Speaking the language of Whisky – Know your Whisky Vocabulary
Every whisky neophyte undergoes a period of puzzlement and confusion at hearing words they know very little about. It is true, your love for whisky is only as deep as your knowledge about it. As any other subject you may pursue as a vocation, whisky too has long list of words that only fellow whisky lovers understand.
If you’ve experienced bewilderment while watching members of your family have a spirited argument about whisky in the middle of their merrymaking, utter words like single malt and blended Scotch, Neat and On the Rocks, Sherry finished and Cask Strength without knowing what they actually mean, we’re here to help.
These are words that will help you talk like a whisky connoisseur, and within no time you will be the one dispensing jargon like you have been at it all your life. Update your whisky vocabulary by understanding all things whisky with us.
It is rather comical that something so simple continues to confuse a lot of people, and not just beginners but also some seasoned whisky drinkers. Neat only means one thing and one thing only, and that’s whisky, poured into a glass with absolutely nothing added to it.
No ice, no drops of water and not even the pesky whisky stones that have been showing up as Christmas or birthday gifts every now and then.
Straight Up Whisky
This is where the confusion intensifies a bit as Straight Up and Neat are often misunderstood to be the same thing but surprise, surprise! They aren’t. When you order a whisky ‘Straight Up’, the bartender stirs your whisky up with ice, then pours it into a glass and serves it to you.
One may argue there is no fundamental difference between the two but the temperature at which you choose to drink the whisky makes all the difference. You see a colder drink numbs your tongue, not allowing you to taste the true nature of the whisky. Taking your whisky straight up isn’t an abomination though, but if you’re spending on good whisky, it would behove you to at least get to know it well.
Age of the Whisky
This refers to the number of years a whisky has spent in a barrel, slowly maturing and sharing contact with the wood, absorbing aromas and flavours from the oak. When you read the age of a whisky, whether it’s a Scotch, Irish or Indian, it is always the ‘age’ of the youngest whisky used in the blend.
Now we know what you are thinking; “This doesn’t apply to single malts.”
Oh but it does, since what single malt means is a whisky that has been distilled, matured and bottled at one distillery. It certainly doesn’t mean whisky from one batch, one barrel or produced on a particular day. It’s a common misconception among a fairly huge number of drinkers but there is one less now isn’t it?
Even with blends, the age you see on the bottle is the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend since that’s what the legal requirements dictate. There could be a 50 year old whisky used in the blend, but if you add a 10 Year Old, you can only use ’10 Year Old’ on the bottle.
Also, a whisky’s age is only relevant until it’s in the barrel, so there’s not point holding a 25 year old for 25 years because it’s never going to be a 50 year old. Enjoy it!
This is a word that’s slightly more prevalent in the industry and not known to many but nevertheless, if you love whisky, you must be familiar with what Angel’s Share means.
Oak barrels are filled with distilled whisky, stored into warehouses for extended amounts of time in order for the spirit and wood to come into contact with each other. The porousness of the wood, humidity and climate conditions play a huge part in the maturation of the whisky but these factors also contribute to another factor; the Angel’s Share.
This refers to the amount of whisky lost to evaporation when the whisky is in the barrel, which depending on the weather of the region, could range from less than 5% to more than 10%. Scotland’s colder climate does not cause distilleries to lose much spirit to the Angel’s Share whereas in places such as India that are vastly more humid, as much as 11%-12% per year. This also means, whiskies mature much sooner in India than in colder countries such as Scotland and Ireland.
Islay Single Malt
Islay single malt refers to single malts from the Isle of Islay, a region of Scotland that’s renowned for their radical Scotch whiskies. Radical since they are very different than Scotch whiskies from most Scottish regions, and because they are extremely divisive among whisky drinkers.
Most Islay whiskies, except Bruichladdich, are heavily peated, medicinal and have a rich maritime character due to their proximity to the sea. These are attributes many whisky drinkers find too much to take, but for people who revel in the goodness of Islay whisky, they’re a blessing.
Similarly, other regions of Scotland are known for their typical single malts such as a Speyside single malt refers to a light, floral and crisp single malt. Speyside single malts are universally popular and it is one of the most prolific Scotch-producing regions of Scotland.
A Mash Bill is the ratio of grains used for the ‘mash’, which means ‘grains ground up and mixed with water’, a mixture that is then fermented and then distilled.
The grains are ground with water to form a coarse, oatmeal like mixture which is consistently mixed in order for the sugars to be released from it. This is what aids the fermentation process where the yeast feeds on the sugars to produce alcohol, thereby making our beloved whisky possible.
Sour Mash implies the addition of some part of the residual mash from a previous batch, to the current mash. Many distillers in America rely on adding a portion of their previous mash to restore the pH balance in their current mash, containing the bacteria and their effects, allowing the live yeast to do its work more efficiently.
The residual mash that is introduced to the current mash is the one left behind after whisky has been distilled from it. Typically, the residue is kept aside and fed to livestock but many American distilleries repurpose some part of it for the ‘Sour Mash Process’.
Sour Mash is in no way related to the flavour or the taste of the whisky by the way, so if that’s a misconception you had, we’re glad that’s been cleared up.
Proof of Whisky
Almost every American whiskey brand, Bourbon or otherwise, use the word ‘Proof’ on their bottles. It is simply an alternative for the ABV (Alcohol By Volume) percentage of the whiskey, which signifies the amount of alcohol present in the whiskey.
While the Scottish, Irish, Indian, Japanese among other whisky making regions of the world prefer to use ‘ABV’ on their bottles, the Americans choose to go for Proof.
If you want to find the ‘Proof’ of any whisky you wish to, simply double the ABV percentage and you have your answer! For example, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s is 80 Proof, meaning it is 40% ABV, whereas if you wish to find the ‘Proof’ of a bottle of The Glenlivet, simply double its ABV from 40% and your answer is 80 Proof. We don’t know why they decided to complicate it either.
Cask Strength of Whisky
Cask Strength whiskies have gained some phenomenal traction in the whisky world, sparking a lot of curiosity among beginners and veterans alike. Although they have existed for decades, it wasn’t until common interest in Cask Strength grew exponentially.
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso, a Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch finished in Oloroso Sherry barrels.
When you hear ‘Cask Strength whisky’, it implies that the whisky has been bottled exactly as it was extracted from the barrel without diluting it or altering its ABV in any way. So if the whisky came out at 60% ABV, that’s exactly how it will be bottled.
Usually, whisky makers dilute the whisky to bring the alcohol volume down to 40% ABV, the standard limit for most types of whisky. Cask Strength whisky has managed to carve a niche for itself among whisky drinkers who prefer a more enthralling drink and adding water themselves to find the level of alcohol they’re comfortable with. It’s merely a subjective discussion and a completely personal preference since no discernible difference in quality has been observed. The bottle may last longer though, or maybe not.
Finish is one of the few words in the whisky world that implies two things;
One means the aftertaste left behind by the whisky after you drink it. The lingering of flavours on your palate, mouthfeel and how the flavour evolves until it eventually fades is described as the ‘Finish’ of the whisky. The finish could be long, or short depending on how long it lingers and this forms an important part of how the whisky is described by tasters.
Now the other ‘Finish’ when it comes to whisky, is the additional maturation some whisky expressions go through in special barrels and casks such as ex-Sherry, ex-Port or ex-Madeira barrels.
The Glenlivet 18 Year Old is a fine example of a single malt Scotch whisky that has been ‘finished’ in ex-Sherry barrels.
Apart from their maturation in Oak barrels, some whisky makers opt to infuse additional flavours into their whisky by ‘Finishing’ them in different barrels.
When a whisky is distilled and matured, the process of ‘chill filtration’ is carried out by a lot of whisky makers to remove any impurities, sediment and any particles that are considered undesirable. Chill Filtration is known to be a process carried out simply for how a whisky appears since it does not alter the taste or aroma of the whisky in any manner.
If a whisky is non-chill filtered, the whisky could appear cloudy or hazy at certain temperatures. This trait is considered a desirable one among veterans of the whisky arena, who believe a whisky should not be meddled with by chill-filtering it.
So what’s the right answer? Should you go for a chill-filtered whisky or a non-chill filtered one?
It doesn’t matter at all! The process is carried out entirely for the appearance of the whisky, and has no effect on the drink at all.