What is a Single Malt and what is a Blended Whisky?
… and what do we buy when we order a “Grain Whisky”?
As with many other foods, there are certain rules for producing whisky. The first regulations to produce whisky, the “Scotch Whisky Regulations”, come from Scotland and today relate to the production of Scotch.
After all, Scotland is still the largest whisky-producing country in the world, so maintaining the quality of this traditional drink is for Scotland particularly important. And of course, those rules provide a certain market protection as well, as they declare not only the exact procedure how Whisky has to be produced to be named as “Scotch”, but also claim that it must be produced to a certain stage in Scotland.
Most distilleries in Scotland are members of the Scotch Whisky Association, which sets and protects these rules, which not only refer to production but also to bottling, marketing and sales. Interesting, that these rules are recognized as valid law and a violation is even punishable.
The first version was the “Scotch Whisky act” of 1988, which was revised in 2009. Whiskys bottled before 2009 are still subject to the first version, while later productions must follow the new version of 2009. Bottles produced according to old rules may still be sold until the stocks are empty.
The exact wording of these rules can be downloaded on the Internet. About the production methods in detail I will write in another post. Let me today for you list some of the most interesting issues of these “Whisky laws”.
When may a whisky be called Scotch?
The freshly distilled liquid, coming out of the distillery must not yet be called even whisky. We name it “raw whisky” and it must be stored for at least 3 years in barrels, where it picks-up flavors from the wood of the barrels. The British customs laws require that these barrels must be kept in a bonded warehouse. After that, it can be called “whisky”.
Does Scotch always come from Scotland?
Yes, “Scotch Whisky” indicates a whisky, which is produced in Scotland. This way, it can be guaranteed that “Scotch” is manufactured under the current regulations, supervised by the Scotch Whisky Association and meets the set quality requirements.
Scotch must also be bottled in Scotland. As a result, we as gourmet Scotch fans can be sure that the complete ripening has taken place in Scotland. As soon as the oak barrels, containing the maturing whisky, leave Scotland, this drink may no longer be sold as Scotch.
However, it is allowed to fill it in plastic containers or steel tanks for the transport, because in these containers it will not mature any more.
But if transported out of the country like this, the product may no longer be called “single malt”, because then it cannot be guaranteed, that it is really bottled as a “single malt” and not maybe is mixed.
But these products may still be called “Blended Malt Whisky” or “Wetted Malt Whisky”, in case the whisky comes from different distilleries, but only pure malt whiskys were added.
It is also prohibited in Scotland to mix Scotch with whisky, produced in other countries, if it should be sold as “Scotch”. We can find on the market international blends, for example of Scotch, Irish and German whisky, which don’t have to be necessarily of a bad quality. But they cannot be called “Scotch”.
And are there also rules for other whiskys, for example American Bourbon?
For sure you will not be surprised that there is also a “Bourbon law”, which refers to the Bourbon whiskys. Let’s talk about it in another blog. But good to know that also for Bourbon apply high quality standards! On the other hand, as quality fans we must take care, if we read at a bottle other expression, such as: “American whisky”. This product is not produced under special rules, it can basically be of any taste and quality. Not knowing this, we may fall for a good sounding name and later find out that we didn’t buy the quality we expected.
Can Scotch be artificially colored?
Whisky takes its color from the barrels in which it is stored. Therefore, he does not always have the beautiful golden yellow or dark color that the manufacturer desires. Is it allowed to dye it?
Yes, there are possibilities of artificial coloring. However, the producers must make sure that there is only a minor influence on taste and quality. According to the regulations from year 1990, it was possible to use “spirit caramel” (caramel syrup) for coloring. According to new EU regulations, today it must be “plain caramel coloring” called E150A.
Some whiskys, especially older ones who have had enough time to gain color from the barrels while maturing, can do without color. Sometimes this information can be found on the label.
What is a “Malt”?
Special rules apply to the production of “malt whisky”. Malt must consist only of water and malted barley. And it must be made in pot stills. The use of the column stills (cascade stills), where the entire process takes place in one plant, is not permitted. The classical production in pott stills is more expensive and takes longer, as it is still more or less done by hand.
We can assume that most of the bottles sold for more than 40 Euro are produced in pot stills. But we can be sure only if we read „Malt Scotch” on the label.
Single Malt – Blend – Grain – Decision at bottling
Only when the whisky comes into the bottle, it is decided whether it is a single malt or a blend. A single malt must only be bottled from barrels of the same distillery. It may be bottled from different barrels, but all of them must have been produced in this distillery. In this case the name of the distillery may be mentioned at the label.
“Single Cask” means in addition that in this bottle is really filled from only one certain barrel.
If Scotch whiskys from different distilleries are mixed – even if all of them were produced according to the Scotch regulations – then it is a “blend”.
A blend does not necessarily have a lower quality. There are specialists among the blenders who buy excellent whiskys from various free bottlers and create some very skillful combinations. Nevertheless, it must be recognizable on the label, to let the customer know that he does not buy pure whisky from a single distillery.
Grain whisky and mixtures
“Grain Whisky”, in contrast to “Malt Whisky”, is made from non-malted barley, malted or non-malted other grain. Wheat or rye can also be used for this purpose. The type of distillation is free to choose in this case.
Again, there are “single grain whiskys” that come from a single distillery or “blended grain whisky” as a blend of pure “grain whiskys” of different distilleries.
Mixes of “single malts” and “single grains”, may only be called “blended whisky”. Are you still following?
What does “Glen” mean on the label?
Let me tell you more about the reading of labels for good Scotch whiskys in a separate blog. Here’s just one more interesting issue, set in the Scotch Whisky Regulations:
“Glen” is a Scottish word for distillery that mustn’t be a part of a phantasy name, that a producer chose for his product. It is not allowed to call a whisky “Glen X” on its label, just because sounds so nicely Scottish, if X is not a distillery. Still, there are some exceptions to this rule for old trademarks that existed before the implementation of this rule. However, for those the manufacturers must write the name of the distillery on the label as well.
Since November 22, 2011, the age specification on the whisky labels have been redefined. The reason is that the age of a whisky provides information about its quality and therefore justifies a higher price. The longer the whisky is stored in different barrels, the more natural colors and flavors it can absorb. Thus, if an age is indicated on the label, the most recent fraction contained in the bottle must be at least that age.
It is not allowed anymore to use averages, age ranges (f. e. “aged 5 to 10 years”) or date numbers are no longer allowed. The age may be declared on the label of Scotch bottles in completed years.
This rule only applies to Scotch. We must take care of the age ratings of American whiskys. These may indicate their age in “maturation periods”. It is a common practice in US to heat up the warehouse during the winter from time to time for a few weeks, in order to initiate a maturing process. This is then counted as a “period of maturity” with the number on the label. But this is not necessarily one year.
The correctness of the alcohol percentage on the label is also specified in the weights and measuring acts and relevant for taxation. Anyone who violates these, risks much more than the right to sell his whisky as “Scotch”.
Quality for gourmets
So, as we see, it’s actually a kind of art to put a good Scotch, not only according to the manufacturing, but also according to the compliance with all relevant regulations.
As already mentioned, it is an offense to mis-label Scotch. Therefore, we can assume that with a good bottle of Scotch we get what’s on the label and what we paid for, as this quality is actively monitored and tested.
Slàinte – Cheers!