The Wording of Whisky
Posted: January 09, 2012
Scotch is scotch, right? Yes and no. How Scotch whisky is labeled and how we refer to said whisky on the label has been a contentious debate for as long as we have had whisky. Scotch whisky? Scotch malt whisky? Scotch grain whisky? Blended Scotch whisky? Single-malt whisky? Single-grain whisky? Pure malt whisky? Vatted malt whisky? And then when we add definers such as Fine Old, Rare Old, Choice Old, Extra Special, Special Reserve, Aged, Finest, Oldest Matured; none of which actually define the age or quality of the whisky! It's enough to make your head spin. There are several laws currently defining how we label the water of life. Scotch whisky is whisky if: A. The whisky has been produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only the whole grains of other cereals have been added) all of which have been: 1) processed at that distillery into a mash 2) converted to a fermentable substrate only by natural enzyme systems 3) fermented only by the addition of yeast B. It has been distilled no higher than 94.8 proof so that it retains aromas and tastes of the production and ingredients used. C. It has been matured for no less than 3 years in barrels no larger than 700 liters. D. No substance other than water or caramel coloring has been added. So how do those of us who just want to enjoy a dram sort it all out? Blended Scotch, such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, Famous Grouse, etc. are blends of malt whiskies and grain whiskies which are blended with grain neutral spirits, or GNS. These neutral spirits are distilled from grain, but are colorless, flavorless, and are essentially there to soften and smooth the whisky, and to stretch the production dollars of the blender. "Single malt whiskies" are the product of a single distillery and are made from 100% malt (barley) whiskies. The distillery name is not always the label name, which can just be a brand. "Pure malt whiskies" are blends of malt whiskies, with no grain whiskies or GNS added. Vatted malt whiskies are the same. However, as of November 23, 2011, labeling as vatted malt or pure malt is illegal. Now all these whiskies must be labeled blended malt whisky. This particular change I personally do not feel is consumer friendly. I would think blended malt and blended scotch are more easily confused than vatted malt and blended scotch. This change has been protested most strongly by Compass Box. Compass Box is a London based operation that has been churning out some fantastic vatted malts, and blended whiskies, for about ten years. This change can lead to a lot of confusion between their various labels. What does this mean for us? There will be many whiskies on the shelves all bearing the dubious phrase Blended on the label. Those of us looking for the highest quality Scotch whiskies, whether blended, blended malt, or single malt, need to be more aware than ever of how the whiskies we are interested in are labeled.