of iced water.
As the name would suggest, blended Scotch whisky is made using single malt Scotch whisky, which is then “blended” together with a slightly different style of Scotch, known as grain whisky.
Grain whisky is made in almost exactly the same way as single malt Scotch, with one key difference; the basic ingredient is not just malted barley, but a mixture of different cereal types—from corn through to rye or wheat—and give additional flavour to the spirit. It is then stored and matured in oak barrels, in the same way as single malt Scotch.
Every single malt Scotch distillery will employ a master distiller, whose job is to ensure that output reaches the highest quality levels. If the whisky is a team, the master distiller is the coach—the first person to be blamed if things go wrong, the last person to be praised when all goes well! And in the same way, each blended Scotch is crafted by a master blender using a variety of single malt Scotch whisky and Scottish grain whisky.
Single malts will invariably increase in price as they increase in age. This is due to a phenomenon known in Scotland as “the angels’ share”—as the Scotch matures over decades in oak barrels, a substantial amount is lost in evaporation.
Illustration: iStockphoto
A 21-year-old barrel of whisky will have lost around half its contents to this natural occurrence and, as a result, older Scotch is rare and, therefore, holds a higher value. The same is true for the maturation and price of grain whisky and, although available in the market, single grain Scotch whisky does not sell well, nor does it reach the same price that its single malt counterpart does.
The value of a blended Scotch will be assessed on the amount of grain against single malt in the overall make-up of the whisky. As a rule with blends, the more premium the blended Scotch, the greater the percentage of single malt over grain. With super premium blends, such as Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label or Royal Salute, older and rare stocks of both styles of whisky are used by the master blender.
But which is better, blended Scotch or single malt Scotch?
Quite simply, they are both different versions of the same drink and, therefore, drawing comparison is useful, but not conclusive. It’s a bit like cricket.
“How is it like cricket?” I hear you ask.
Well, we have seen over the last decade or so, the exciting introduction of Twenty20 cricket. Attracting a worldwide audience with fast flowing and colourful matches, T20 is a world away from the five-day Test matches, steeped in history, statistics and ceremony.
The same is true of blended Scotch and single malt Scotch; blended Scotch is designed to be more immediate, more versatile and appeals to a wider audience, like T20. It’s a drink you can have more fun with, adding soda water and ice, or use in a cocktail. Granted, super premium blends demand more respect, like a One-Day match, but they still don’t quite have the dusty air of a single malt Scotch, the granddaddy of the whisky world.
A long-haul drink, a batsman playing defensively, yet picking out quality shots when required. A little more calmness, yet with real quality when key decisions must be made.
Either way, I’m as happy at a T20 match with a blended Scotch and soda as I am on Day Five at the Oval, sipping on a well-aged single malt with ice. Howzzat!
I shall be back with more on spirits from across the world in the next issue.
Until then, cheers!
Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net
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First Published: Thu, Sep 08 2011. 11 24 PM IST