While looking for a suitable bottling, customers often ask us ’what makes a good Whisky?’. What is important when choosing a Whisky? Which aspects should be considered?
Let's start from the beginning. First of all, the question is: What is Whisky? By definition, Whisky is a spirit made from grains, which then matures in wood and becomes brown in colour. In trade jargon it is therefore also referred to as a 'brown spirit'. The basic ingredients are the same as for high-quality Vodka, which is also made from grain. The only difference is that Vodka usually does not mature in casks but is bottled directly after distillation.
We have looked up how Vodka and Whisky are defined in the spirits yearbook of the German spirits company called ‘Deutsche Kornbranntwein-Vermarktungs GmbH’. The definition of Vodka reads as follows:
A spirit drink made from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, obtained either by rectification or filtration over charcoal, followed by single distillation where appropriate, or by an equivalent treatment which selectively weakens the organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials used. The addition of flavouring substances may give the product particular organoleptic characteristics, in particular a soft taste.
The definition of this regulation 1576/89 indicates, that the alcohol contained in Vodka must be as neutral as possible, like rectified spirit or effective spirit.
This is a very loose definition, which basically sounds like a free pass for manufacturers. ‘Agricultural origin' does not necessarily mean that grain must be used to produce Vodka - one can also process potatoes. Distillation ('rectification') is also not mandatory - you can also concentrate the alcohol molecules with the help of molecular filters. The aromas of the raw materials are removed or 'weakened' by filtering or distillation. Other aromas are then added to give the Vodka a new flavour. This results in the many flavoured Vodkas we know from the supermarket that have vanilla, strawberry or cranberry flavours, especially to make the Vodka 'softer'.
The spirits yearbook definition of Whisky, on the other hand, reads as follows:
A spirit drink obtained by distillation from a mash of grain sugared by the malt amylases it contains, with or without the addition of other enzymes, and fermented by yeast. Distillation must be carried out in such a way that the distillate contains less than 94.8% alcohol and has the aroma and taste of the raw materials used. This is followed by a maturation period of at least three years in wooden casks with a maximum capacity of 700 litres. The minimum alcoholic strength by volume is 40%.
Choosing a 'Good Whisky'
So far, so theoretical. But in plain language: What is important for a 'good Whisky'?
Horst Luening is very interested in a natural product and not in an effective spirit that has been flavoured. From his youth on, he has enjoyed Whisky - even coloured and chill-filtered. In this respect, unlike many other Whisky connoisseurs, he has no reservations. Although he prefers Whisky without colouring and chill-filtration, he will never abandon Lagavulin, which is chill-filtered and usually also coloured.
The next question to ask yourself: Do you find good Whisky in the big companies’ product range or should you rather purchase bottlings from the few small independent distilleries? Horst Luening basically prefers the small ones - after all, he himself is a representative of a small business. But you have to be careful, as this decision depends on the quality of the respective Whisky: on the one hand on the taste, but also on the bottle equipment, that means cork, label and the like. After all, what does a sloppy quality control of the bottles and outer packaging say about the quality of Whiskies? Or the quality controls during production?
Most Important: Good Taste
All these aspects deal more with the 'surroundings'. But what about the Whisky itself? What can you expect from a good Whisky?
‘Dark, full-bodied, old' - these are characteristics that speak for a high-quality Whisky. So, maturity is very important. The credo is not necessarily 'the older the better', but the Whisky must simply be well or ’harmonically’ matured. On the one hand, the new make spirit loses its 'bad characteristics', such as a tangy or metallic taste, due to the subtractive maturation in the cask. These characteristics are mainly removed by oxidation in the breathing cask. Only after six to eight years, this subtractive maturation is largely completed. At the same time, the so-called additive maturation takes place: aromas from the cask are absorbed by the Whisky, or 'added' to it. This additive maturation takes place very quickly at first, but the aromas that the whisky can absorb from the cask become fewer with time (age of the cask). This is why different finishes are used, as well: When a Whisky has undergone little additive maturation, it is filled into another more active cask for one to three years for the so-called ’finish’. That way it can absorb even more flavours and aromas from the additive maturation in the second cask.
What is important in this context is harmonic maturation, which means a balanced relationship between subtractive and additive maturation. On the one hand, there are the characteristics of the first maturation - mostly in ex-Bourbon casks - like vanilla or coconut. Furthermore, the tastes from the casks of the finish are added, in case of Sherry casks there are notes of nuts, cocoa or coffee from the oak tannins, and of course the sherry aromas of grapes, raisins, figs or dates. These aromas must now combine with the often very fruity distillery character to form a harmonic, complex whole.
Good Whisky in Cask Strength and with a high Peat Level (ppm)
Bottling in cask strength can also make a Malt particularly round from time to time, such as the Glenfarclas 1997. Cask strength Whisky can be recognised by the fact that it usually says so on the label. Here, the Whisky will go straight from the cask to the bottle. Other bottlings with the usual 40%, 43% or 46% alcohol content are logically diluted with water to get exactly the desired alcohol strength. Cask strength is correspondingly higher and ranges around 60% vol. Depending on personal taste, the peat level of a Whisky is also decisive. Whisky gets its smoky aroma when the barley used is dried over peat fire. Peat smoke gives off a very intense aroma, which is eventually also found in the Whisky. The peat level in Whisky is measured in 'ppm' (parts per million). There are usually three levels: 'lightly peated' (below 15 ppm), 'moderately peated' (around 20 ppm) and 'highly peated' (above 30 ppm). However, in most cases this value refers to the peat level in the malt used and not in the final product. In some cases, much of the smoke aroma in the spirit is lost during distillation. Some like it smoky, others prefer just a touch of smoke. For Horst Luening, as for many others, this depends on the mood of the day: a touch of smoke makes a Glenfarclas, for example, even more interesting. Some like strong smoky ones best, like the Ardbeg Ten.
One of Horst Luening's personal favourites is the Lagavulin Distillers' Edition. It has an extremely distinct and smoky distillery character. Lagavulin's pot stills are pear-shaped and not constrained, which means that the alcohol is less finely separated and many flavour carriers pass into the distillate. The grain for the mash is kilned over peat smoke, which provides the extremely smoky character. The Distillers' Edition is matured in ex-Bourbon casks before being given a 24-month finish in Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. All these components result in a voluminous Single Malt Whisky that has much more aroma than Vodka. And, as mentioned above in the definition, this is particularly important for a good Whisky.