The Truth and Nothing but the Truth
1. Seven Critical Remarks on the Scottish Whisky Product
Everybody talks about consumer protection nowadays. Each organisation that advocates consumer protection wants to help people to make responsible and mature purchase decisions. There are valid arguments but sometimes also a lot of nonsense.
At the turn of the millennium an extreme case made the rounds. To protect the citizens, politicians wanted to prohibit the Scots from transporting whisky in oak casks from the distilleries to the bottling plants. After all, whisky is a highly flammable hazardous material. It was to be transferred into fireproof containers before being transported. That's what the experts of the European Union demanded.
What a bureaucratic monster! Operation successful - patient dead! This would have made single cask or small batch bottlings impossible. Consumer protection is all well and good, but too much is too much.
Let's deal with reality instead. Our beloved single malt Scotch whisky is above these things, isn’t it? Was this frenzy of bureaucratic regulation an isolated case? Are there perhaps a few secrets we should know? Are there any other stakeholders involved beside the consumer protectors, which is detrimental to us consumers at the end?
Is single malt whisky really the product we think it is?
Before I make you nervous on purpose here, I want to give the answer straight away: Yes, single malt whisky is to a large extent a natural product, and we can rely on its quality. But there are already some worrying trends. The companies are carefully testing how willingly the customers follow new concepts.
We don't want to plead for more controls, consumer labels or laws and regulations. In the end these measures would only increase the costs of our favourite beverage.
2. The Age of Whisky
Several times a year we're asked about a 60-year-old whisky of a famous blended whisky brand. The first time we didn't get it at all. We didn't know any 60-year-old whisky of this brand. Coincidentally we found the origin of this misconception in a whisky book. The book states that "some of the malts contained in this whisky are up to 60 years old."
Now we knew that some naive consumers misinterpreted this sentence. "Some of the malts" quickly turned into "all the whiskies." We don't know how old the whiskies in this blended Scotch whisky actually are. Considering that many thousand bottles of this blend are sold each year, it's obvious that there are only tiny amounts of malts that old in it. Scotch whiskies of this age are usually sold for more than 10,000 Euros a bottle.
Instead, we want to clarify some things with this article. Some developments are harmless; others lead our thoughts more or less consciously into a wrong direction. When you buy a bottle of whisky, you should read the description first. Some alleged advantages are actually "bitter pills" you literally have to swallow.
The Scottish and European whisky regulations only state that a whisky with an age statement mustn't contain any whiskies younger than the stated age, which is good for the consumer. But there are some peculiarities. For example, the Glendronach 12 y.o. contained only malt whiskies that must have been at least 17 years old in 2013. How could this be? Well, 12 years ago (between 1996 and 2002) Glendronach was mothballed. Therefore they had to use whiskies that were significantly older in order to keep the Glendronach 12 on the market. This could lead to misunderstandings for the customers, who might want to get a young, fresh single malt. "Old" doesn't always equal "better" in the eyes of the customers.
But can't you prevent these problems by stating a vintage? Actually you can't rely on a vintage whisky 100%. The Scottish whisky regulations allow to simply exchange the age with a vintage. A vintage of e.g. 1996 only states that the whiskies inside are from the year 1996 or before. Irritating, isn't it? Sometimes the industry lets us get a glimpse into these peculiarities. The label of the Macallan 18 y.o. used to show a small detail. Many years ago, the label stated for example 18 years - 1983. Two years later it was changed to "18 years, youngest whisky distilled in 1985."
However, the real question regarding age is: Who guarantees that the whiskies contained in the bottle are actually as old as stated on the label? Here the industry exercises a very good self-control. If a whisky company bottled younger whisky, the employees would notice and could blackmail the company. A loophole could be very small independent bottlers where only the proprietors themselves handle the goods. But this is also covered by legislation in Britain. From this year on, all producers must be certified by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) if they want to call their product Scotch whisky. Since the SWA checks delivery and carriage notes and customs documentation, the refilling of old casks by small brokers and dubious independent bottlers is prevented.
3. Cask Strength Whiskies like in Former Times
This sub-item is from the year 2003 when this article was originally written. In 2009 the whisky regulations in the UK were changed. Today a whisky labelled as 'cask strength' must really contain cask strength whisky. However, this isn't the case for old collectors' bottles. But here's the original article:
Before glass bottles were introduced, whisky was poured directly from the cask. You brought your own mug to the pub and had it filled directly from the cask. To avoid being cheated by the pub owner or the supplier, you checked the alcohol content before. Since there were no hydrometers back then, the alcohol content was measured by mixing the spirit with gunpowder. If the mixture burned with a bright flame, the whisky was "proof". If it burned with a small, blue flame, the whisky was watered down and "underproof". The 100 proof of the imperial alcohol measurement system (~57%) is based on this point.
Many malt whiskies were labelled as "cask strength", although they were already slightly diluted. Many young whiskies from renowned distilleries were labelled as cask strength, although they were only bottled with 57.3% abv or less. Malt whisky is usually filled into casks with an alcohol content of 63.5% and then matures with slightly different evaporation per cask.
To reach exactly 57.3% was therefore very rare. It's a myth that the casks were selected so they would yield exactly the stated alcoholic strength. For practical reasons, all batches were instead diluted to a value below the theoretically lowest value of the mixture. That way it was made sure that the alcohol content stated on the label was actually reached. Everything else would have been difficult for large-scale productions.
With these "wannabe" cask strength releases, often with the word "natural" added, the producers tried to create a verbal reference to a single cask, which should be reserved for only a few single cask or single barrel bottlings. "High proof" is the correct phrase instead.
Notable exceptions are the Aberlour a'bunadh and the Glendronach Cask Strength. Each batch is bottled at natural alcoholic strength, and the resulting odd figure is printed on the label.
4. Single Malts and Pure Malts
The case of the Cardhu Pure Malt from 2003 shows how much attention must be paid to the terms 'single malt' or 'pure malt'. A quick reminder: Cardhu was a single malt, i.e. a malt whisky from a single distillery. The stocks of 12-year-old malt whisky from Cardhu could not meet the rapidly growing demand, especially from Spain, anymore. The marketing strategists turned the single malt into a pure malt in 2003. 'Pure' may mean 'clean, real and unblended', but the term 'pure' isn’t regulated by law. This way the producer could sell any malts in the Cardhu, as long as they were malt whiskies and not grain whiskies. By skilfully choosing the casks, a taste very similar to the original Cardhu malt could be achieved.
The quality of this blended malt from different distilleries doesn't have to be inferior. Instead of bottling the last remaining cask of single malt of barely sufficient quality, in a pure malt the best casks from various distilleries can be blended together. But for the single malt purist, a ‘pure malt’ is simply no single malt but only a blended malt (formerly vatted malt).
To be fair, Glenfiddich has established the term 'pure malt' during the past 20 years. Although the malt bottled back then was 100% Glenfiddich and therefore a single malt, the marketing strategists labelled it as 'pure malt'. We don’t know whether they wanted to set themselves apart from the competitors with their 'single malt' or if they did it for historical reasons, but as a matter of fact, Glenfiddich as the Nr. 1 in the worldwide single malt market made the term 'pure malt' socially acceptable.
Up to the year 2009, millions of bottles from different Scottish distilleries were marketed with the term 'pure malt'. The new British whisky law got rid of the words 'pure' and 'vatted'. Today only the terms 'single malt' for a malt from a single distillery, or 'blended malt' for a blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries may be used.
P.S. Around the beginning of 2004, Diageo, the producer of Cardhu, announced that they would sell the single malt again and discontinue the pure malt. Unfortunately this means a lower possible sales volume, and you will hardly find the Cardhu on supermarket shelves anymore.
P.P.S. In 2014 a new bottling of Cardhu, called 'Amber Rock', was launched. This bottling aims at the mass market and contains single malt whisky without an age statement.
5. Single Malt, Blended Malt and Whisky Additives
Many distilleries don't want their single malt whiskies to be sold by independent bottlers under a different label. But what can they do? Because of the natural maturation process, there are always casks in the warehouses that don't meet the high demands for a single malt. Typically they are sold to producers of blended whiskies. They let these casks merge in blends of malt and grain whiskies. In the large blending vats, the taste of this particular cask doesn't make a difference.
However, there are greedy people who want to resell these casks as single malt whisky. The distilleries prevent that by adding a small amount of a malt from another distillery before selling the cask, be it only a teaspoon per cask. This cask must not be sold as a single malt, since per law it is a blended malt, i.e. a blend of malt whiskies from several distilleries.
It's not prohibited by the law to fill malt whisky into an additional cask after maturation for a so-called 'finish'. This way the whisky absorbs substances from the walls of two different casks, not just one. Since the second casks are usually wine casks, the result are very nice aromas of sherry, port, red or white wine. This finish is legal as long as the casks are made from oak.
However, the whisky law doesn't state what must or may have been in these casks before. In fact, several litres of sherry remain in the pores of the wall of a sherry cask. In an ex-bourbon cask, the alcohol of the bourbon may have evaporated, but the less volatile aromatic substances of several litres of bourbon remain in the cask wall.
Is such a single malt whisky a blended whisky made from bourbon and scotch, then? Or do all whiskies matured or finished in sherry casks therefore contain natural flavouring? What about the Balvenie 17 y.o., which is finished in Islay whisky casks, or the Glenfiddich 12 y.o. Caoran Reserve? Aren't these single malts actually blended malts made from 99% unpeated Speyside malts and 1% peated Islay malts? However nice these finished malts may taste - for a purist they are blends.
6. Whisky Is a Brown Spirit
Germans often ask why "good whiskies are coloured for the German market." The whiskies they bought directly in the UK are uncoloured, they say.
CAUTION! These tourists draw a false conclusion. Just because the label of a bottle bought in Britain doesn't say "contains caramel", it doesn't mean that the whisky doesn't contain caramel. The problem is the still-differing local legislation within the EU.
Only Germany and Denmark require that the use of caramel be stated on the label. No matter for which country a single malt is produced, the whisky comes from the same vats and is filled into the same bottles. Only different labels are placed on the backside of the bottles, depending on the country of destination. This procedure is only used for single malt whiskies produced in large quantities.
The Canadians have drawn the logical conclusions and allow their whiskies to be flavoured with up to 9.09% aromas. Nonetheless, in 2003 the EU forced Canada to produce whiskies without these additives for the European market or to call their product whisky liqueur instead. Is this right? Isn't a part of the whisky culture lost with this exaggerated consumer protection?
The most recent fad in the whisky industry is to refill ex-sherry casks with sherry again after whisky has matured in them, i.e. first sherry matured in these casks in Spain, then whisky in Scotland, then sherry again in Scotland and eventually whisky again. The British whisky law doesn't state that sherry may only be matured in casks in Spain. The result is 'wet' casks, since the casks are refilled with whisky immediately after the sherry has been extracted.
Why is caramel, i.e. brown colour from sugar, added to some whiskies anyway?
Due to its maturation in individual casks, Scotch whisky can differ in colour from cask to cask. Since the producers got into trouble with differing colours ("Has the whisky gone bad? Please give me a darker one."), they added colour to even out the different colour shades. That's where colouring has its origin.
There are a few black sheep who exaggerate colouring, since dark whiskies sell better than light ones.
There are also some negative spin-offs. For example, a 100 euros whisky received an "artificial colouring" sticker, although the whisky didn't contain caramel. The bottlers at the large bottling lines had decided all by themselves, along the lines of: Germany = sticker. Not too many Scots master another language beside English and Gaelic. Whether or not the whisky was coloured didn't matter to them. You see that the labelling of colouring is not completely reliable.
Since caramel is a natural colour that is identical to the colour in the cask wall, it can't be detected by analytical examination, not even by experts. It also doesn't affect the taste of whisky. Only tiny amounts (a few ml) are added anyway.
If you want to be sure that your whisky has a natural colour, you should buy from distilleries and independent bottlers that state explicitly on the label that the whisky is not coloured.
7. Whisky in 1-Litre-Bottles Tastes Worse
The rumour persists that whisky in usual 0.7l bottles is of a higher quality than whisky in 1l bottles. This rumour probably originated with the specialist retailers, who, in contrast to the duty-free shops, had no access to 1l bottles. Now, after the fall of the duty-free trade in Europe, more and more reasonably priced 1l bottles come into the market, which is good for the consumer.
Why should whisky in a 1l bottle be inferior to one in a 0.7l bottle? Because it was produced for the mass market? Because duty-free customers consume without qualification?
None of that is true. Only single malts produced in large quantities are also bottled in 1l bottles. Cask selection for these malts is already done in the distillery, regardless of further use. Only in the bottling line the whiskies are transferred into large blending vats and diluted to bottling strength with water. Depending on the incoming orders, 1l bottles with 43% or 0.7l bottles with usually 40% abv for the specialist retailers are filled. Always the same whisky is bottled. Individual distilleries with bestselling malts even fill whole tankers already at the distillery. This way they can avoid double loading and unloading as well as returning the casks.
Strictly speaking, the 43% whisky in the 1l bottle even has a greater aroma reserve than the 0.7l bottle and is therefore better. When you dilute the 43% malt to 40% in the glass, aromas are released that the 40% malt can't offer anymore. But since the customs benefits in the travel value sector have mostly vanished, today most malts in 1l bottles are also bottled with 40%, just like the 0,7l bottles for the local markets.
8. Only Old Whisky Is Good Whisky
This is the oldest rumour that has persisted among whisky connoisseurs. It’s becoming better already, but still most people select their whisky according to age. Successful single malts such as Aberlour a'bunadh or Royal Lochnagar Selected Reserve show that age is not everything. Costing more than 50 or more than 100 euros, respectively, they are much more expensive than the run-of-the-mill 12 to 18-year-olds.
Young whisky tastes metallic, tangy and one-dimensional. With increasing maturation in the cask, the whisky loses its metallic tanginess and adopts a multitude of aromas, predominantly from the cask wall. Experience shows that a whisky already tastes quite good after 8 years of maturation and that there are already some really good malts with 12 or 15 years of age.
If the whisky is left in the cask for much longer, the cask aromas start to dominate, resulting in extremely heavy malts full of aromas. If in addition the whisky is matured in first-fill sherry casks made from intense European oak, there's a chance that oak and sherry flavours overlay the whisky beyond recognition. It's the skill of the master blenders to create a harmonious mixture from casks that neither overemphasize the cask nor the distillery style.
Macallan is renowned for having exceptional whiskies in casks like that. Unfortunately the old stocks are very small. By assessing the taste of each individual cask, Macallan is able to skilfully blend whiskies from the different production stages of the distillery, going back to 1841, from selected single casks. But how old are the malts in these replica bottles actually? Nobody knows and almost nobody wants to know. Only the replica result matters.
Age is not everything that matters. The best quality is guaranteed when skilled experts at the distilleries select the best casks. A 25-year-old bottling from a leftover third-fill ex-bourbon cask of a long-closed distillery has little chances to be better than selected middle-aged casks from a working distillery that are bottled without an age statement.
With this seventh sub-item we close the critical reflection on our favourite beverage. Most of the problems mentioned above are not far-fetched, but they are pretty rare nevertheless.
You don't have to worry that you are often duped. Things are never as bad as they look. What matters most with whisky is your personal taste.
If furthermore you gather some information on a whisky before buying it, you will seldom be disappointed. Look up the bottling or at least the distillery in a whisky book or get an overview from us on the internet. Experience shows that most mispurchases result from buying too hastily. Reflect. Write down your wishes and make a conscious purchase decision.