Thankfully the days of dark, dingy, intimidating and very male whisky shops is becoming less and less common. The Whisky Shop has led the way in making its stores consumer, and particularly female, friendly. There has been a revolution in packaging in recent years, too, has made choosing a bottle of whisky are far less intimidating experience.
A good whisky shop will have knowledgeable and friendly staff whose aim is to help you make the best purchase for your needs and wants. Nobody expects a customer to understand much about whisky, so don’t feel worried about asking for help. That’s what shop staff are for. But at the same time, enjoy the experience of browsing, of immersing yourself in the shelves packed with styles and stories, and of glimpsing in to a world of craftsmen and artisans. Here are some guidelines to help you with your purchase.
The age on the bottle of a whisky is a rough guide to its quality and it will strongly influence what you are going to pay for a bottle. It is only a guide, though, and it doesn’t always follow that older means better.
The age refers to the youngest whisky in the mix. It is not an average, and nor does it mean that all the whisky is that age – there may be much older whisky in the malt. But if a producer accidentally adds one drop of a younger whisky the whole batch has to be sold at the age of that one drop.
It does happen. A few years ago the owners of Ardbeg accidentally added some very young whisky from another of their distilleries to some very old and rare Ardbeg, not only destroying the age but preventing it from being called a single malt any more. But the mix tasted so good that they bottled it under the name Serendipity and sold it without an age on the label.
Which brings us to the next point. If a whisky doesn’t have an age statement, it doesn’t follow that it is cheap and nasty, or indeed, inferior at all. Johnnie Walker Blue Label, for instance, is one of the most expensive blends on the market but has no age. This is probably because a small amount of youthful, zesty whisky has been added to the mix to stir up the very special and very rare whiskies it contains. Under the rules even a drop of 10 year old whisky would make the blend a 10 year old, and would do a disservice to the quality aged whisky that dominates the drink.
When malt whisky is made a large number of oils and congeners pass in to the final liquid. When the liquid is cooled, they solidify and turn the whisky cloudy. This has traditionally been considered unattractive to producers, who want their whisky to be bright and clear. To ensure this they chill the whisky and filter out the deposits.
But in recent years there has been a lobby of enthusiasts who have argued that the congeners contribute to the full flavour of the malt, and removing them might leave the whisky clear but it makes it blander, too. So a number of producers have stopped chill-filtering and have made a virtue of the fact.
A non-chill filtered whisky will go cloudy when water is added or if it is cooled, but, argue the purists, it’s the real deal.
Malt whisky will be put in the cask with an alcoholic strength of well in excess of 60% ABV and in Scotland that strength will gradually decline. When it comes to the time for putting it in the bottle, however, the spirit may well still have a strength of 55% ABV or more.
Most malt whiskies are bottled with a strength of 40%, 43% and occasionally up to 46%. To reach these levels the cask whisky is watered down for bottling.
But it is now quite common to find versions of top name whiskies bottled at the strength they came out of the cask. Caution is advised with such whiskies, and even on the nose the acerbic burn of alcohol is pronounced. It is advisable to add small amounts of chilled water to make them drinkable. The benefit to the drinker is that water can be added to release the aromas of the whisky (see the chapter on tasting) but it can still be consumed at a full strength.
It also means that effectively you’re getting up to half an extra bottle of whisky for your money. And if ever anyone tells you that you shouldn’t add water to malt whisky, point out that on a standard bottle someone already has!
Special wood finishes
Although it is not permitted to add anything to the basic mix of barley, water and yeast and call it Scotch whisky (with the exception of caramel for colouring consistency purposes) the rules do allow the whisky to be matured in casks that have contained some other drink. Indeed, a pre-used cask is essential to the development of Scottish malt.
A common practice among many distillers is to take a whisky out of the oak barrel that it has spent some years in, and finish its maturity in a totally different cask. The time it is in the second cask can be anything from a few weeks to two years or longer.
There have been experiments with many types of cask, including rum, Madeira, port, burgundy, Champagne and claret, and there have been a number of ‘pink’ whiskies as a result of the process. The cask also imparts some flavour, usually a fruitiness.
This process can enhance malt and produce some excellent results but check carefully what you’re buying. The process isn’t without its critics, who argue that it is often used to disguise poor quality malt.
It does raise another point. If you’re not allowed to add anything to the basic ingredients of malt whisky, how is it possible to add whisky to something that is in sufficient quantities to affect the taste and colour of the whisky?
I share the view of many that buying whisky to collect and store away in a cupboard is akin to buying a stunning painting and putting a blanket over it. A tree grew for 100 years and was then killed, a skilled worker turned it in to a barrel, a whisky maker made fine malt using a method perfected over generations and filled the barrel with it, it sat in a warehouse for a quarter of a century and then some whisky collector sticks it in a cupboard. Sacrilege bordering on criminality!
There are plenty of good reasons to collect whisky as an investment, however, and even a relatively new aficionado of the whisky world will learn how to spot potential whisky cash cows.
Old whisky refers to different things: whisky from many years ago, and whisky that might have gone in to the bottle relatively recently but was in the cask for a long time. In the first case old whisky will have a value because as time goes by whiskies get rarer as people drink them. Hence their value to collectors.
In the second case, the older a whisky gets in the cask the less there is of it, because some will have evaporated. The older the whisky is, then, the rare it is. It will have been looked after for longer.
From time to time distilleries bottle the product of just one or two casks, limiting it to a small number of bottles. A very old whisky cask might only produce 120 bottles and of course, that makes it rare and sought after. Bottlings for special occasions such as to mark a special anniversary or national event will also have a collectible value.
Big name distilleries
Some distilleries have a loyal and passionate following, and special or rare bottlings from them have extra value to the collector because they are more greatly sought after. Islay and iconic island malts fall in to this bracket, as do some of the best known Speyside ones.
Once a distillery is closed down it can no longer make whisky, and therefore as stocks are depleted or run out, existing bottles become collectors’ items. Some distilleries have taken almost mythical status since they shut. A bottle of Rosebank or Port Ellen, for instance, would always be a good investment.