To help you navigate through the world of Scotch whiskies in their various guises we have compiled this guide to outline the categories and how to understand them. Most whisky adventurers with have a rough idea of the difference between a single malt whisky and a blended whisky, but what is a single grain whisky how does it relate to malt whisky?
Lets begin with Scotch Whisky on the whole and the legally binding criteria that must be met in order to place the words Scotch Whisky on the label. These definitions apply to all Scotch Whiskies regardless of if it is a single malt, single grain or blended whisky. We can summarise by saying that Scotch Whisky must come from Scotland and acquire its character only from its raw ingredients and traditional production methods. It is interesting to note how oak casks are not considered an ingredient when they are responsible for 60% or more of the overall flavour.
Made only from whole grains, water and yeast.
Produced, matured and bottled in Scotland.
Cannot be distilled above 94.8% alcohol by volume.
Matured in oak casks no larger than 700 litres for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day.
It can only be matured in an excise warehouse or a permitted place.
Bottled no lower than 40% alcohol by volume.
It must retain the colour, aroma and taste derived from the raw materials and the methods of its production and maturation.
No other substance can be added other than water and plain caramel colouring.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Most people will be familiar with single malt Scotch Whisky. A term that is characterised by quality and provenance. The term ‘Single’ in Single Malt ensures that the whisky is from just one distillery. Within that distillery however, there is no limit to the amount of casks that can be combined together. Occasionally casks appear that have been ‘Teaspooned’, meaning that just a teaspoon of whisky from another distillery has been added to the cask making it illegal to sell or bottle it as a Single Malt Whisky. Here are the key features that answer the question, what is a single malt Scotch whisky?
Made from only malted barley, water and yeast. No other grains are permitted.
Production from a single distillery as opposed to a combination of various distilleries.
Batch distilled in copper pot stills.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
The most notable differences between Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Scotch Whisky are the use of grains and distillation process. Grain whisky can be produced from a mix of grains, normally barley, wheat and corn. Rather than a more time consuming batch process of distillation, grain stills are a different design that can be run continuously and produce high strength spirit as the result of a single process. Hence the stills are called Continuous Stills or Coffey Stills. Generally the malting process is removed and replaced with a much faster system of heating the grains with steam to extract the enzymes and starches. Single Grain Scotch Whisky therefore tends to have a less pronounced character when compared to Single Malt Scotch Whisky but is much more cost effective to produce. This style of whisky exists mainly for the blended whisky market, however in more recent times excellent results have been achieved when maturing Single Grain Scotch Whisky in quality casks for 20 years or more.
Made from a mix of grains, predominantly barley, wheat and corn.
Made from malted or unmalted grains.
Continuously distilled in Continuous Stills or Coffey Stills.
Characterised by flavours of popcorn and butterscotch with maturity.
Blended Scotch Whisky
Blended Scotch Whisky is very simply a combination of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies and Single Grain Scotch Whiskies, blended together to create a different character. There is no limit to the amount of different Single Malt Whiskies or Single Grain Whiskies that can be combined. The popular Blended Whiskies on the market will often have over 40 different Single Malt Whiskies in them. The ratio of Single Malt Whiskies to Single Grain Whiskies varies greatly but generally ranges from 40% malt/60% grain for popular blends up to 70% malt/30% grain for premium blends. Blended Scotch Whiskies were created to balance out the harsh elements of Single Malt Whiskies and today account for over 90% of the Scotch Whisky market.
Blend of Malt Whiskies and Grain Whiskies.
No limit to the amount of different whiskies.
Often lighter in style to Malt Whisky
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Blended Malt Whisky used to be known as Vatted Malt Whisky and as its name suggests is a combination of malt whiskies from different distilleries. It differs to Blended Scotch Whisky as there must be no grain whisky in the blend. Blended Malt Whiskies are favoured by independent blenders to produce their own style of whisky for the premium market. Some blending companies may blend their recipe of different Single Malt Whiskies together and then mature them further in casks before bottling.
Blend of Single Malt Whiskies.
No Grain Whisky permitted.
No limit to the amount of different Single Malt Whiskies.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
Blended Grain Scotch Whiskies are more of a niche market but one than has been gaining a following thanks to forward thinking blenders like Compass Box Whisky. Blended Grain Scotch Whiskies are a combination of Singe Grain whiskies from different distilleries and can display delightful flavours when mature whiskies have been blended together.
Blend of Single Grain Scotch Whiskies only.
No Malt Whisky permitted.
No limit to the amount of different Single Grain Whiskies.
Cask Strength Scotch Whisky
Generally speaking new make spirit will be diluted down to 63.5% abv before it is filled into casks. As the spirit matures some of the alcohol will evaporate through the porous nature of the oak at a rate of about 3% per year on average. You may be familiar with this as The Angel’s Share. As the whisky matures further so the alcoholic level will progressively decrease. As long as it remains above 40% abv it can be bottles as Scotch Whisky. Most Single Malt Scotch Whiskies will be diluted with water to 40% or 43% before bottling. If a whisky is not diluted before bottling then it will be a Cask Strength Scotch Whisky. The strength written on the bottle will be whatever the abv was when it was taken fro the cask. This can be any number but for most whiskies around 10 years old it will be around 58% abv. Note that not all high strength whiskies will be cask strength as some will have been diluted down to that strength as is the case with Glenfarclas 105. As a very general rule if it has a nice round number like 58% abv or 60% abv it will probably have been diluted. If the strength has a decimal point such as 58.3% abv it will probably be cask strength. Cask Strength Scotch Whiskies can be Grain Whiskies or Malt Whiskies and have the advantage of experiencing the whisky as it was in the cask or choosing to dilute it down. Some companies like The Scotch Malt Whisky Society specialise in this style of whisky.
Not diluted with water before bottling.
Can be Grain Whiskies or Malt Whiskies.
Offer a more pure experience of the whisky.
Greater options for diluting when drinking.
Single Cask Scotch Whisky
Single Cask Scotch Whiskies are the produce from just once cask of whisky. Being a single cask the production will obviously be from only a single distillery. Allowing for evaporation during maturation, The Angel’s Share, most Single Cask Scotch Whiskies will be limited to around 200 bottles for a hogshead and around 300 bottles for a sherry butt. This makes Single Cask Scotch whiskies for limited and truly unique. The diversity of flavours that different casks will contribute to whiskies is immense, so this style of whisky offers a one-off experience and will never be repeated. The nature of individual casks means that the character of Single Cask Scotch Whiskies may vary considerably to other examples from the same distillery.
Bottled from a single cask of whisky.
Can be Grain Whiskies or Malt Whiskies.
Will be limited to just a few hundred bottles.
Are unique and will never be repeated.
Distillery Bottled Whisky
Distillery Bottlings are bottles of whisky that have been produced and released by the distillery that made them. Sometimes also called Official Bottlings they will have the name of the distillery and the distillery’s logo prominently featured on the label. Distillery Bottlings are favoured by whisky collectors.
Release under the distilleries own label.
Limited to Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Scotch Whisky.
Favoured by collectors.
Independently Bottled Whisky
Independent Bottlings are whiskies that have been released by a different company to the one that made the whisky. The whisky will be released under the independent bottlers label, often but not always with the distillery name featured on the label. Independent bottlers will buy individual casks of whisky directly from distilleries, from whisky brokers or will trade them for casks in their own collection. Many independent bottlers are now buying stock as new make spirit filled into casks ready to start maturing in their own warehouses. Popular independent bottlers include The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Gordon & Macphail and Adelphi. Bottles fro independent bottlers can offer interesting and often better value alternatives to Distillery Bottlings.
Released by a different company to the one that made the whisky.
Limited to Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Scotch Whisky.
May not always state the distillery name on the label.
Age Statement Scotch Whisky
If a Scotch whisky bottle displays an age statement such as 10, 15 or 20 year old, all of the whisky in the bottle must have been matured in casks for a minimum of that time. Some whisky in the blend will be older but the youngest whisky cannot be any younger than the age stated. This is a regulation for all whisky that carries the Scotch Whisky label.
Non-Age Statement Scotch Whisky (NAS)
Many companies now release Non-Age Statement Scotch Whiskies, commonly referred to as NAS. There will be no age information on the bottle and details about the ages of the whiskies in the bottle are not often released. All of the whisky must have been matured beyond 3 years in an oak cask however the consumer will often be left guessing the average age of the whiskies.
Vintage Statement Scotch Whisky
You will occasionally see whiskies that display a distillation year as opposed to an age statement. For example rather than stating the age of the whisky, the label with state the year of distillation and the year of bottling so it is possible for the consumer to easily calculate the age of the whisky. This system accounts for the fact that there may be slight variations to the flavour of the whisky from year to year. To produce an age statement 10 year old whisky for example, the flavour must be consistent each time a new batch is produced.