Liquor lingo can be pretty confusing, and about as easy to decipher as properly pronouncing Gaelic. If you’re intimidated by listening to other whiskey lovers discuss terminology that sounds like a foreign language, here’s a crash course in what I’ll call Whiskyology 101. No worries, it’s not rocket science, you just need to know some key terms, and what they mean. Granted, scotch names, and their distillers usually require a Gaelic translator, but you don’t have to pronounce it perfectly, to enjoy drinking it.
One of the most popular, and confusing trends mostly with bourbon, are the single barrel, and small batch produ.cts. You will also see this trend with some single malts, but usually termed single cask, rather than barrel. What does single barrel, and small batch mean? What’s the difference? Single barrel, means each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel, instead of being blended with the contents of various barrels for uniformity of color and taste, as is usual. This mixing of barrel contents does not make a blended whiskey. Combining the contents of more than one batch, or even differing years is done to achieve consistency. The whiskey from each barrel is separately bottled, marked with the barrel number, and often with the beginning and finish dates of aging. This single barrel bottling is believed to contribute unique, distinctive characteristics to the finished product. I’ve found this to be pretty much the case among the single barrel Bourbons I’ve tried. Most recently I sampled John Bowman Single Barrel, a Virginia bourbon with a hint of pear in the aroma (nose), and a crisp, cherry wood palate, with a kinda salted finish. Others I’ve tried, and really enjoyed are Four Roses Single Barrel, which is also rather inexpensive for a premium pour, and Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Single Barrel, which is a little higher on the price scale.
Small batch is the term used to describe the practice of combining the contents of a small number of selected barrels in a limited number of bottles. You’ll see this mostly with premium Bourbons, and rye whiskey, although a very limited number of single malts offer small batches. The Bourbons are aged, on average, 3 – 6 years in oak barrels, (Scotland requires by law, whisky age no less than 3 yrs before bottling) but there are more limited series of longer aged, up to at least 23 years, available. Batch size varies by distiller, the number of bottles available, naturally depends upon the number of barrels selected, each bottle numbered, for example, as bottle #35 of a 1500 bottle batch. One of the best known small batch producers, is Jefferson Reserve, a very floral palate, but smooth. My favorite small batch Bourbons are Four Roses Small Batch, and Michter’s U.S. Bourbon Small Batch, a nice clean, oak, nose, with a hint of citrus in the taste, and a very pleasant caramel finish. Bowmore Small Batch Reserve, is my pick among the single malt offerings. Smooth, crisp and light for an Islay whisky, perfect for warmer weather sipping.
The number of single malt whiskies on the market can be overwhelming, even to those with some knowledge of the product, but especially to the novice drinker. What does “single malt” actually mean? Single malt simply means a whisky made of only malted barley from one individual distillery. Another term you might commonly see on a single malt label is “Non Chill Filtered”. This is a rather controversial process among hard-core scotch aficionados, as some argue it affects the flavor of the whisky, others believe its merely a cosmetic treatment, as a single malt that is 46% or lower ABV (alcohol by volume) that has not been chill filtered, will become cloudy when water, or ice is added to the glass. Just what is this chill filtration that has people debating it’s merits? Chill Filtration is designed to remove sediments and impurities, by dropping the temperature of the single malt whisky to zero degrees Celsius, (-4 degrees for blended whiskies). Once chilled, the whisky is passed through several finely woven metallic meshes, or paper filters under pressure. How much residue is collected depends on the number of filters, amount of pressure, and speed used during the process. The slower the speed, and lower the pressure, the more residue, (such as cask residue known as “coals”) can be removed, but it’s more costly. The residues removed, such as natural fatty acids, esters, and proteins in the whisky all occur naturally during the distillation process, and over years become bottle sediment if stored in a very cool place. Cloudiness, and sediment are viewed as undesirable by the wider whisky drinking public, but honestly, a bottle doesn’t get too long to settle at my house before it’s empty, so a little debris or cloudiness is not offensive to my palate. Almost every single malt distiller offers a non chill filtered product, one that I recently tried fits every description I’ve listed in this particular blog post, and that would be The Glenlivet NÀDURRA 16 yr Natural Cask Strength. Nàdurra meaning natural in the Gaelic, which is what this whisky is, right down to its aging in first fill oak barrels.
One more trend gaining popularity in both single malt scotch, and Bourbons is the production of “cask strength” (single malt) or “Barrel Proof” (bourbon). Cask Strength/Barrel Proof is the strength, or potency of the whisky as it comes from the cask, and is bottled with no further dilution, resulting in a strength anywhere between 40% to 65% ABV, depending on the age of the cask. The younger a whisky is, the higher the ABV usually is. Some cask strengths are better than others, and whisky, like most things in life, gets better with age. Being a “peat head” Bruichladdich’s Octomore 6.1 is my favorite cask strength single malt of the moment, which is odd considering it’s only 5 yrs old. (Remember, in Scotland, scotch must be aged 3 yrs, by law, before it can be sold). I will admit, it ain’t for wussies. For those less daring, I suggest trying Makers Mark Cask Strength bourbon.
Since we are speaking of age, the age on a single malt bottle is important, for several reasons. First off, just like those of us ladies who hide, or fib about their age, the numbers denoting the years on a whisky bottle can be misleading. For example, if that bottle of Laphroaig says it’s 10 years old, what that really means is the youngest batch used in that bottling was aged for 10 years, and there could be some older mixed in. By law, a bottle can only be marked with the number of the youngest whisky used, so when going to purchase a bottle, be aware that the older it is, the more expensive it’s likely to cost. Bourbon distillers, I’ve noticed are trending away from age labeling their products.
Well, now that you know what all that gobbledy gook means on your whisky bottle, you should be better equipped to shop, and purchase adult beverages that suit your tastes. As always, I highly encourage you to attend local whisky tastings (especially if FREE!!) sponsored by local whiskey bars, or whisky clubs. These gatherings are designed for people, both knowledgeable, and novices, to sample new products, ask questions, and learn more about the samples offered, including navigating the information listed on the label. With a little time, and research effort, you’ll be able to “talk whiskey” anywhere, with anyone. Class dismissed.
Always drink responsibly, don’t drink and drive, designate a driver!