What is a deluxe blended Scotch Whisky?
It is a blend which contains a higher proportion of carefully selected older and, therefore, more expensive whiskies. When there is an age label on a bottle of blended whisky, does it refer to the average age of the whiskies in that blend?
No. The law requires that when the age is declared on a label, it must refer to the youngest whisky in the blend.
For example, if a blend is described as an eight year old, the youngest whisky in that blend must have been matured for at least eight years.
Is it legal to sell whisky which is less than three years old for consumption in this country?
No. Although the spirit is distilled under the strict conditions applied to the production of Scotch Whisky, it is not entitled to be described as Scotch Whisky until it has matured for three years. This does not apply to compounded spirits such as gin, vodka and liqueurs.
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The magical processes used to create whisky have not changed a great deal over the years. Some of the more traditional techniques have fallen by the wayside as distilleries introduce more efficient, modern apparatus but as other countries have found, it is impossible to create Scotch anywhere else in the world with even the most scientific methods at your disposal. Whether it is the water, geography, climate, techniques used or some form of combination of these, it’s not known for sure. All we do know is that whatever it is, it works! The main rules that define what makes ‘Scotch whisky’ are as follows – it must be made at a Scottish distillery using water and malted barley – it must spend at least three years maturing in oak casks – the whisky must be matured in Scotland Ingredients The main ingredients used in making whisky form a short list: Water – most of Scotland’s water is very soft. Soft water will absorb more from the malted barley used to make whisky, than hard water will, which might offer a reason as to why it seems to make a suitable ingredient for whisky. Some also believe that peaty water will have an influence on the whisky, helping to give a peaty flavour to the drink. Otherwise the different waters used by distilleries should not affect the finished product too much. The most important factor for the distillery is that they have a large supply of water. Malt – malted barley, or malt, is always used for malt whisky, not surprisingly. In contrast, grain whiskies will use maize or other cereals. Malt is explained in more detail below. Yeast – one of the less significant factors when it comes to the flavour of the whisky, but nevertheless a crucial element as the yeast is used to trigger the chemical process that converts sugars in the malted barley into alcohol. Peat – peat is basically decayed vegetation that has not broken down in the soil due to poor drainage in the land. Cut from marshland bogs, it is used as fuel and in the case of whisky, as a fuel for halting the maturation process of the barley once it has begun to germinate. It adds a smoky flavour to whisky which is usually associated with the Island malts, particularly Islay whiskies, but is present in virtually all malts in varying degrees. Malting Once the barley has arrived at the distillery it is steeped in water to allow the germination process to begin. Shoots begin to grow from the grains of barley as a result. Before the germination can go too far and the barley grain begins to consume its own sugar in order to grow, it is heated to halt the process, by kilning the barley. It is at this stage that peat is used to introduce its flavour to greatest effect. Peat was traditionally the fuel used for drying and slightly cooking the malted barley in many parts of Scotland and is still used for the flavours it imparts. Depending on whether a distillery is using traditional floor maltings where the germinating barley is spread thinly on the floor, or a more modern system such as a rotary drum which allows the barley to be aired and heated more uniformly, the malting process can take between 20 and 48 hours. From here the malt will be ground down, or milled, ready for mashing. Mashing Warm water is added to the milled, malted barley which is then fed into a large, circular vessel called a mash-tun to allow the mashing to take place. Mashing is the stage where the starches in the barley convert to sugars which will later be fermented into alcohol. The mash-tun will contain either mechanical rakes or rotating blades that stir the mash. Slots in the base of the mash-tun allow the now sugary liquid, called ‘wort’, to run off. The wort will be recycled through the mash-tun three or four times before moving onto to be allowed to ferment. Fermentation By this stage the liquid is ready for fermentation. In a wash-back the wort has yeast added to it to encourage the chemical reaction that converts the sugars to alcohol. Washbacks were traditionally made of wood, although some distilleries now use stainless steel. While more time consuming to clean out and less sterile, it is reckoned by some distillery managers that using wooden vessels does add to the flavour of the whisky. Distillation Scottish whisky distilleries use pot-stills to distill the spirit that will become whisky. Pot-stills, the copper icons of the whisky industry, offer a means of evaporating the alcohol, which turns to vapour before water does, which is then condensed and collected after escaping through the neck of the still. The exact shape of the still, its height, the shape and length of the neck, the fact that the still is made from copper rather than another metal, all play their part in making each whisky individual. The use of copper in making stills is crucial, as it’s only this metal that will remove some of the unwanted elements from the spirit – experiments with stainless steel have proved the importance of the metal used in the still. The liquid will typically be distilled twice, first in a larger ‘wash’ still, then in a ‘low wines’ or ‘spirit’ still in order to collect the ‘heart of the run’, the batch of spirit that the stillman knows will be suitable for maturing as whisky. Maturation Scotch whisky is always matured in oak casks. The exact type of wood used in the maturation stage and what the cask has been used for prior to being filled with whisky lends a great deal to the final flavour of the whisky when it is bottled. Oak is sourced from America and Spain – the right choice of oak being crucial. New oak is never used for maturing whisky as the wood will lend too much flavour to the spirit. For the majority of whiskies, casks that have been used for maturing bourbon are used. American law prevents bourbon producers from using casks twice, so after being used, a cask is of little use to the bourbon industry. The Scotch whisky industry benefits from this, with the practice guaranteeing a steady supply of ex-bourbon casks. Some distillers will use ex-sherry casks from Spain instead, perhaps the most famous being The Macallan, which uses ex-oloroso sherry casks. While some whiskies spend their whole lives in the cask they were first poured into, some distilleries will use a second stage of maturation to add a different edge to the whisky. Glenmorange are one of the bigger producers of whisky that have done just this with their range of malts, which have Madeira, Port and Sherry finishes achieved by a maturation in a second barrel. Recent limited edition bottlings have also seen Malaga, Fino Sherry, Cognac, Bordeaux, Cote de Nuits finishes. Just how long the whisky will mature before it is bottled is another complex question. Three years is the legal minimum but most will spend much longer, depending partly on how quickly the whisky ‘grows up’ which will vary from one whisky to the next. Over time, flavours from the environment that the distillery is in such as salty seaside air may offer its own particular effects. Some whisky will also be lost gradually through time as a very slow evaporation occurs through the pores of the wooden cask. Seeping out at a rate of roughly 1-2% a year, this loss is known as the ‘angels share.’ When the distillery sees fit, the whisky will be bottled.