Malt Whisky versus Grain Whisky

This is an age-old debate among Scotch Whisky lovers.  Before weighing in on the debate, let’s first look at what differentiates one from the other. 

A Whisky that’s made by a single distillery using malted barley and pot stills is a Single Malt.  No other types of grains can be used when making Malt Whisky.

Single Malt whisky is not required to be sourced from one barrel, a particular batch of barrels, or even distilled in one batch. Single malt whisky simply means that the whisky has been distilled, matured and bottled at one distillery. It may come from different barrels, batches and even have different ages. If a whisky is distilled, matured and bottled at a single distillery, it is, and can be labelled a Single Malt whisky.

Grain Whisky on the other hand can be distilled from any type of grain, whether it is unmalted barley, wheat, corn or rye.  They can even use a combination of grains.  It is interesting to note that 100% malted barley Scotch that is made with column stills is considered as a Grain Whisky.

Single Grain whisky, like Single Malt whisky, also denote the origin of the whisky from one distillery alone. Single Grain whisky must be distilled, matured and bottled at one distillery.

Malt whiskies are generally considered superior to grain whiskies because malt whiskies have more character than grain whiskies.  This character comes mostly from the ‘impurities’ that are distilled away in consecutive distillation runs.

Grain Whisky is usually less expensive than Malt Whisky but that is not related to quality. Grain Whisky is generally distilled in column stills, which allows the distiller a continuous production that’s less expensive than batch distillation in pot stills. That reduces the price of blends, in addition to giving them a bit more body.

There is more Grain Whisky produced than Malt Whisky but there are far fewer distillers that make it. There are about 130 active Malt distilleries and the largest one, Glenfiddich, can produce 21 million litres of pure alcohol per year. On the other hand, Cameronbridge, the largest grain distiller, can produce up to 110 million litres per year. It is interesting to note though, that in 2020 the production of Grain and Malt Whisky in Scotland was almost identical.

Scotland has distilleries like Loch Lomond and Girvan that are making inroads with Scotch Grain Whisky.  These distilleries are bottling Grain Whisky that is both high quality and well matured.  Loch Lomond is producing Grain Whisky that has won awards and is well known for its smoothness and distinct light-bodied qualities. It is the first distillery in Scotland to produce both Grain and Malt whiskies at the same time.

So, to answer the question as to which type of whisky is better, Malt Whisky or Grain Whisky, the answer is up to you.

Sláinte mhaith

Irish Whiskey Single Malt Vs Single Pot

If you have ever shopped for Irish whiskey you may have noticed the term ‘Single Pot’ on some of the labels.  Is single pot the same as single malt? Not exactly; single malt means all the liquid in the bottle was made from a single type of malted grain at the same distillery. Single pot is only legally produced in Ireland and is made with both malted and unmalted barley. The reason for this is the unmalted barley adds a unique character to the whiskey. The taste of a single pot has more distinct spiciness, more of a weighty, grainy texture and funky cereal flavour that isn’t as present in other types of Irish whiskeys. It has more depth.

To complicate matters further, up until 2011 single pot whiskeys were labeled as “Pure Pot Still.” If you find this description on a label you have come across a “vintage” bottle.

At present there are only a couple of brands out there making Single Pot Still Whiskey for commercial purposes. The category became less popular in the 20th century when Scotch began to dominate the marketplace.  However, with the resurgence of classic drinking habits in the 2000s, it’s becoming more popular.

The more popular single pot whiskeys include:

  • Redbreast 12 Year Old – It is a brilliant amber colour with complex aromas of floral, honey, sweet fruits and lime.  It is full-bodied and robust with a creamy mouth-feel and flavours repeated from the nose followed by an enduring finish reminiscent of butterscotch.
  • Green Spot – With clove, apricot and oak toast aromas and flavours of cedar, clove, apple and ginger. The long finish has spicy notes of clove, nutmeg and ginger.
  • Yellow Spot – Matured in three types of oak casks, it has aromas and flavours of caramel, spice, honey and ripe tree fruit. Nutty, dried fruit and toasted oak notes linger on a long finish.

Irish whiskey single malts include:

  • Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt – Aged ten years in used bourbon barrels, it has aromas of ripe pear, toasted oak, caramel, citrus peel and white pepper. On the palate it is warming with a light sweetness and medium body. Flavours of tree fruit, caramel, citrus and toasted almonds play on a long finish.
  • Writers Tears Copper Pot – It is deep gold in colour with orange accents. There are aromas of citrus, honey, apple, vanilla and malt, as well as flavours of caramel and citrus peel along with oak and pepper.  It is medium-bodied and fruity with a long-lasting finish.
  • The Sexton Single Malt – It is bright golden in colour with warming aromas of toffee, marzipan, citrus, allspice and hints of dark chocolate. There are flavours of dried fruit and oak which is a result of ageing in Oloroso Sherry casks.  The finish is smooth and supple with a kiss of sweetness.
  • West Cork Single Malt – Matured in bourbon barrels and finished in calvados casks, it has notes of dried fruit, vanilla, pear, almonds and apple. A medium-bodied and fruity palate leads to a long finish.
  • Teeling Single Malt – It is aged in five distinctive wine casks creating fruity aromas with hints of toffee, vanilla, herb and floral notes. It has flavours of caramel, spice and tropical fruit with a lengthy finish.
  • The Temple Bar – It is distilled in copper pot stills and matured in American oak barrels resulting in a well-balanced dram. There are aromas and flavours of zesty citrus, cinnamon, honey, nutmeg and vanilla. It is full-bodied and flavourful with a lengthy finish.

The descriptions of each of the whiskies were paraphrased from the LCBO website descriptions.

I have tried all 3 single pot whiskies and many of the single malts and my favourite is the Green Spot single pot.  Unfortunately, it is only imported from Ireland once or twice a year so it is only available on a very limited basis.

Redbreast is produced by the same distillery that makes Jameson.  When I visited the Jameson distillery in Dublin a few years ago I was told that Redbreast is created in the traditional style of Irish whiskey as it was made over a hundred years ago. It is said to be popular with Irish Whiskey traditionalists. 

Sláinte mhaith

Tastings and Rankings

Although the subject of my writing today is on whisky, the same thoughts apply to wine reviews as well.  The beverage is different but the prejudices, influences and considerations remain the same; food for thought.

Photo credit: etsy.com

Taste is subjective; remember the saying “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”?  My own opinions as to preference will vary within reason depending on my mood.  I suggest treating these articles as a curiosity and entertainment, not as gospel.   I read some of the reviews to see how the writer’s opinions may compare to my own.  For the article to have any kind of validity, the author needs to reveal what selections were sampled and how that list was determined.

Before assessing the writer’s results, you need to be aware of any bias the person may have.  If comparing peated whisky with non-peated whisky, the writer may allow a personal bias of whether they are a fan of the smokiness of peat be an influence.  On the other hand, if a group of whiskies were being ranked based on the sweetness and/or peatiness, without comment as to personal preference, that can be valuable to a reader in matching their personal preferences.

Double-blind tastings where the reviewer is unaware of what whiskies are being sampled, as well as the order in which they are presented is best.  That way personal prejudice may be better avoided.   For example, Zach Johnston of uproxx.com was quoted during his review, Scotch Whiskies Tasted ‘Double-Blind’ And Power Ranked, “I had no idea what this was (Johnnie Walker Blue Label). I do feel that had I known it was in the lineup, I’d had sussed it out and ranked it higher. So, this is a pretty good example of how double blinds really push the envelope.”  This is a good example of how a whisky’s reputation or price point can bias opinion on how good a whisky is.

Should price be a consideration?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  In the example above, Johnnie Walker Blue was ranked 6th of the 8 whiskies tasted. It carries a price tag in excess of $300.  The 5 whiskies ranked higher ranged from $100 to slightly under $300.  However, the whisky that ranked last was also by far the least expensive, priced at under $85. 

It is important to make sure that the reviewer is comparing apples to apples.  It hardly seems fair to compare a simple 10-year-old malt with a price point in the $80 range with a 25-year-old that was aged in an ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask, in the $250 and up price range.  After all, for a difference of $200 or more, there should be a differentiating factor, otherwise why would you pay the extra money?

Finally, if the reviewer is from outside of Canada, the selection list isn’t often completely relevant.  Many of the whiskies are often not available to try.  Therefore, from a practical standpoint, a comparison or ranking of a good sampling of whiskies may be reduced to a comparison of only 2 or 3, depending on accessibility.

However, after all is said and done, reviews do provide a new perspective for consideration and thought.

Sláinte mhaith

The Styles of Irish Whiskey

In recognition of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, I decided it is a good time to discuss the different styles of Irish Whiskey.  As with most things Irish, there is disagreement as to how many styles of whiskey there are; some would argue there are four, while others claim only three.

Photo credit: Forbes.com

I will begin this discussion by identifying the three styles that all the experts agree upon.  Those are malt, pot still and grain.  The debated fourth style is a blended combination of two or more of the other three styles.  Those who argue that there are only three styles base their argument on the fact that blends can only exist because they are the product of a combination of the other three styles.

Below are definitions of all four styles, as well as examples of each.  The whiskies highlighted in blue are periodically available in Canadian liquor stores.

Single Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey is produced from 100% malted barley. It is double or triple distilled in copper pot stills. To qualify as single malt, the whiskey must be made in its entirety at one distillery. Irish single malts are typically soft in texture, smooth, sweet, and malty in flavour.

Examples of single malt whiskies include Bushmills single malt, Knappogue Castle single malt, Connemara 12 Single Malt, Teeling Single Malt, West Cork, Tyrconnell and The Sexton.

Single Pot Still Whiskey

This style is unique to Ireland.  It is made from a mash of at least 30% malted and 30% unmalted barley, which gives pot still its characteristic full-rounded and spicy flavour. In addition to the barley, the mash may contain up to 5% of other cereal grains, such as rye or oats. The mash is fermented and then double or triple distilled in copper pot stills.

Examples of single pot whiskies include Redbreast, Powers John’s Lane and Powers Three Swallow, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, Red Spot, Blue Spot, Drumshanbo and Teeling.

Single Grain Whiskey

Unlike pot still and malts, grain whiskey is distilled using a column still instead of a copper pot still. This produces a spirit that is lighter and cleaner in body and sweeter in taste. It is most often distilled from a base of corn (maize) with up to 30% malted barley added. Other grains such as wheat or oats may also be used.

Single grain whiskey must be made at a single distillery.

Examples of single grain whiskies include Kilbeggan Single Grain, Teeling Single Grain, The Busker, Clonakilty Bordeaux Cask, Egan’s Vintage Grain and Glendalough Double Barrel.

Blended Whiskey

A blended Irish whiskey should not be automatically considered to be inferior to a single grain, single malt or pot still whiskey. The success of the blend comes down to the quality of the whiskeys it is contrived of and the skill of the blender who creates it.  A blend is a mixture of two or more styles of Irish whiskey. There are no specific names to differentiate between blends made from malt and grain, pot still and grain, malt and pot still, or even malt, pot still and grain.

Blends are often light when grain whiskey is included in the mix, while the addition of pot still or malt whiskey will give body and complexity. Blended whiskeys can be a great alternative to a single pot still or single malt whiskey, which may be too rich or intense in flavour.  Blended whiskey is generally smooth, mellow and silky.

Blended whiskey may be distilled in pot and/or column stills and can be made at a single distillery or multiple distilleries.

Blended whiskey examples include Jameson, Powers Gold Label, Clontarf, Bushmills Black Bush, Teeling Small Batch, Writers’ Tears Copper Pot, Dubliner Bourbon Bask, The Irishman Founder’s Reserve, The Busker ‘Triple Cask Triple Smooth’, The Dubliner, and Teeling Blackpitts.

If you are a whiskey fan and have not tried all four variations of Irish Whiskey, you owe it to yourself to sample them all.  You may discover a new favourite.

Sláinte mhaith

Scotch Whisky

There are four main whisky regions in Scotland – the Lowlands, the Highlands, Campbelltown and Islay. There are also two whisky sub-regions, Speyside and the Islands, both of which are part of the Highland region.  The Islands are considered to include all the whisky producing islands in Scotland except Islay. Although each distillery’s whisky is unique, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics that separate them from scotch produced in other regions.

There are four main types of Scottish whisky – ‘single malt’ which is made by one distillery in one batch using only water and malted barley, ‘ grain whisky’ where rye or wheat is added, ‘blended malt’ which is a mix of malts from more than one distillery and ‘blended whiskies’ where many malts and grains are blended together.

Scottish whisky is made and governed by law and must be a minimum of 3 years old before it can be called whisky. Most distilleries produce their first bottling at 10 years old though many are aged longer.

Highlands Region

The Highlands is the largest whisky producing region.  It generally produces more full-bodied whiskies with deep flavours of peat and smoke.

Flavours of fruitcake and oak with heather and smoke are prevalent in Highland whiskies. Wild seas and impenetrable moorlands dominate, creating powerful peaty drams, whilst still leaving room for floral, silky elegance.

The vast size of the region has resulted in Highland whiskies tasting very different from each other, ranging from the extreme heathery, spicy character of Northern Highlands to the fruity whiskies of the Southern Highlands.

Famous highland distilleries include Oban, Glenmorangie, Dalmore, and Glengoyne.

Islands Sub-Region

The versatility of the Islands includes both citrus and smoking peaty flavours.  Scotch from the Islands can be described as a milder version of Islay whisky. The islands, which include Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye and Orkney, have hints of brine, oil, black pepper, heather and honey.  Most of the Island whiskies are salted by the sea.

Talisker’s potent malt hails from the largest distillery of all the islands. Tobermory offers fruity flavours and Jura is nutty and oily, more mid-range in flavour intensity.

Speyside Sub-Region

Speyside is home to over half of Scotland’s distilleries.  However, since Speyside is geographically part of the Highlands, it is considered to be a sub-region of the Highlands by some and a separate region by others.  The region received its name from the river Spey, which cuts through the area.  Many of the distilleries use water straight from the river in their production process. 

Speyside scotch is arguably the country’s most complex, renowned for its sweetness and elegant flavours and aromas, including nutty fruit flavours of apple, pear, honey, vanilla and spice.  Speyside whiskies generally do not use peat as part of their process.

These whiskies often make use of sherry casks thus there is a variety ranging between light and grassy malts such as Glenlivet, and the rich and sweet likes of Macallan.  Other whiskies hailing from the region include Glenfiddich, as well as Balvenie, Aberlour, Tomintoul and Glen Moray, as well as blends like Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal.

On a personal note both the Glenlivet 15 year old and 18 year old are two of my favourites.

Islay Region

Islay scotch is considered to be the smokiest and strongest flavoured of the single malts.  The strong flavour is believed to be due to the region’s exposure to the high winds and seas of the west coast. 

The distilleries include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, and Ardbeg.

Campbeltown Region

Campbeltown was once considered the whisky capital of Scotland but today only three distilleries remain.  The scotch is peaty with a hint of sea salt and a briny character and is said to have flavours of wet wool, salt, smoke, fruit, vanilla and toffee.

Springbank produces three uniquely different whiskies; Longrow, Springbank and Hazelburn. They range from double to triple distilled, non- to richly peated, caramel to clear.

Glengyle produces the sweet, fruity and spiced Kilkerran while Glen Scotia is light with grassy palates.

Lowlands Region

The whiskies of the Lowlands, which are located just above England, are not peaty or salty.  Soft and smooth malts are characteristic of the region, offering a gentle, elegant palate reminiscent of grass, honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast and cinnamon.

Lowland whisky is light with floral tones.  The whiskies include Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan, Linlithgow, Girvan and Strathclyde.

During the upcoming weeks I will discuss a couple of the regions in more detail and relate some of my personal experiences.

Sláinte mhaith

Scotch Whisky Single Malt Vs Blend

I did not know this but there are five types of Scotch whisky, each with a slightly different definition.  Until now I thought there were only two, single malt whisky and blended whisky.  The definitions of the five types of whisky are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using pot stills and only malted barley.  Example:  Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Single Grain Whisky – whisky made at one distillery using a continuous still, or using any type of still and grains other than malted barley.  Example:  Strathclyde Single Grain
  • Blended Malt Whisky – whisky made by combining single malt whiskies from different distilleries. Example:  Ballantine’s Finest Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Grain Whisky – whisky made by combining single grain whiskies from different distilleries.  Example:  Teacher’s Highland Scotch Whisky
  • Blended Whisky – whisky made by combining malt whisky and grain whisky.  Example: Chivas Regal 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky

Each bottle of Scotch whisky you buy will have one of these five types indicated on the label.

Only about 10% of the Scotch whiskies on the market are single malt. However, single malt Scotch made up nearly 28% of the whisky exported from Scotland.

For all Scotch whisky the age indicated on the label refers to the number of years the whisky spent in casks. Very few whiskies come from a single cask. The mixing of spirits of different ages is permitted.  The age indicated on the bottle indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, which has matured in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years.

Are single malts better than blends?  Well that comes down to personal taste. Many blended whiskies are cheaper than single malts but that doesn’t mean that single malts are better. Blended whisky can have a great range of flavour and can rival single malts not only for complexity and flavour, but also for price.  Case in point: Macallan Estate single malt has a price tag of $349.50 while Chivas Regal 25 year old blend currently sells for $359.75.

Those new to the world of Scotch whisky usually begin by trying one or more blended whiskies, especially since they generally have a more favourable price point. It’s easy for single malt fans, like me, to write them off as cheap and uninteresting.  However, after some discussion with a Scotch blend enthusiast and tasting some of his recommendations, I made some new discoveries and had to admit that there are some good blended whiskies.

Sláinte mhaith

Scotch Whisky’s Popularity

Scotch whisky prices have been slowly rising over time and in recent years distillers have also introduced new blends and names and labels that do not include a whisky’s age.  According to one distiller I spoke to while in Scotland several years ago, this is the result of increased popularity and demand.  This resulted from a number of consumers no longer being able to afford their 10, 12, and 18 year single malts.

Photo credit: TheTrendSpotter.net

The minimum legal aging requirement for Scotch whisky is 3 years.  However I am not aware of any brand that advertises any 3-year-old scotch whiskies for sale. There are however, many no age statement (NAS) whiskies and many of these will almost certainly contain some 3-year-old whisky mixed in with older blends; but normally 10-12 years old is the minimum age for most consumers to consider purchasing.

Scotch whisky is expensive due to other factors besides demand; many of which don’t affect other alcoholic drinks in the same manner. Long term storage contributes a large percentage of the cost; not only due to the time required to mature but also due to the losses that occur from evaporation. Bottling, packing, distribution and a large percentage of excise tax have a high impact on price as well.

Evaporation, often referred to as the Angels’ Share, is the portion lost from barrels during the maturation process. On average roughly 2% of the whisky is lost per year.  However, newly made spirit evaporates at a much higher rate, closer to 3.5-4% over the first few years with a slow reduction down to about 2% in the later years. 

Whisky Age                      Litres before Maturation           Litres after Maturation

10 Year Old                                    200 Litres                                           160 Litres

12 Year Old                                    200 Litres                                           152 Litres

25 Tear Old                                   200 Litres                                           100 Litres

Is Scotch whisky worth the price?  In my humble opinion many are.  I find that I can easily sip on an enjoyable aged single malt and relax or dive deep into my own thoughts, depending on my frame of mind.

Sláinte mhaith

Myths About Irish Whiskey

As I had mentioned in the past I would occasionally change things up and talk about my other spirited passion. This is one of those weeks.

Irish whiskey has been becoming more popular in recent years. During the last decade the category has boomed. According to Forbes, U.S. sales of Irish whiskey increased by 9% in 2019, and rose over 13% in the five years prior to that. The number of distilleries in The Republic of Ireland has increased from only four in 2010 to more than 30 by 2020.

Scotch Is Better

There is no objective answer to this statement but there are a few subjective considerations if you decide to take a side. Scotch has had an advantage in that the selection of single malts and blends available in North America far out-weigh the number of Irish whiskeys.  This is largely due to there being 130 distilleries in Scotland compared to just over thirty in Ireland. However, that trend is now changing because of a range of interesting Irish whiskeys becoming available to the North American market.

Another argument for scotch supremacy is that it’s generally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times. Because of this some people think the whiskey tastes too light. For this same reason others consider Irish whiskey to be more approachable and versatile.  Having said this, not all Irish whiskey is triple distilled as some distilleries opt for only a double distillation.

It’s Only Good for Shots

It is true that Irish whiskey is ordered as shots but it also works in a number of cocktails such as Irish Coffee, Whiskey & Ginger or a Zesty Irishman. Many of the whiskeys are also very palatable being sipped neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks.

All Irish Whiskeys Taste the Same

This is anything but true but since Jameson’s domination of the North American market for so long this became the perception. Now there is a large range of Irish whiskeys that feature very different flavour profiles. The classic Irish pot still style of whiskey is readily available, including such brands as Green Spot and Redbreast. There are also Irish single malts like Writers’ Tears, Knappogue Castle and Tyrconnell, which both offer whiskeys that have been finished in sherry or other wine casks. There is even the peated Connemara.

Final Thoughts

There will always be those who favour Scotch Whisky over Irish Whiskey and vice versa. To me it is more important to appreciate the unique qualities of both whether or not you have a personal preference of one over the other. For me, depending on the occasion and my mood I have several single malt scotch favourites, as well as several single malt and single pot Irish whiskeys that I am partial to.

My scotch go-to’s include Islay’s Lagavulin and Bowmore, and Speyside’s Glenlivet.  From the emerald isle I find Sexton to be smooth and calming and Green Spot more complex and robust.

Sláinte mhaith

Whisky or Whiskey

Today I am taking a break from my usual subject, the sweet nectar of the Greek gods, otherwise known as wine, to talk a little about my second passion, which I am equally as fond of; whisky, or is it whiskey? The fact of the matter is that whether it is whisky or whiskey is dependent on where the brew was made.  Whisky hails from Scotland while whiskey originated in Ireland. Whiskey is also the normal spelling used for North American varieties.

Both Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey make use of the same grain, barley, but the similarity ends there. The two beverages do not taste at all alike.  In fact the taste can vary dramatically by region within each of the countries.

The common North American whiskies are made with rye, wheat or corn, or a combination of two or all three.  Again, regional differences may impact the composition and flavour of the whiskey.

My beverage of choice, whether it is whisky or whiskey, depends on my mood.  I don’t have a single favourite, not because I can’t make up my mind but because my favourite of the day depends on my mood. What do I mean by this?  If I find my mind overstimulated the last thing I want to do is try to relax by sipping on a very complex and robust whisky that attempts to challenge me.  That just generates more unsettledness.  Instead, in that situation I want something very mellow and smooth, such as Sexton or Bruichladdich’s ‘The Laddie’.

However, the reverse is also true.  If I am relaxed and decide to sip on a whisky I will select one that is more complex and bold; one that is robust and will stimulate my mind, perhaps Bowmore or Lagavulin. 

Being the family’s historian and an avid genealogist for the past 40 years, I have been asked on more than one occasion whether I place my allegiance behind my father’s Scottish heritage and whisky, or my mother’s Irish ancestry and whiskey. My answer is “definitely”.  I must admit that I have a prejudice for the Scottish and Irish varieties over those from North America.

Going forward I will occasionally inject a whisky or whiskey musing just to keep life interesting, but my main focus will continue to be the grape.

Sláinte mhaith