Q. What's Single Malt Scotch and how is it made?
Making single malt whisky is a costly, labor-intensive process that involves several steps. The grain used in the mash for making single malt whisky is specially selected barley, which has been soaked in water for sprouting. The sprouted barley is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal. This kilning process imparts a distinctive smoky character to the spirit.
As is the case with other whiskies, the malted barley is then mixed with warm water to produce a mash which is then fermented with the addition of yeast and distilled. The newly distilled spirit (about 70% alcohol) is then pumped into casks. At this point it is designated as "plain British spirits," but after three years in the barrel, it can be called whisky.
Produced by more than 100 Scotch distilleries, each single malt has a style and flavor all its own. It is also important to note that each single malt is the product of a single distillery and comes from a single batch of whisky.
Q. Do Single Cask & Cask Strength mean the same thing?
No. If the whisky comes from one cask only, it frequently is referred to as Single Cask. Whisky in the cask, depending on the age and the initial filling strength, can exceed 60 per cent alcohol by volume. Most whiskies are bottled between 40 per cent (the legal minimum) and 46 per cent alcohol by volume.
If the whisky is not watered down, or is slightly watered down but still kept at a relatively high strength, it is frequently labeled Cask Strength. Cask Strength Scotch does not have to be from a single cask.
Q. What's Canadian Whiskey?
Canadian Whisky is made primarily from corn or wheat, with a supplement of rye, barley, or barley malt. There are no Canadian government requirements when it comes to the percentages of grains used. Unlike Bourbons, Canadian Whiskies are aged, primarily in used oak barrels. The minimum age for Canadian Whisky is three years, with most brands being aged four to six years. Virtually all Canadian Whiskies are blended from different grain whiskies of different ages.
Q. What are the five major regions that produce Single Malt Scotch?
Scotland is traditionally divided into five regions for the classification of single malts.
- Highland (and other islands)
Islay - Pronounced "eye-luh", this is the greatest of whisky islands: much of it deep with peat, lashed by the wind, rain and sea in the Inner Hebrides. It is only 25 miles long, but has no fewer than eight distilleries, although not all are working. Its single malts are noted for their seaweed, iodine-like, phenol character. A dash of Islay malt gives the unmistakable tang of Scotland to many blended whiskies.
The Highlands (and other islands) - By far the biggest region, the Highlands inevitably embraces wide variations. The western part of the Highlands, at least on the mainland, has only a few, scattered, distilleries, and it is difficult to generalize about their character. If they have anything in common, it is a rounded, firm, dry character, with some peatiness. The far north of the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably heathery, spicy, character, probably deriving both from the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. The more sheltered East Highlands and the Midlands of Scotland (sometimes described as the South Highlands) have a number of notably fruity whiskies. None of these Highland areas is officially regarded as a region, but the area between them, known as Speyside, is universally acknowledged as a heartland of malt distillation. This area, between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen, sweeps from granite mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is among the crops. It is the watershed of a system of rivers, the principal among which is the Spey. Although it is not precisely defined, Speyside is commonly agreed to extend at least from the River Findhorn in the west to the Deveron in the east. Within this region are several other rivers, notably the Livet.
The Speyside - The Speyside single malts are noted in general for their elegance and complexity, and often a refined smokiness. Beyond that, they have two extremes: the big, sherry type, as typified by The Macallan, Glenfarclas and Aberlour; and the lighter, more subtle style. Within Speyside, the River Livet is so famous that its name is borrowed by some whiskies from far beyond its glen. Only one may call itself The Glenlivet, only Braes of Glenlivet and Tamnavulin are produced in the valley, and only Tomintoul in the parish. These are all delicate malts, and it could be more tentatively argued that other valleys have malts that share certain characteristics. The Highland region includes a good few coastal and island malts, but one peninsula and just one island have been of such historical importance in the industry that they are each regarded as being regions in their own right.
The Lowlands - This area tends to produce whiskies in which the softness of the malt itself is evident, untempered by Highland peatiness or coastal brine and seaweed. The Lowlands is defined by a line following old county boundaries and running from the Clyde estuary to the River Tay. The line swings north of Glasgow and Dumbarton and runs to Dundee and Perth.
Campbeltown - On the peninsula called the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland, Campbeltown once had about 30 distilleries. Today, it has only two. One of these, Springbank, produces two different single malts. This apparent contradiction is achieved by the use of lightly peated malt in one and a smokier kilning in the other. The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, with a briny character.
Q. What is Blended Scotch?
More than 90% of the Scotch consumption in the U.S.A. can be attributed to brands of blended whisky. The object of blending has always been to "soften," in a sense, the harsher characteristics of the individual malt whiskies with the intention of producing a whisky with widespread appeal. As the word implies, blends are the result of mixing different whiskies together, including both single malts and grain whiskies. Located mainly in the Lowlands, the 14 Scottish grain distilleries produce grain spirits (which are in fact whiskies, not, as is sometimes misinterpreted, neutral grain spirits), made primarily from corn (maize). They are distilled in tall, column stills, a method that is faster and less expensive than the pot still.
Numerous variables determine the ultimate character of a blended Scotch, such as the quality of the barley, the amount of peat used, the length of the second distillation and decisions about when each particular cask is ready to be added to the blend. This last step is an art as well as a science. Each Scotch house has its own closely guarded blend. Usually there are 20 to 25 different single malt whiskies used in a blend, and although the exact proportions are not known, anywhere from 20% to 50% malt whisky will be used in a blend, with the rest being grain whisky.
Q. What about Irish Whiskey?
Apart from the spelling, Irish whisk(e)y differs from Scotch Whisky in that normally, Irish is distilled three times (but not always) versus two for most scotch. The malting process also differs between Irish & Scotch, as Irish Whiskey uses sprouted barley dried in a closed kiln that is then mixed with unmalted barley before being ground into grist. This accounts for the smoothness of Irish whiskey and the "non-peaty" taste compared to Scotch.
Q. What's the difference between Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskey?
Bourbon - According to Federal regulations, for an American whiskey to be labeled as bourbon it must be made from a mash containing between 51% and 79% corn. If the corn content is higher, the product must be designated as corn whiskey. Bourbon is a straight whiskey and, according to the law, must be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less and must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. As a practical matter, though, most bourbon is aged at least four years and often longer. Since it is a straight whiskey, no blending is permitted and there are no additives, with the exception of water to reduce the proof.
Most bourbons are marketed as 80-proof products, but some, particularly the newer boutique, small-batch, single barrel and barrel proof products are much higher in alcohol content. By law, bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the U.S., but the vast majority of it is produced in Kentucky, where it must be distilled and warehoused for at least one year in order to carry the "Kentucky Bourbon" designation on the label.
Tennessee Whiskey - Although its grain content need only be comprised of at least 51% of any grain, corn is usually used in making Tennessee whiskey. It is made in a similar manner to sour mash bourbon but Tennessee whiskey also includes an extra step in its production process -- the distilled spirit is filtered through maple charcoal in large, wooden vats before aging in order to remove impurities.
Q. What's Single Barrel Bourbon?
Bourbons called single barrel are the result of bottling one "single" barrel of bourbon. The idea is something like this: Each barrel of bourbon is a little different, and the whiskey in it acquires a slightly different flavor. Furthermore, where the barrel is stored in the warehouse can make a considerable difference in how the whiskey ages.
Typically, when a distiller bottles bourbon, he collects together several hundred or even thousand barrels. These are dumped together, chilled and filtered, cut with water, and then bottled. What results is a reliably uniform whiskey. What the master distiller does, then, is to periodically sample the whiskey in barrels, especially those barrels in the best part of the warehouse. Usually this is the very center of the warehouse, called 'the heart' of the warehouse.
Those barrels that are discovered to contain unusually fine whiskey are recorded and tracked with care. They are allowed to mature in years far beyond the average Bourbon. When they are at their peak of perfection, they are taken from the warehouse -- one by one -- and bottled one barrel at a time. In this way, the cream of the crop, so to speak, becomes single barrel Bourbon.
Q. What's about Rum? Is there really a difference?
Rum is made not from a grain, but from a grass. Sugar cane is essentially a tall, coarse grained grass that grows particularly well in black mud and tropical heat. Like so many other spirits, rum is made from the leftovers. When sugar cane is refined into the white sugar, fresh cane is brought to the sugar mills where it is crushed and the juice collected. The juice is then boiled to concentrate the sugar by evaporating the water. The result, thick, heavy syrup, is pumped into a centrifugal apparatus where the sugar in the syrup is crystallized and separated from the other solids. What is left behind is a thick, black residue called molasses. Put back into solution, this molasses can be quickly fermented and distilled into what we know as rum.
Rum generally falls into three classes:
Light-bodied rums, like those from former Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Virgin Islands are made primarily in a column still, and get little if any barrel aging.
Medium-bodied rums - The former French colonies of Haiti and Martinique produce medium bodied rums, quite often in a pot still, many of them aged in oak barrels. The volcanic soils in both of these locations give their rums an extra dimension of flavor and a fruitiness that other rums just don't have.
Full-bodied rums - The older style of full-bodied rums normally come from the former British colonies of Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Demerara River in Guyana. With the exception of Demerara, they are almost all made in a pot still, and generally get extensive barrel aging. As rum ages, the color becomes more golden; caramel is often added to create "dark rum". Because sugar cane is harvested at a specific time of every year, it's possible to get what are considered "vintage" dated rums.
Q. What is Vodka?
Like many spirits, vodka was originally a local spirit made from whatever surplus grain or starch-based material was available. Legend has it that vodka was originally made with potatoes, but it is now produced almost entirely from the cheapest grain available. The top brands use only grain (usually barley and wheat or rye). Some Polish vodka make a point of the fact that they are made from potatoes.
Vodka is one of the easiest spirits to make. Grain mash is fermented and then distilled in a column still. The distillate is then filtered in either charcoal or quartz crystals, and the product is then reduced to bottle strength with distilled water.
Q. What's the difference between Grain Vodka & Potato Vodka?
Wheat is the primary ingredient in vodka, but almost any agricultural product can and has been used for this purpose, most notably beets, corn, rye and sugar beets. Despite the common conception, few types of vodka are made from potatoes, though that seems to be changing. Luksusowa from Poland was one of the few potato vodkas until it was joined by Chopin, also from Poland, and Glacier, American potato vodka from Idaho.
Potato vodkas are a good choice for people who are allergic to grain. There is no difference in the way grain mash and potato mash is distilled. There are differences in the preparations for fermentation. The time the fermentation process takes is uniform and short, so it has no effect on the alcohol's smell and taste qualities. The quality and purity of the raw materials, the manner in which they are prepared for fermentation and proper control of the course of fermentation and distillation can affect the final outcome and flavor of the spirit.
Q. What's the difference between "London Dry" & Genever Gin?
Gin is a clear spirit based on barley and rye to which a mix of selected herbs and spices are added. These flavorings, known as "botanicals," include aniseed, coriander, fruit peels and juniper berry. The name gin in fact comes from the French word "genièvre," meaning juniper. Different gin manufacturers use different types and amounts of "botanicals" to create their own unique Gin. The exact formula for each producer's gin is a closely guarded secret. Gins are rarely if ever aged. Most are ready to be sold shortly after they leave the gin still.
"London Dry" Gin - In making "London Dry" gin, the distiller begins as they would in making any neutral grain spirit. The better distillers begin with a ratio of 3:1 corn to barley malt that is distilled in a Column still to roughly 90% alcohol. Once this high grade neutral spirit has been produced, it is reduced to 60% alcohol and then put into a modified pot still called a "gin still". It is then redistilled along with botanicals such as juniper berries, orange peel, angelica root, coriander and cassias bark.
The most obvious use for London Dry gin is in making martinis. It also works very well with many other elegant cocktails. What a number of people miss out on is the fact that because it contains spices, it can be used not only to bring out the flavors in whatever sauces, pastas or vegetables you might be cooking, but to add its own flavors as well.
Genever Gin - The second type of gin is Holland's or Genever gin made in Holland. Its process differs from the lighter "London Dry." In making Genever gin, equal portions of barley malt, corn or rye are mashed and fermented into beer that is then distilled in a pot still. The resulting spirit, "malt wine," is distilled off at a lower degree of alcohol, usually between 50% and 55%. This is then redistilled with juniper berries and only a few other botanicals, far fewer than are used in making London Dry. This gives the resulting product a rich, full-bodied malty flavor that would tend to overwhelm anything that it was mixed with. It is therefore generally consumed straight or over ice.
Q. What's the difference between Blanco, Reposado & Anejo Tequila?
Tequila is liquor made by fermenting and distilling the aguamiel (sap) of the blue agave plant. It originated around the town of Tequila, in Jalisco state, hence the name. Tequila is a Mexican product with Denomination of Origin, which means that no other country is allowed to produce it. There are three major types of Tequila:
Blanco (White) - Clear, unaged tequila, that is normally bottled right after distillation. Blanco tequila products are also called "Silver" or Plata (Spanish).
Reposado ("Rested") - Aged in wood at least 60 days. Typically aged in large wooden tanks between 3 and 9 months. The wood imparts color and flavorings to the tequila. Reposado tequila products are commonly referred to and labeled as "Gold" tequilas.
Anejo (Aged) - Tequila that is aged a minimum of 1 year in government approved barrels that are no larger than 600 liters in capacity. American whiskey barrels, French oak casks, or cognac barrels, are commonly used to age the tequila. Anejos are typically aged between 1 and 3 years. They are darker in color, more complex in flavor, and smoother than reposado tequilas.
Q. What is Brandy?
The word Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, ("burnt wine"). This is how Dutch traders, who introduced it to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain in the 16th century, described wine that had been "burnt," or boiled, in order to distill it.
Brandy is a spirit made from fruit juice or fruit pulp and skin. More specifically, it is broken down into three basic groupings; Grape, Pomance, and Fruit Brandy. For Brandy, there is no official zone of production, grape variety, and any oak can be used for aging. Important Brandy-making regions, particularly in Europe, further differentiate their local spirits by specifying the types of grapes that can be used and the specific areas (appellation) in which the grapes used for making the base wine can be grown. Better Brandies, like St-Remy stay faithful to the cognac production methods.
What is Cognac?
Cognac is the noblest type of Brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other Brandies are judged. The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux, in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. The wines made from these grapes are thin, tart, and low in alcohol; poor characteristics for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Brandy.
Produced only in the Cognac region of France, the wine is distilled twice in traditional Charentais copper pot stills. The finished product is clear and adopts its beautiful amber color after many years in French oak barrels. Under strict French law, cognac production methods and growing areas are clearly defined. The districts in order of quality are: Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. The combination of the two finest districts in Cognac produces the classification of "fine champagne". The amount of time spent aging in barrels establishes the cognac's designation. The single firm which produces exclusively fine champagne cognac is the noble house of Rémy Martin. It is available in several distinct styles.
What is Armagnac?
Armagnac is the oldest type of Brandy in France. The Armagnac region is located in the heart of the ancient province of Gascony in the southwest corner of France. Distillation takes place in the unique alambic Armagnac is, a type of column still that is even more "inefficient" than a typical Cognac pot still. The resulting brandy has a rustic, assertive character and aroma that requires additional cask aging to mellow it out.
The best Armagnac is aged in casks made from the local Monlezun oak. In recent years Limousin and Troncais oak casks have been added to the mix of casks as suitable Monlezun oak becomes harder to find. Most Armagnac is blends, but unlike Cognac where single vintages are produced by few houses, Armagnac single vintages and single vineyard bottling can be readily found. The categories of Armagnac are generally V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O., etc.