Understanding Scotch Whisky: Blends, Batches, and Barley + Compass Box Week Day 1

To counterbalance my last post about an expensive, sold-out, overseas-only single cask 40 year old whisky, I’m going to go way back into Scotch Whisky 101 for the benefit of the, shall we say, less intensely passionate portion of my readers. Hardcore whisky geeks, you’ll want to skip down quite a bit.

Why such a basic article?

Scotch is not necessarily a simple thing, with several designations that are less intuitive to American drinkers especially. There are certain mistakes and misconceptions that are made time and time again (even up to and including by a writer for Just Drinks last week. Sorry for pointing that one out poorly to those guys).

The very basics: What is it?

Before we get into all the types of Scotch, let’s understand perhaps the most basic rule first: To be sold as “whisky”, it must be over 40% alcohol by volume and MUST age for 3 years in oak casks in Scotland. Consider this the basis for understanding. America plays very fast and loose with aging, especially with the microdistillery boom, and the American marketplace is not generally one of lots of age statements in a mass-market sense. Compare this to Scotch where age statements are the norm (for now). However, the one ironclad rule to always bear in mind: if it’s sold as whisky in scotland, everything in the bottle is at least 3 years old.

Second, the age rule, which is better known. For an age statement to be declared, all whisky in the bottle must be at least as old as the age statement. That means that your bottle of Macallan 12 year is 100% composed of whisky that is at least 12 years old. This is a key point we’ll revisit later on. Age statements are not mandatory so you could, if you so desired, sell a 40 year old whisky without an age statement. 

With that ground level foundation, let’s move onto what it is. There are two major types of whisky made in Scotland from which all whisky sold as Scotch is derived from in some proportion. Malt Whisky is whisky made with malted barley, water and yeast. That’s it. All the flavors you see people mentioning in their whisky are a product of the fermentation, distillation, and aging in oak. Scotland is very strict about this rule. This is commonly made on pot stills, but has also at times been made in specialty stills such as the Lomond still (which has been used at distilleries other than Loch Lomond).

Grain whisky is whisky that is made with other grains and water – corn, wheat and rye (with corn being the leader these days). These are made in a column still, which is a more complicated design that allows for continuous distillation. What’s that mean? Well, there are north of 100 malt distilleries in Scotland and less than 10 grain distilleries. These grain distilleries produce an ocean of grain whisky each year – Cameronbridge produces ten times the amount of whisky in a year that Roseisle (Diageo’s “mega-distillery”) does.

From these two types of whisky, all other whisky flows. Let’s start easy and get more complicated.

Single Malt Whisky
Single malt whisky is by definition malt whisky (as above) that has been produced at one (and only one) distillery – such as Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Balvenie or Laphroaig. The bottle of Glenfiddich 12 on nearly any bar in America is a single malt, as is a bottle of Balvenie Tun 1401.

Single Grain Whisky
Single grain whisky is a whisky produced at one (and only one) grain distillery. These are relatively uncommon to find in the wild as they’re almost entirely used in blended whiskies. Diageo released one as part of their 2011 winter collection – Port Dundas. These are generally whiskies that require searching and are almost always independently bottled.

By combining these two types of whisky, the remainder (and majority of) the Scotch universe is created.

Blended Malt Whisky
Blended malt whisky is a whisky from any two or more distilleries, comprised solely of malt whisky. There are a few examples of this – the recently discontinued Johnnie Walker Green was a blended malt; Compass Box’s Oak Cross is another one, as is Monkey Shoulder. It’s not an exceedingly common whisky category. This category used to be called “vatted malt whisky”.

Blended Grain Whisky
Blended grain whisky is another relatively uncommon category, in this case a blend of grain whisky from any two or more distilleries. The two best known examples of this are Compass Box’s Hedonism as well as Snow Grouse. This category used to be known as “vatted grain whisky”.

Blended Scotch Whisky
This is the daddy of them all. This is where the industry lives, this is where the industry sees its profits made, and these are the names people know. Blended Scotch Whisky is composed of malt whisky from one or more distilleries and grain whisky from one or more distilleries. In practice, they can draw from dozens of distilleries, and some releases have tried to use as many as is humanly possible. These are the ones you’ll find in an airport bar in the saddest, most out-of-the-way place assuming they can serve liquor. Examples are Johnnie Walker Red, Black, Gold and Blue; Dewar’s White, Chivas Regal, Grant’s, Cutty Sark, J&B, on and on.

.. but that’s not it. There’s one other curiosity. This one is so uncommon as to hardly merit a mention, but in the interest of completeness:

Single Blended Scotch Whisky
How’s that again?

This is stupidly uncommon. This is a whisky that is made from grain whisky and malt whisky distilled at the same distillery. Almost every distillery is simply not equipped to produce this. Loch Lomond produces a Single Blended Whisky (red label); Ben Nevis did one a long time ago, as did Lochside.

So that’s all there is to it, right?

Well, not quite. There’s one other thing that trips up a lot of people, which is really easily understood by American audiences if you discuss it in terms of batch size.

“Large Batch”: Mainline, High Volume Releases
Before proceeding any further, it’s important to understand that batch size has absolutely no definition or guideline. In fact, the term isn’t really used in the Scotch whisky industry, but I’m applying it here to aid understanding. That bottle of Glenlivet 12 you see everywhere? It’s not drawn from an endless river of twelve year old whisky flowing through the Glenlivet distillery like some sort of boozy version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It’s a batch of many, many barrels that have been mixed together. Consistency is the aim of these batches, and the large pool of barrels allows the rough edges or off-profile notes of a given barrel to be smoothed out by characteristics of another barrel. Given that a pot still only produces so much whisky at one time, a release of Glenlivet 12 may be the product of multiple distillation runs and barrels. Some diehard fans track these batches by bottle codes and have even noted differences between them.

“Small Batch”: Specialty Releases
Sometimes a distillery will release a bottle to commemorate something in particular – Royal Family milestones, local charities, key points in history for the distillery, or perhaps just a smaller run that will go to better shops and not every supermarket in the land. Balvenie Tun 1401 is a great example of this: about 10 barrels are mingled in a larger cask for several months and sold. Because it’s the product of 10 barrels, only so many bottles will be made before the batch may change markedly. Balvenie Tun 1401 #3 and #6 are examples of this – 3 is fruit-forward; 6 is spicier with tobacco notes. To aid understanding, you might even consider bigger releases like Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix in this category. They’re certainly reasonably large releases, but they may differ from the production run at large.

“Single Barrel”: Single Cask Releases
Balvenie is one of the leaders of this movement. They have single cask editions available at 12 and 15 years of age. These are literally one barrel of whisky pumped into as many bottles as it will fill, and when multiple barrels of the same vintage are compared, you can see the effect wood may have on the whisky. Single cask releases are a mainstay of the independent bottling market.

I add this batch size dimension to help a stumbling point I see a lot. Many times in the press releases for new whiskies or special releases, they will trot out a quote from their “master blender”, a guy who works for the company and helps either set the standard for what an expression is supposed to taste like, or helps create a special expression like Tun 1401 or Talisker Storm. The involvement of a “master blender” does not mean that the whisky he or she produces is a blend. Balvenie Tun 1401 is heavily linked with master blender David Stewart. It’s a gathering of several casks of Balvenie from different decades and sold without an age statement, so some people mistakenly call it a “blend”. Let’s run through this systematically:
- All malt whisky
- Produced at one distillery
- Product of multiple different distillation years
- No age statement

When determining if a whisky is a malt or a grain or some variety of a blend, the time spent in oak or the vintages used do not factor into the classification of the whisky. Let’s repeat that: age does not affect classification.

A few more examples: Talisker recently released Storm, a new whisky with no age stated (NAS). This means exactly one thing only: Talisker has elected not to inform the consumer about the youngest whisky in the bottle. This does not mean it the whisky is a blend. It does not necessarily mean it’s a bad whisky, even though NAS is commonly used as a way to monetize younger whisky. All it means is one piece of data is missing to the consumer.

Another example: Glenmorangie’s Signet is released without an age statement. The book that accompanies it alludes to older whiskies being used and mixed with younger whiskies. This is a trick that can help punch up the intensity of a whisky – sometimes older whiskies have some desirable quality (sweetness, richness, a certain mellowness) but are kind of dull on their own. By blending it (again, in the mechanical sense of the word, not in a designation sense) with younger whisky, Signet has a little more vitality than it might. Who knows how old the younger stuff is? We don’t as consumers. But again – multiple ages, one distillery, all malt whisky: it’s a single malt. Probably just from a smaller batch size than Glenmorangie Original.

Finally, the other key point about age statements: just because an age statement is listed does not mean that the whisky is all that age. At times during the whisky glut of the 70s/80s, bottles may have contained whisky much older than a stated 12 or 15 years. One famous example is the 1990s Springbank 12 100 proof. Allegedly there were casks over 30 years old in the warehouse that were below the proof to be bottled as whisky (40% ABV). Those casks were apparently used to dilute the younger 12 year whisky, which would likely be in the upper 50% range, down to a bottling strength of 50% ABV. Springbank sold it as a 12 year old whisky.

That’s a very long-winded look at the basics, but I hope it’s been helpful. In the spirit of these odd categories, I’m going to review one – Compass Box Hedonism, a Blended Grain whisky. What’s that tell us? It’s grain whisky with no malt whisky component, and it’s from more than one grain distillery. No age has been stated, so there’s nothing to go on as far as how old the whisky in the bottle is, but that doesn’t affect the classification.

The nose on Hedonism is exceedingly light – a thin, slightly straight alcohol note (but very faint), some light vanilla notes, a little wood, and a faintly peppery touch. The palate is light and delicate. There’s some gentle wood notes, a little bit of vanilla sweetness and a slightly cereal grain character to it. The finish is light and quick – some vanilla, a little bit of pepper heating the mouth, and a faint pear note.

Overall, Hedonism is a light whisky. It’s not unpleasant and could be good in the summer or chilled, but in its own it’s somewhat one-dimensional. It does show what grain whisky brings to a blended whisky, however.

Over the next few days I will be posting reviews of more Compass Box whiskies, so stay tuned.

At a glance:

Compass Box Hedonism – 43% ABV
Nose:  Thin, slightly straight alcohol note (very faint), light vanilla, a little wood, and faint pepper.
Palate: 
Light and delicate. Gentle wood, a bit of vanilla sweetness and a cereal grain character.
Finish:  Light and quick – some vanilla, a bit of pepper heating the mouth, a faint pear note. A little bit of bitter wood.
Comment:  Very light. Not unpleasant and could be a good summer whisky (or good chilled), but on it’s own it’s a little one-dimensional. Tasting it really shows what grain whisky adds to a blend, however.
Rating: B-

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