One of my brothers (I have many) recently asked if I could recommend a whisky for a friend of his. As I started to gather some information he started to become curious of the different categories of Scotch Whisky. I thought that this would lead to a good topic for DGT in case anyone else out there was curious or a little confused as to how Scotch is categorized. It’s relatively simple, but I will still do my best to explain…
Before I go any further into the different Scotch Whisky categories there is something that they all have in common. Under the guidance and protection of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), all Scotch Whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three (3) years. Other rules come into play as we begin to break down the different categories; there are five:
1. Single Malt Scotch Whisky – A Scotch Whisky distilled at a single distillery and made from only malted barley and by batch distillation in pot stills.
A fun note here is if you have two different bottles of single malt from the same distillery, you can blend them together and still have a single malt (i.e., blend together Aberlour 12 with Aberlour 16 and you have a new single malt). It must also be noted that the age of this “new” whisky is 12 years, due to SWA guidelines that the official age is that of the youngest whisky in the bottle. As of November 23, 2012 an additional rule for Single Malt Scotch Whisky is that it must be bottled in Scotland.
2. Single Grain Scotch Whisky – A Scotch Whisky distilled at a single distillery and made from malted barley with or without whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals. Typically other grains include wheat, rye, unmalted barley, etc. Single Grain Whiskies are also commonly distilled in a column-still, which is a continuous still system.
3. Blended Scotch Whisky – A blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies. These are all typically from different distilleries.
4. Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – A blend of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery. Experimenting with your own Blended Malts can be quite interesting.
5. Blended Grain Scotch Whisky – A blend of Single Grain Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.
To add a little more information and much like it was previously noted, blending Single Malts from a single distillery still leaves you with a Single Malt. Aberlour A’Bunadh is a great example of this; A’Bunadh is a Cask Strength Single Malt that is a blend of various aged barrels. In terms of casks of the same age, it is standard for distilleries to vat (or marry) their casks together to create a more consistent product. Using the Glenlivet 12 year old as an example, many 12 year old matured casks are vatted together before bottling in order to keep each bottle consistent with the next.
As a separate note, sometimes a bottle that is labeled with a particular age could in fact contain older spirits. This is typically done in order to sell an expression (bottle) at a higher quality; branding reasons so to speak.
You can also find Single Cask editions of Single Malts. These are Single Malts that are bottled from one particular cask. Because of this that consistency we just spoke of is somewhat lost, although with proper management and cask selection, quality can still greatly be present. Another name for these types of expressions is “Single-Singles”, and they can be quite exclusive and offer very unique characteristics.