Hamish's Whisky Guide

"Here is the section where I explain all I know about the smashin' water of life! I'm looking forward to sharing with you all the stuff you've been dying to know about whisky - but have been too scared to ask!"

What is whisky?

Literally it's the alcohol spirit produced by distilling fermented cereals. Whisky is produced in many countries, historically those with climates more suited to growing cereals rather than grape-into-wine production.Scotch Whisky is the world's most popular spirit. By law, it must be made and matured in an oak barrel for no less than three years in Scotland, otherwise it cannot be called Scotch. It must also be bottled in Scotland at 40% alcohol or more in order to retain flavour – see the note about how to drink.

How is whisky made?

Easy – mix some processed grain with water, add yeast and let it ferment in the same way that beer is produced.Boil up your beer and collect the steam which will be mostly alcohol. Voilà, whisky! Throw the remaining liquid away as it is probably poisonous, you will go blind, your hair will fall out – and it's illegal. Scotch Whisky must contain barley, and Malt Whisky must be made exclusively from water, malted barley, yeast and nothing else. Maturation (which is the biggest contributor to flavour) must be in oak, traditionally former sherry or bourbon casks.

What is the difference between a single malt and a 'double malt'?

A single malt is the product of one malt whisky distillery and that one distillery only; it is produced by a complex and cumbersome batch process that makes accountants really squirm. There is no such thing as a double malt unless you are with your rich father-in-law at the bar (technically termed 'a large one'). Single malts attract great acclaim; they are no longer Scotland's biggest secret. Their intensity and complexity of flavours, previously thought to be a handicap to wider sales, are now being sought throughout the world.

Single Malt whisky is one of four other types of Scotch.The most common is Blended whisky, a mix of many different malt and grain whiskies prepared by a Blender using his sense of smell and years of experience. 95% of all bottled whisky sold is blended whisky and it is appreciated the world over for its satisfying subtlety and complexity.

Grain whisky is an accountant's kind of product; industrially produced in an efficient, continuous process from a variety of cereals sourced from around the world – but always including a measure of malted barley (for bio-chemical reasons). This spirit is not fully distilled; a degree of impurity is required to add character – by law. Occasionally you may come across a bottle of single grain whisky (which will taste light and slightly oily) but its use is mainly as a carrier for malts in blends.

The fourth category of whisky is a Blended Malt (previously known as vatted or pure malt) which is a blend of several malts but no grain. Malt bottles lacking the word 'single' may well be Blended Malt; other clues in older bottles are 'Pure Malt' or '100% malt'. A single malt is a happy accident of science, nature and circumstance. Blends and Blended Malts are one man's opinion of what he thinks you think a good whisky should taste like. Many members of the industry claim to appreciate blended Scotch the most.

Why don't you stock a certain brand I had once?

Whisky brands tend to fade away faster than get created as the industry changes from hundreds of brand owners to just a few. As big companies expand by the acquisition of small, they find that they have two brands on the same shop shelf at the same price so one has to go. Some brands are only available overseas because they are better established there than in the UK.

How many Scotch Whiskies are there?

3219? 2763?. Actually, nobody knows! It could be five times that and there is no way of counting them. Consider the number of small brands (like our own Loch Fyne), supermarket brands, specific market (duty-free) brands which come and go and the task is impossible and pointless. Loch Fyne Whiskies has a most comprehensive range of UK available malts with examples from about 100 distilleries. There are currently about 115 licensed distilleries; others are either mothballed, closed or demolished. There have been about 750 distilleries licensed since Ferintosh in 1689.

How am I supposed to drink my malt whisky?

How you like! Although it does seem a shame to mix a £50 malt with a sweet, fizzy mixer. Addition of water (anything from a drop to 50:50, depends on the bottling) often reveals more character. The main compounds responsible for flavour (congeners) in whisky are very soluble in alcohol but less so in water. At bottling strength 40% or above, these congeners remain locked in the solution (hence the minimum 40% alc. bottling law, agreed by wise men to preserve quality). When water is added, the congeners become less soluble and are released as vapours into the atmosphere. So experiment with each new bottling. Keep in mind you have four senses of taste and these are on your tongue, not in the back of your throat. Plus you have some 30 or more senses of smell – so use the schnoz. Is ice in malts a no-no? You put ice on bruises and in blended Scotch in hot climates.Part of the fun of malt whisky is the testing and breaking of these rules! Try ice or mixing two different malts together! "Sometimes I drink my whisky neat, sometimes I take my tie off and leave my shirt out." - Tommy Cooper.

How do I know which malts I will like?

Most single malts will have the region of origin on the label ( Lowland, Highland, Speyside or Islay) and these give a clue to the character of the contents – but there are many exceptions to the rule. The Lowlands are the most gentle; mild, almost wine-like. The Highlands can be further divided; those from the south are akin to the Lowlands, those from the north are fuller flavoured.

Speyside is a category of its own within the Highlands. These whiskies are complex and half of Scotland's distilleries are found here. The most fully flavoured whisky is produced on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-la).

Islay whiskies are unguided missiles in the wrong hands – you will either love them or wonder what the attraction is in smelling hospitals.

How come they taste so different?

Malted (germinated) barley has to be dried before milling and fermentation and traditionally this has been done over an open fire. In Scotland a variety of fuels is found locally including peat (decomposing heather) and coal. The amount of peat that is used to dry the barley has a big influence (on Islay it is the only source of fuel). Other influences are the style of apparatus employed in the production, particularly the still and how that still is operated by the stillman. The final major influence is the type of cask or barrel employed to mature the spirit; it could be one of many categories from a brand new barrel to a well-used second-hand ex-sherry or bourbon cask. A fairly recent development in malt whiskies is the production of 'finishes' where the whisky has had some of its maturation in a cask that has previously held a wine or port for example. This creates a huge potential for further variety.

What are 'Cask Strength' Whiskies?

Whisky matures in the barrel at about 65%. Typically, prior to bottling it is diluted to 40-43% so as to incur the least alcohol duty (originally a wartime measure). Cask strength whiskies are at natural, barrel strength which provides more impact and concentration of flavour. These whiskies should be diluted in the glass after exploratory sips otherwise anaesthesia will numb the pleasure. Because of the variety of casks employed in the industry, each single-cask bottling will have the character of the barrel variety as well as that of the distillery so there is great variation.

What's this about 'chill-filtering'?

Untreated, whisky at 40% alcohol will cloud at low temperatures. In the mid-1960s, the Scotch Whisky industry introduced a policy of chill-filtering their whiskies to improve clarity and brightness. This prevented quality rejection in (cold) warehouses or clouding when ice is added in the glass. The process is done by reducing the temperature to as low as minus 8-10°C (typically in malts at plus 2-5°C) then filtering to remove the oils that emulsify at such low temperatures and so eliminating clouding. The process also removes many of the elements of flavour (congeners) from the whisky and now, after the lead set by Pip Hills and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, many independent bottlings and some official bottlings (e.g. Ardbeg 10yo) are increasingly not chill-filtered, a trend that we applaud. Such bottlings should be at over 46% alc as this helps keep the congeners in solution and clear. For reasons of 'purity' there is currently a move away from the use of spirit-caramel colouring in single malts. This is employed to standardise colour in the bottle, (some whiskies can be quite pale,) but in most cases caramel has little effect on flavour.

Why are some whiskies so expensive?

The first thing to check is the age of the whisky. If it is, say, 21 years old (the time spent in the cask – once bottled it does not 'age') it will be dearer because of the additional storage required. Also whisky evaporates in the barrel by about 2% each year, so after 21 years, only two thirds remain. The other thing to look out for is the degree of alcohol strength as duty is applied according to percentage alcohol. Most whiskies are bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (abv), some at 43% or 46% – 15% stronger and so dearer than the 40%.

We stock many whiskies with strengths of up to 65% so these are the equivalent of over a bottle and a half! Finally there is a collector's market for whisky – that explains the more extreme prices!

Does a whisky improve with age after bottling?

No. Unlike wine, spirits are fixed once in the bottle and there is no benefit in keeping it. You should open and enjoy it as soon as possible!

How long can I keep the whisky in the bottle?

Unopened, a bottle should stay as good as when bottled assuming the seal is in good condition. Keep the bottle away from direct sunlight, heat or variations in condition. Once opened, oxidation will act on the whisky with a noticeable effect in between one and three years. The balance of characters may change, not always for the worse, but eventually a whisky may become 'flat' – another good reason for enjoying your dram without delay. Saving the last inch of a very special malt is usually disappointing when finally poured, so enjoy it now!

How much tax is on a bottle of whisky?

In the UK whisky is taxed twice: excise duty on the amount of alcohol in the whisky and VAT on the cost price (including the excise duty!).

On a standard size and strength bottle (70cl and 40%abv) with a retail price of £25 there is £7.75 excise duty plus £4.17 VAT totalling £11.92 (47.7% of the retail price). On the same bottle with a retail price of £50 there is still £7.75 excise duty but £8.33 VAT giving a total of £16.08 (32.2% of the retail price). A £100 bottle has just 24.4% tax, so the more you pay for your whisky the less tax you pay as a percentage.