Stephen Penman is our expert on scotch whisky
In my first article on whisky in Lothian Life, I differentiated between the three different kinds of Scotch whisky that are produced. These are malt whisky, made using malted barley in a pot still, grain whisky, made from grains such as wheat and corn in a continuous still, and blended whisky, a combination of malts and grains. Here Iâ€™m going to look a little further at each type.
Lets start with malts. In Scotland, there are around 90 operating distilleries, stretching from the Highland Park distillery in Orkney to the Bladnoch distillery near Wigtown. Around half of Scotlandâ€™s distilleries can be found in Speyside. The mal distilleries owe their existence to the huge international market for blended Scotch whisky. 95% of malt whisky ends up in blends and the malt distilleries were built or survived to supply the demand for blends.
There are two ways the product of a malt whisky distillery may reach the market place. Either as an official bottling by the owner of the distillery, in which case it will normally bear the name of the distillery, for example, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg or as a bottling from an independent bottler, for instance Cadenheadâ€™s or Gordon and MacPhail.
In either case, if it is the product of a single distillery, it is known as a single malt. If, however, you mix whisky from two or more distilleries, you refer to it as a vatted, pure or (rather confusingly) blended malt. Obviously you canâ€™t name a vatted malt after a distillery, so you have to come up with something else. A good example is the 6 Isles, which contains malts from Isaly, Jura, Arran, Skye, Mull and Orkney.
There are far fewer grain distilleries in Scotland, only six in fact, but they use continuous stills rather than pot stills and their output is far greater than the combined malt distilleries. The spirit they produce is relatively flavourless and goes towards gin and vodka, as well as whisky. Gordonâ€™s Gin and Smirnoff Vodka are both made in Scotland. If the spirit is stored in oak casks for a minimum period of 3 years, it can be called Scotch whisky. It is possible to get both single and vatted grain whisky, though there is not a huge demand.
Most grain whisky goes towards blends. Generally speaking the higher proportion of malt whisky in a blend, the better the quality. Lower end blends will contain large amounts of young, grain whisky. Blends are not named after distilleries. They can take family names, such as Dewars or Mitchells, or place names, either real or fictitious, such as Glen Fiona or anythign that sounds vaguely Scottish â€“ Ben MacBrigadoon might do the trick.
Itâ€™s very common for people to get somewhat snooty about blends, considering them inferior to malts, while grains donâ€™t even appear on their radar at all.
I like to compare the different whiskies to beasts. Malts are horses, grains are donkeys and blends are mules. Each serves its own purpose and you can better judge one mule by comparing it to another mule than you can to a horse.
There is certainly a wide range of Scotch whisky available so I’ve listed a couple of books that may help you to negotiate your way through the many offerings. Hopefully, amongst them all, you should find at least a few that you feel are near perfection.