Buying a bottle of Scotch whisky can be more difficult than we think. Especially when shopping at independent bottlers or, for example, when one of the factors is the specific cask used. Similar to other spirits, we will look for a few of the key distinctions - on the label, that will tell us whether it’s the right one. A good start is to look for the origin - the word whisky is used for Scotch and Canadian, and whiskey for Irish and American.
single-malt / blended-malt / single-grain / blended / single cask /cask strength
Single malt whisky is 100% made of malt (not grain) and produced at a single distillery. This type of whisky is one of the most demanded in the world. On the contrary, blended malt is distilled at two or more distilleries.
Single grain whisky, according to the Scottish whisky law, is reserved for any whisky solely produced from any single grain, such as corn or wheat, and is only made at one distillery. Blended grain whisky comes from two or more distilleries. Both markings can be often found on American whiskey bottles as the majority of distilleries use corn.
Simply a blend is any whisky consisting of multiple grains and liquids produced at various distilleries. It is the most distributed and easily accessible whisky in the world, but it is also true that quality is rarely the priority.
Besides the single malts, whisky lovers and enthusiasts will also look for so-called single cask whisky. In other words: a single-malt whisky finished (aging) in one specific cask. Every bottle is numbered and marks the total number of bottles produced in that one specific cask (e.a.: 25 of 321), which proves its high exclusivity. A rarity on the market would be the unusual find of a single cask blended malt - where spirits of two or more distilleries are blended in one cask for the entire duration of aging until bottling.
Another indicator will surely be the percentage of alcohol. Cask Strength whisky means the liquid goes from the cask straight to the bottle. It isn’t watered-down. In this case, the strength may stay at around 50%, or even higher. The typical 40% - 45% whiskies found in supermarkets are most likely watered-down prior to bottling. The widest selection of cask strength whiskies can be found at independent bottlers, and on the contrary, the regular strength whiskies are what we see on restaurant menus or bar shelves. It is also true that the older the whisky, the lower the alcohol percentage. Therefore, whiskies aged for over 25 years will have likely come down to about 46% - 48% naturally, with no further need for adding water.
Angel’s share is a term used for the “lost” whisky due to water and alcohol evaporation during aging in a cask. In Scotland, each whisky cask is filled with 63% - 68% alcohol and the annual loss is about 2% and is a natural part of the process. The quality of the cask, storage conditions, or humidity, are all factors affecting the rate at which the loss occurs. Because of the Scottish climate (cold and humid), the alcohol evaporates faster than water, therefore the older the whisky, the lower the percentage of alcohol. On the other hand, when we take a look at bourbon aging in Tennessee, USA, the water evaporates faster than the alcohol, due to the dry and warm climate, resulting in the strength increasing with the whiskey’s age.
Age plays a major role in the process of selecting a whisky bottle. It marks the duration of the whisky maturation in a cask before bottling. The typical bottles in shops will be: 5; 9; 12; 15; or 18-year-old whiskies, and with the age going up, so is the price. Whisky aged over 21 years is more likely to be found in specialized shops and e-shops. In the unlikely case that a bottle doesn’t display the age, it means that it is between 3 and 9 years. For anyone new to whisky and unsure of where to start, it is always recommended to go for a bottle with the minimum age of 10 years, to avoid disappointment.
ABV (Alcohol By Volume) = the strength of alcohol, expressed in percentage
OLA (Original Liters of Alcohol) = the volume of liquid in a cask on the day of being filled
RLA (Re-gauged Liter of Alcohol) = the volume of liquid in a cask on the day of the most recent measurement
Chill-filtered / Non-chill filtered = We can often notice one of these markings on a whisky bottle. Chill filtration removes small particles (fatty acids and proteins) that naturally occur during the distillation process.
When the whisky is chilled to 0 degrees or less (e.a.: after adding an ice cube), it can appear cloudy and develop sediments, which are unwanted by some whisky drinkers. This is purely cosmetics and has got nothing to do with quality. This process does not occur with whiskies stronger than 46%, and therefore filtration is only used for whiskies of the strength of 45% or less. Simply, the marking of non-chill filtered means the process of filtration was not used.
Workhorse distilleries are a part of a larger portfolio of well-known blended whisky brands, or rather the managing companies. These distilleries have their own brand as well, but are relatively unknown and their purpose is primarily to produce whisky heading to blends. This way, the production capacity is at maximum and blended whisky is widely available across the world’s supermarket shelves - at accessible prices.
To get to a bottle of a single-malt whisky from one of these distilleries is not an easy task - there are only a few casks on the market and their bottling is usually arranged by independent bottlers who bottle the cask under their own brand. Let’s take a look at Chivas Brothers, a company with the well-known bottle of Chivas Regal under their belt. This is a whisky that can be found on the shelf of most supermarkets and it indeed is a blend of whiskies from various Scottish distilleries - workhorse distilleries. In this particular bottle, we drink a mix of whiskies from Tormore; Braeval; or Caperdonich. Single malts (or even single casks) of these distilleries can only be found in specialized shops - if we’re lucky.