How Ultra-Premium Whiskies Differ from Regular Expressions?

How ultra-premium whiskies differ from regular expressions

In general, some whisky brands are expensive, while others are priced cheaper. Similarly, some whisky brands taste much better than others in the same category. This difference in price and quality can be attributed to the difference in type, age and distillation process. For example, single malt whiskies usually taste better than blended malts and grain whiskies and are priced higher. But a higher price does not always mean better quality, although it could. Also, the real answer is not as simple as “Try some premium whisky to find out for yourself.”

So, today, we try to discern what makes ultra-premium whiskies different from regular expressions. In this discussion, the term whisky implies all types of whisky – single malt, blended scotch, grain, bourbon and so on.

External factors affecting the final product

First, let’s discuss the external factors that may contribute to the “ultra-premium” cost. Premium whiskies have one or more of the following:

  • A renowned master blender at the helm and a more experienced production staff
  • Pricier raw ingredients, e.g., barley, water, yeasts, peat, etc
  • Higher quality barrels (rare even) for aging the spirits
  • A longer period of aging (implying longer wait times for return on investment)
  • Higher ABV, meaning a less diluted whisky
  • Smaller production volume, resulting in higher demand and less supply
  • Strict laws governing the production, e.g., the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009
  • Costlier advertising, packaging and marketing

While these factors can contribute to the higher cost of any whisky, we cannot tell the actual difference between the two expressions without tasting them. That’s where the parameters for quality comes to the fore.

Internal factors affecting the final product

Whiskies are often defined as fruity, earthy, spicy, floral, smokey and woody. Those adjectives give you some idea of the “complexity” of an expression. Mediocre whiskies are less complex and have fewer flavor notes. Ultra-premium whiskies inherit their complexity from a variety of sources:

  • The strain of barley affects the degree of sweetness
  • A combination of grains such as corn, rye or wheat in blended Scotch contributes richness and a range of cereal flavors
  • Malting, the process of soaking barley for germination and creating maltose, adds notes of chocolate or butter
  • Species of yeast contribute esters, aldehydes and fatty acids for creaminess in the flavor
  • Barrel aging releases oakwood oils and vanillic flavors while mellowing down the spirit. Similarly, previous barrel use such as bourbon casks, sherry casks, Madeira barrels, etc., also add distinct notes to the final product
  • Finally, the final alcohol by volume also plays a part in complexity. Whisky with a higher ABV will have more flavor as the spirit is less diluted by water

While ultra-premium expressions are created with utmost authenticity, regular drams are often diluted for mass-market production. For example, a whisky may have 60 to 70 percent alcohol upon maturation, but it is later diluted and bottled at 40% to lower the cost. In conclusion, we can say that a combination of external and internal factors ultimately determines the “ultra-premium” or “regular” tag for a whisky.

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