The whiskey industry is more dynamic now than any time in the past 50 years. Here’s what’s happening, what you can learn from it, and how you can benefit.
Eliminating age statements
The whiskey in a bottle can’t be any younger than the age on the label. Many distillers are now shunning age statements on their labels. This is significant right now, given that many young whiskeys will be entering the market over the next several years due to recent increases in production levels. Distillers will be blending barrels of young whiskeys with older whiskeys, and they don’t want to be forced to put a young age statement on the label. Instead of an age statement, look for the whiskey to be given a creative name instead.
Many whiskeys are caramel colored. Why? To make young whiskeys look old, and also to maintain a consistent color from one bottling to the next. The problem is, most experienced whiskey tasters swear they can taste this additive and that it masks some of the whiskey’s true flavor.
Additionally, most whiskeys are “chill-filtered.” This prevents the whiskey from getting cloudy when you add ice or cold water to it. What’s wrong with this? Well, the components that are being removed also contribute to the whiskey’s flavor.
Some distilleries are now eliminating caramel coloring and chill-filtering to ensure that the whiskey tastes the best it possibly can. Your clue? The whiskey might be very light in color, and it may look hazy—or even a bit cloudy. The distiller often notes on the label that the whiskey is not chill-filtered (or caramel colored).
Do you remember the evolution of the craft beer movement in the 1980s and 1990s? Well, we are now experiencing the whiskey version of this. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of small artisan distillers making whiskey. Many of these new startups were originally breweries. Some distillers are actually buying their “beer” from brewers, thus focusing their efforts primarily on distilling and aging. Because this industry is still young, so are many of their whiskeys.
New distilling countries
Until the past decade or so, nearly all the world’s whiskeys were produced in Scotland, the United States, Ireland, Canada, or Japan. Now, high-quality whiskeys are being produced worldwide – including India, Sweden, Wales, Australia, and a majority of European countries. Most resemble the “scotch” style, but put their unique signature on their whiskey by tweaking the whiskey-making process with something different (e.g., aging in unusual casks or using non-traditional grains).
Some distillers are making very small quantities of time-intensive, high-cost, high-quality whiskeys. They’re using the finest wood, the best barley, the purest water, etc., and carefully monitor them through each phase of their production life.
Imagine a child growing up in the best surroundings, with the most loving parents, the best clothing, first-class health care, and the finest education. This is the whiskey equivalent (with a price tag to match).
Blends of malts
As I mentioned above, Scotch whiskies are usually either single malt or blended (containing combinations of single malt and grain whisky). However, there’s a tiny, emerging, and often misunderstood category of whiskies made only from single malts from different distilleries, with none of the lighter grain whiskies added. They are richer and more flavorful than blended whiskies. (They have, in the past, been referred to as “pure” malts or “vatted” malts.)
If you ever see a Scotch whisky being described as a “blended malt” or “a blend of malts”, you’ll now know what this means.