Stephen Penman is our expert on scotch whisky
Scotch whisky may be the worldâ€™s favourite spirit, but to many, it is rather confusing as to what Scotch whisky actually is. We regularly hear of malt whisky and blended whisky but what exactly are they, and what are the differences between them? In fact when we refer to a â€˜blended whiskyâ€™ we are talking about a marriage between two different spirits: malt whisky and grain whisky. It is important in talking about whisky that the fundamental differences between them are understood. So letâ€™s start with what is often referred to as â€˜the real stuffâ€™, Scotch malt whisky.
Malt is barley that has been soaked to make it sprout. This allows you to get at the sugars that you can convert into alcohol. After sprouting, it is dried, traditionally over a fire fuelled by peat, though you can use other methods, depending on how you want your whisky to taste.
The malt is ground into a flour and water added. This dissolves the sugars. You strain this liquid and add yeast to it. Fermentation takes place resulting in beer. The traditional way to extract the alcohol from this beer is to heat it in a large copper kettle called a â€˜pot stillâ€™. You collect the vapours and condense them into a liquid. This liquid has a stronger alcoholic content than the beer but is not yet spirit so you put it into another pot still and heat it again. This time the vapours contain the spirit. You put this into oak casks to mature and, hey-presto, a legal minimum of three years later you have malt whisky.
The fundamentals have not altered in centuries though the industry has gone from being the preserve of the individual farmer with his still out in the shed to the highly organised and controlled commercial distilleries of today. Along the way taxation, licensing, illicit stilling and smuggling have all contributed to its rich history and lore.
In 1826 a new kind of still, the â€œcontinuous stillâ€œ was invented which revolutionised whisky making. This allows the distiller to make spirit in one continuous operation. Pour in your beer at one end and out the other comes your spirit. You can produce spirit quickly and in great quantity. Again stick it in a cask for at least three years and, voila, grain whisky. Not only is grain whisky produced in a continuous still, it is also made from only a proportion of malted barley mixed with other grains such as maize or wheat. Grain spirit is more or less tasteless but is much quicker and cheaper to produce.
In the mid 19th century the main market for whisky made in Scotland was the people of Scotland. The distilleries supplied the local merchant and he sold it on, straight from the cask. Malt whisky was inconsistent but always strongly flavoured, whereas grain whisky was neither. The merchants created blended whisky by mixing malt and grain whiskies to produce a standardised, and cheaper whisky which was easier to sell. This was one factor in breaking open the English market, but there was another.
Brandy was the tipple of the English upper classes. Brandy is made from grapes and in the late 19th century the vineyards of France were attacked by a beetle which devastated production. Blends filled the gap in the market. People such as Buchanan, Mackie, Walker, the Dewars brothers and Haig emerged as dominant figures, introducing big brand names like White Horse and Johnnie Walker. Their salesmanship, advertising and general marketing helped them make Scotch the worldâ€™s top selling spirit.
Inevitably malt whisky lost its identity, it all disappeared into blends and it wasnâ€™t till the 1960s, with Glenfiddich coming onto the market, that malt whisky became commercially available again on any real scale. However, its success was noted and gradually other distilleries started to make their malts available. The market has grown and grown since then and though blends are still the dominant force, malt sales are steadily increasing.
Of course there are many flavours and styles of malt, grain and blended whiskies, but by understanding the three different types, investigating any of them should become a bit easier.