Monday, January 6, 2014

006 - Great King Street

And now for something a little different: Today we're tasting whisky, but not a single-malt.

All the first five whiskies were single-malts, but that's only one type of Scotch whisky. In fact, it's the smallest category. With that said, it's growing rapidly relative to the other categories. So, it's slice of the pie is getting bigger, while the pie itself is growing. Times are good in the whisky business.

There are actually five types of Scotch whisky:

  • Single-Malt
    • Whisky made from malted barley and produced by a single distillery.
  • Blended Malt (formerly known as "Vatted Malt")
    • Whisky resulting from combining the single-malt whisky from multiple distilleries.
  • Single-Grain
    • Grain whisky made at a single distillery. Could be based on multiple types of grain as long as it was produced at a single distillery
  • Blended Grain
    • Grain whisky resulting from combining the whisky from multiple distilleries.
      • I have never seen such a beast.
  • Blended
    • A mix of malt and grain whiskies.
      • This is the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry.

Today's whisky is from the last category which is by far the dominant form of Scotch. You know their names like Ballantine's, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, Dewar's, J&B, Johnnie Walker, Teachers, Whyte & Mackay, and many others.

My choice for today is also a blend, which is a mix of malt and grain whiskies from multiple distilleries, in this case assembled by Compass Box. In contrast to my recent choices, it is widely available and affordable ($35/bottle).

What's it taste like?

  • The initial impression on the nose, and on first drinking it, is of Frangelico or a dry Sherry (it's a very nutty mix, with hazelnuts or perhaps walnuts).
  • It is 43% abv so it's not going to burn your nose with high alcohol vapors. 
  • What lingers on the palate is a very nice vanilla complex, perhaps light butterscotch. The most complete description would be fresh-baked Apple pie.

One thing to keep in mind about the word "blended" is that it doesn't mean what you think it means. Other than rare single-cask expressions like the Littlemill I drank yesterday, virtually all whisky is blended if you use the term mean mixed.

Single-malts are produced day in, day out and yet every bottle tastes the same (to a very close approximation). This sameness is achieved year after year. A bottle you buy in five years will likely taste just like you remember. This is achieved by mixing the liquid from multiple casks of various ages to create a consistent product. The age statement on the bottle, if one exists, reflects the youngest component in the bottle. So, even single-malts are mixtures. But the term "blend" is reserved to distinguish whisky that is either the product of multiple distilleries, or that contains multiple types of grain other than malted barley.

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