24 May 2021
Scotch Whisky Labelling: Deciphering the jargon and understanding how it impacts flavour
Scotch Whisky (Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009)
The term Scotch Whisky by itself is not much use in deciphering what is in a bottle, since any given product must reside in one of the sub-categories listed below. But broadly speaking, Scotch whisky must abide by the following rules: It must be made in Scotland from water, cereal and yeast only, whereby fermentable sugars are obtained through the actions of natural malt enzymes. Mashing, fermentation and distillation must take place in the distillery and it must be distilled to less than 94.8% alcohol by volume. It must then be aged in oak casks no bigger than 700 litres, for a minimum of three years. Before the three years are up it is known simply as ‘British New Make Spirit’. Plain caramel colouring may be added.
Scotch Single Malt Whisky
Single Malt must be made from 100% malted barley but the barley can be grown and malted anywhere in the world. Single Malt whisky must be distilled a minimum of two times in a copper pot-still. The product can be distilled three times (like Auchentoshan) or more, but two is the industry norm. As with all Scotch whisky the maximum permitted distillate strength is 94.8% ABV, but most Single Malt whiskies run off at 65-75% ABV.
Maturation must take place in Scotland, but not necessarily on the site of the distillery. Most bottlings are much older than the required three years, but as you may have seen with some of the newer distilleries we have featured, it is entirely possible to find young whiskies that can compete with twelve year old drams. During the period in which the whisky is kept in barrels it is stored in a government bonded warehouse.
As with all types of Scotch the age statement on the bottle must refer to the youngest whisky in the bottle. For some single cask bottlings the producer may choose to provide a "distilled on" and "bottled on" date, which can be used to calculate the age of the whisky as well as tell us when it was made and bottled.
Scotch Single Malt Whisky must be bottled in Scotland, and that goes for small bottles and Whisky Me pouches, too.
Scotch Blended Malt Whisky
As the name suggests, this type of whisky is a blend of Malt Whiskies from two or more distilleries (a blend of malts from the same distillery is still a single malt). In the past Blended Malt has gone by the title "Vatted Malt" and "Pure Malt", but 2009 legislation put a stop to that. These whiskies benefit from the intensity of a Single Malt and the balance that comes with blending whiskies to a specific style.
As is the norm, the age statement on a Blended Malt refers to the youngest whisky. Johnnie Walker Green Label is a great example of a smoky Blended Malt (partly down to the inclusion of both Talisker and Caol Isla in the blend) so too is the Timorous Beastie, which we featured back in 2020.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
Like Single Malt, Single Grain must be the product of one single distillery, but it can be made from any combination of malted barley and other un-malted cereals (but not other malted cereals). It is typically produced in a column still, which produces a much lighter spirit than a pot still. Single Grain Whisky is seldom bottled for consumption on its own, though there are an increasing number of examples appearing on the market, such as Haig Club.
Blended Scotch Whisky
Despite the growing demand for Single Malt in the past 20 years, blended Scotch makes up over 90% of the global Scotch whisky sales today. It must be made from at least one Single Malt and one Single Grain Whisky. As far as I am aware there are no blends that contain more than one Single Grain Whisky, but it is not uncommon for a blend to contain malts from over thirty different distilleries.
Blends tend to be lighter than Malts and Blended Malts (on account of the lighter Grain Whisky component) which makes them great - and often better - candidates for mixing in to highballs and cocktails.