Whisky: An Introduction, Part I

The Preamble
Single malt Scotch whiskey 2

So what is ‘Whisky’? What is ‘Malt’? Why is everyone speaking about ‘Single Malt’ Whisky? Scotch is surely from Scotland… or is it? IMFL? Why has this drink captivated the interest of connoisseurs ranging from Mark Twain to Thomas Jefferson? To answer some of these questions and plant many more, Nuance Duty Free Bangalore, India brings to you the first of four edutaining articles on Whisky. We hope to wet your palate with some interesting facts which will help you appreciate your Whisky better.

Going by the general behaviour of consumers of alcoholic beverages, when you are close to 18 years of age you swear that Beer was the best discovery by mankind. Turn 20 and you know why Russian women are pretty and nothing tasted as good as flavoured Vodka, the intoxication quick and handy too. The “mature mind” syndrome at 23! It’s a sailor’s life and Rum is the order of the day. No hangovers… or so they say… economical and most effective. Dabbling around at 25 with the doctor’s Brandy, or were you looking suave with Gin and Tonic in the Martini glass? Smiling? Did I just hit the rewind button, or are you still dwelling in the above stages? Ah! Then it’s the passion of the Bordeaux Vintage Chardonnay at 27? Wine is an excellent conversation starter and has been proven to be good for health (Let’s forget the quantity consumed at the moment). Well, the story remains the same for most, but when you are closing in on 30, you join ranks of the vast majority. You get struck by a rich, smooth, warm and smoky dram! That dear friend is a fatal blow; there starts the affair with king of drinks, Whisky!

Single malt Scotch whiskey 4

Statistically the one night stand with this spirit blossoms to a full blown affair only by the mid 30s, but then there is the odd exception of those who marry early or late. In this relationship unlike many we familiar with, most are faithful and indiscretions are limited to the occasional beer or other spirits due to lack of availability of the preferred choice.

So let’s start with some basics and understand “Usige Beatha” or ‘Water of Life’ as it was referred to by the Scots in Gaelic! Whisky is made by the fermentation and distillation of a cereal grain. The most proficient of which is barley. Barley is a grain which by appearance is very similar to wheat but both are two very different types of grasses. The other forms of cereal used for the production of different kinds of Whisky worldwide are rye, corn and combinations of the above. Malt made from barley is an ingredient in most Whiskies. Closer to home in the subcontinent, Whisky is majorly produced through fermentation of sugarcane molasses largely or in some cases grain such as paddy. So here is the debate; some of us may have read that India consumes the almost the same amount of whisky that the entire world put together but most ‘experts’ differ in this assessment. Traditionally spirits made from the fermentation of molasses are known as Rum, which in our country is presented as Whisky by addition of some grain or malt spirits; hence the difference in views about India’s stake on Whisky consumption.

Let’s stay clear of the debate for now, especially when the views are influenced by the golden spirit itself! We will focus on Scotch Whisky in this article, which by any standards of the world qualifies to be called Whisky. Scotch Whisky has stipulated laws governing the production and is acclaimed for excellent quality control. The Scotch Whisky Association (S.W.A) which governs and regulates Whisky produced in Scotland has the laid down rules for the benefit of consumers. The last modification to the regulation on was passed in the year 2009. Featured below are some of the important regulations of this Association for Whisky to be called ‘Scotch’ and for production in Scotland:

  • It has to be produced in Scotland. One may use water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) and fermentation takes place only by the addition of yeast.
  • The Whisky has to age in wooden oak barrels for a minimum period of three years in Scotland. The size of the barrels cannot exceed 700 litres.
  • The Whisky has to have minimum alcohol strength of 40% ABV.
  • Only plain caramel colouring can be used.

Whisky is categorized by the primary ingredient of malt or grain; hence the Single Malt and Single Grain Whiskies are the foundation of all further variants of Scotch. However the biggest commercial differentiator and one which is used by consumers and Whisky companies are by Blended Whisky or Single Malt Whisky. Single Malt Whisky is produced from water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. Please note as per the SWA guidelines there can be no additives including caramel colouring for Single Malt Whiskies. While Blended Whisky dominates the market in terms of sales and customer preference, Single Malt Whisky is considered to be a connoisseur’s choice or rather a preference of consumers who know their Whisky. There are three types of blended Whiskies available in Scotch with subtle but important differences:

  • Blended Scotch Whisky is one which is made by a combination of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies. Example: Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • Blended Malt Scotch Whisky is a blend of two or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies from different distilleries. Example: Johnnie Walker Green Label
  • Blended Grain Scotch Whisky is a blend of two or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies from different distilleries. Example: The Snow Grouse

I hope the introduction to Scotch Whisky has helped some of you to understand some of the basics better and has served as a refresher to more accomplished readers. The next episode we will dwell on the production of Single Malt Whiskies and understand the production of this spirit. Till then do enjoy your dram. Drink responsibly!

Hemanth Rao

Opinions cited in the above article are purely of the author. Hemanth Rao is a Single Malt lover and the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club India. Read more about SMAC at www.facebook.com/smacamateurwhiskyclub/