What is a blended malt?

We are all aware of Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Grant’s, and Dewar’s. These whiskies are not single malts however. These are blends. They consist of other whiskies from different distilleries blended together to come up with a unique flavour. For Scotch, this must be sourced from other single malts. However, let’s not be confused, blending product from different batches or casks of single malt from the same distillery can still be called a single malt. The age on the bottle of a blended malt indicates the age of the youngest single malt included in the blend.

The blending process does not diminish the quality nor speak to the craftsmanship that goes into producing these whiskies. In fact, producing a blend may be quite a difficult task indeed. Consider that over the years, despite changing cicumstances, the blender must produce virtually the same product or risk losing his clients. Why is it difficult to maintain a consistent product? There are just so many variables at play. Your source products may change over time, including the way it is aged, the casks used, the barley used, etc. Also, if a supplier were to stop making one of the products in your blend, you would be forced to find an alternate which would not affect the taste of your blend. Perhaps you would even have to change other components of your blend to achieve the same flavour as previous by trying new combinations. The permutations are countless.

I have not yet tasted a blended whisky for the purposes of reviewing on this blog, but that situation should be rectified in the coming weeks. Please stay tuned.

Cheers!

Glenfarclas 17

Tonight, I’ll be tasting Glenfarlcas’ 17 year old whisky. This brand has been distilled by the Grant family since 1865 and is one of the oldest independant distilleries. The distillery itself has been there for over 170 years and uses large copper stills (see “What is single malt whisky?”), the biggest is Speyside. The stills are directly fired, meaning there’s fire burning underneath the stills. The oak casks are usually first fill sherry and the aging takes place in dunnage warehouses. As you can see from the link, that’s a Laphroaig warehouse. These are traditional warehouses in which barrels are stacked only up to three barrels high for improved air circulation. The floor is earth and the roof is low. The roof is made of slate and the walls of stone. The resulting higher humidity is said to improve the product.

This is a Speyside, but the bottle says Highland. The term Speyside is apparently recent and the labels on the bottle have maintained the Highland name. The 17 year old is not easily found and is made for North American and Japanese markets, and some duty free shops. The SAQ only has it in stock from time to time, and currently has an extensive stock.

The product before me is a light amber or gold. The legs running surprisingly thin an quick.

The nose is nice and rich, quite complex. I’m picking up almond, caramel or butterscotch.

Smooth on the palate and chewy. Definitely butterscotch, some smoke and almond. Some spice as well.

Finish is long and warm. Complex, starting slightly sweet and ending with nut. Hint of smoke throughout as well as oak. The oak makes its presence better known towards the end and lasts long after the other flavours have faded.

With some water, I get more oak and spice on the nose. Some sweetness to it as well to compliment the other scents.

On the palate, more silky, more oak, more almond, a bit of spice. Impression of cinnamon. Wonderful combination of all these flavours.

The finish continues to be long and hints of smoke. I now taste bitter dark chocolate with the oak that lingers once again for quite some time.

On the whole, I’ll call this one of my favourites. The flavours are intense and I’m sure I haven’t captured all of them. Please pick this up and do yourself a favour. Easy drinking whisky never tasted so good. It’s a light whisky, which is not surprising given the size of the stills. When you’ve tasted it, please send me your comments. I am definitely interested in how your interpretation of this differs/compares to mine.

Cheers!

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Where is Scotch produced?

Let’s continue learning about the background of the drink we have been enjoying together over the last few weeks by exploring where the stuff is produced.

Scotch comes from all over Scotland. However, clusters of distilleries exist in close proximity to fresh water, since much water is used in its production. The major regions for Scotch production are:

Speyside
The Highlands
The Lowlands
Islay

Campbeltown also produces some whisky as well as the several of the outlying islands. Here’s an interesting map of the regions and their respective distilleries.

Speyside is the major whisky producing region in Scotland. There are many distilleries based here, and just as many varieties of whisky. The cluster is East of Inverness and Loch Ness and is home to the likes of Macallan, Benriach, Glen Elgin, Balvenie, Glenfidditch (reviewed 12, 15, 18), Glenlivet (reviewed 12), and Aberlour (reviewed 16) to name a few. The flavours are diverse, ranging from fruity to spicy to floral to malty, and just about any iteration in between. However, I believe none are quite smoky or peaty. Further reviews and research may confirm my assessment of the production from this region.

The Highlands cover most of Scotland. Anything roughly North of Glasgow on the mainland, except for Speyside, is considered the Highlands. Here again, one finds a vast array of flavours across the regions, though each sub-region within the Highlands may share some similar characteristics. You’ll find some excellent smoky and peaty whiskies here as well as some fruity, nutty flavours, and then just about anything else you can think of the describe the flavours you will experience during your journey through this part of the country. The area is home to the likes of Clynelish (reviewed), Ardmore, Glengoyne (reviewed cask strength 12), Dalwhinnie, Old Pulteney, and Tomatin to name a few.

The Lowlands cover the area South of the Highlands right up to England. Here, some high volume producing distilleries may be found and the area is a major blending hub. However, only a few distilleries exist, such as Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie. The whisky produced is mostly light in flavour, easy to drink stuff that can be consumed in large volumes I imagine.

Islay is an island to the West of the Lowlands, or to the East of Newfoundland if you prefer. Islay is known for its distinctive peat, a natural feature of the region and a major flavour component of the whisky produced there. It is home to Lagavulin (reviewed 16), Laphroaig, Bowmore (reviewed 12), Bunnahabhain (reviewed Cruach Mhona), and Ardbeg to name some.

The Orkney Islands sit north of the Highlands and are home to a couple of famous distilleries, Highland Park and Scapa. Each has its own flavour, with Highland Park preferring to produce smokier malts and Scapa looking at more fruity products.

Finally, there’s Campbeltown. Home to one of my favourites, Springbank (reviewed cask strength 12) and a couple of others, the product is usually smoky, but can be fruity as well depending on the distiller’s preference and maturing process.

So there you have a brief description of where the stuff comes from and which distilleries are located where. This is by no means an exhaustive list of distillers, but most of the well known brands are mentioned here.

I usually mention the location of the whisky distillery in my reviews, but if I forget, please refer back here or send me a comment to remind me.

Cheers!

What is single malt whisky?

What is whisky? A simple question with a complex answer. The nature of whisky can be interpreted several ways. Does one want to know how whisky is made? There are several answers to that question. Does one want to know the components used in whisky production? What it’s made of? How it tastes? Again, multitude of answers.

In this post, I will briefly explain single malt production.

All Scotch is made from malted barley. Malt is dried germinated cereal grain. The grain is soaked in water to germinate and then dried by hot air to stop the germination process. This allows it to produce sugars.

Some manufacturers will use peat to dry the malt, giving the flavour to the barley.

The malt is then ground and mixed with hot water in what is called a tun. Starch turns to sugar at this point. The sweet liquid, called wort, is drained until all the sugar is gone. The speed with which the wort is pushed through the tun affects flavour. The quicker the wort is sent through the tun, the more cereal, nutty, and dry the final product.

The wort is cooled and sent for fermenting in a contained called a washback. The washback is made of wood or stainless steel. Yeast is now added.

The wash is then distilled in copper pot stills. There are different kinds of stills that lend different characteristics to the wash depending on the length of time the alcohol vapour is in contact with the copper. Long stills extend this contact, resulting in generally lighter spirits. The opposite effect occurs with shorter stills.

The vapour is then liquified using cold water through a condensation system. The vapour hits the cold pipes and turns back into liquid form. Again, the copper exposure plays a role in whether the final product will be light or heavy.

The spirit must then be cut. And early versus late cut will affect the flavour as well. Early cuts will tend to be more fragrant, a later cut will result in a more heavy product.

The spirit is now ready for maturation. The alcohol content is reduced to just about 60% alcohol by volume and placed in oak casks. Often, these casks have been used before for bourbon or sherry.

A bourbon cask is made from American oak. Sherry casks are made from European oak. Refill caks have been used by the distillery before. Usually a distiller will use all three to distinguish their own brands and develop flavours.

The whisky may then be aged a second time for a short period in another cask that may have been used for wine, port, sherry, etc. to give further complexity to the final product.

The whisky aging process is the time it takes for the wood to add its own characteristic to the whisky. A new cask will give off more flavour than one that was previously used.

The whisky bottling process is also important in the final product taste. Chill filtration involves cooling the whisky to -10 C to 4 C and passing it through a filter. Non-chill filtration may be used, but it may resulting in a cloudy product, especially when water is added. Some distillers (and whisky lovers) feel non-chill filtration removes less flavour from the product and prefer to use this method instead.

The minimum strength is 40% for whisky.

So that’s the single malt process in a nutshell. You could get much more detailed information on this from Wikipedia or some excellent books on the subject. There are more and more these days as whisky’s popularity explodes. In my opinion, a more complex, refined drink than wine that runs none of the risks.

Cheers!

Clynelish Distiller’s Edition, bottled 2011

What do I know about Clynelish? Very little. wikipedia has very little to say on the distillery and so do most reviews and books I consulted. I found this whisky at the Dallas airport and picked up it out of curiosity. I noticed the SAQ has started to carry it but at a significant premium to what I paid. According to the bottle, this is the Distiller’s Edition, as different from the regular 14 year old. The whisky is double matured Oloroso Seco Cask Wood, though it’s unclear to me what this actually means. My bottle has a Special Release number of Cl-Br: 174-6k. This is a Coastal Highland product at 46% alcohol by volume.

The colour is deep amber with slow running, thick legs. Satisfying to the eye.

Rich on the nose, the aroma is reminiscent of orange, like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange actually.

On the palate, orange, chocolate, cream, and fruit make the rounds.

The finish is long and smooth, warms the mouth after a few seconds and leaves behind a nutty flavour. Nothing of smoke or peat in this one.

Water makes the aroma richer. I added a bit more water than usual due to the higher alcohol content. More orange with some vanilla. Slightly more fruity overall.

The taste is sweeter now. More fruit along with the orange and chocolate. Delightful.

The finish is long though much the same as before. Perhaps a bit more fruit to go with the nut. A satisfying experience.

Overall, this is a surprisingly good find, though it is expensive I was somehow expecting less. The water makes a huge difference with this whisky. The experience is enhanced considerably and I would encourage you to try without and with, adding more than just a few drops. You will not be disappointed with the results.

Cheers!

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Glenlivet 12

The tasting today is your typical, run of the mill, 12 year old Glenlivet. This is a whisky at 40% alcohol by volume from the Speyside region of Scotland. The distilliery was established in 1824 by George Smith. Glenlivet is a standard setter in whisky and along with Glenfidditch, helped popularize single malts in recent years.

The colour is a light gold, fairly clear. Looks a bit like apple juice. The legs run thin and quick.

On the nose, I pick up faint hints of vanilla and apple. A bit of citrus mixes in towards the end. Very light though overall and by no means an overwhelming aroma.

To the tongue, it comes on soft and smooth but slightly chewy. There’s some wood to it along with some apple. The flavours are soft and result in a very easy to drink whisky. A second glass of this could be easily consumed without feeling overwhelmed by the flavour and intensity, unlike some others I have tasted recently.

The finish starts with the fruit and turns into chocolate. Not dark chocolate like some of the others, but milk chocolate. Reminds me of some of those Easter chocolates. It is smooth, but milky and sweet. The finish does not last very long, but satisfies regardless and invites you to pick up the glass quickly for another taste.

Some water brings out more of the aroma. Same character as before, but more apple and maybe even some pear coming through at this point.

The flavour is more delicate, even silky now. The fruit and wood continue to make themselves known.

The finish is still short and fruity, with the same milk chocolate end.

Overall, a good whisky for everyday drinking and occasions. Due to its soft tones, your guests will not be disappointed, even those who do not regularly appreciate whisky.

Cheers!

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Bowmore 12

With this review, I am going back to a standard issue 12 year old scotch sold at 40% alcohol by volume. Bowmore is known for peaty and smoky whiskies and this is the least aged version in its range. This is an Islay distillery, dating to 1779 according to the bottle. The colour is a nice gold and running quick and thin when swirled in the glass.

The smell is smoky off the bat and gives way to some peat. Slightly sweet, like fruit that has sat out on a table too long. Specifically, it brings to mind apple, banana, and pineapple. You may disagree though and I would love to understand how you interpret this rich and satisfying scent.

On the tongue, it is quite smooth. It starts off sweet but yields the smoky flavour the brand is famous for. Some peat comes through as well, but it is quite different from the Bunnahabhain cruach mhona I reviewed earlier. The peat in the Bowmore mixes with the smoke rather than presenting itself distinctly and apart. Quite delicate, but there nonetheless.

The finish is of a good length and leaves behind hints of smoke and wood. Some dark chocolate makes its way out just before the sensation fades completely.

Some water enhances the smoky, fruity smell and taste. The overall change with a few drops of water is that you end up with a more velvety texture and a richer, smoother tasting experience. The finish remains much the same.

Recommended, but I get the feeling this drink ages wondefully and exposes many flavours and aromas that the 12 year aging period could not accomplish. I anticipate acquiring a 15 year old bottle at some point to put my theory to the test.

Cheers!

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