The Angel’s Share: A Not So Brief Introduction To Scotch

In my time in Calgary I worked for two years overseeing the largest retail single malt scotch collection in Canada. My time with this retailer wasn’t always positive and my exit from the company was even less positive. However this two years of selling and buying for such an amazing collection puts me in a position where I should be doing a weekly scotch column for someone*. So here is my tryout. In the next 1200 or so words I am going to give you a crash course on scotch.

What is scotch?

Scotch is a whiskey, which has been produced, aged and bottled in scotland. But this is just scratching the surface. Scotch Whisky actually can be broken down into three sub classifications which have their own rules.

Blended Scotch Whisky: This is whisky which contains a blend of malt based spirit and non-malt based spirit. This blending process allows for a consistent product. ex. The Johnny Walker Line(minus Green label), Ballantines, Chivas, White and McCay, Bells, Dewars.

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky: This is similar to blended scotch whiskey except for that 100% of the spirit in the bottle is from malted barley. At this point in time the real whiskey mavericks and risk takers occupy this realm. You will see these whiskies less frequently because they are usually made as limited edition products by smaller productions known as independent bottlers. Ex, Johnny Walker Green Label, The Compass Box Series, Smokehead, Premium Bottlers.

Single Malt Whisky: Single Malt Whiskey is the most renown the three classifications. Whiskies with this classification must be made from 100% barley malt, they must be batch produced in a pot still, and all of the spirit in the bottle must be from the same distillery. Single malts are inherently inconsistent though there are practices that allow distillers to create consistent product.

Does The Age Of My Scotch Matter?

Yes and No. The age statement is actually sort of an interesting system. First off the age of a whisky is the time it stays in the barrel. If you have 20 years in a barrel and 20 in a bottle the whisky is still only 20 years old.

First, you don’t have to put an age statement on your bottle, it’s 100% voluntary. It actually is more of a marketing tool/guideline for the buyer than an precise statement. The age statement only denotes the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. A bottle of Glenlivet 12 may have 30 year old whisky in it to give specific characteristics to the flavour profile, but because the youngest whisky in the bottle is 12 years old, the age statement is 12. If you look at Glenmorangie they do not put an age statement on their four lowest priced whiskey. This allows them to blend to a specific style and flavour profile without being tied to an age statement.

Second, it’s a personal taste thing. I personally like a younger whisky, they are more robust and lively on the palette, their cost is lower and young whisky tends to exhibit a little more in your face flavour. Older Whisky is more subtle, it’s heavier on the palette and there is less burn. The flavours are more complex and developed but there is little vibrancy or liveliness.

What does Highland Mean?

There are five distinct regional classifications for single malt whisky. Though the system can be a little convoluted and geographically eyebrow raising.

Lowland Whisky: Lowland whisky is any whisky distilled south of Glasgow. There are only four lowland distilleries still in production. Girvan, Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, and Bladnoch. Generally lowland whisky is lighter in flavour with floral or citrus notes. Auchentoshan is actually known as breakfast whisky by connoisseurs because it is triple distilled and drinks much too easy to drink after the noon hour. I would recommend Auchentoshan 12 as a great place to start when it comes to getting into scotch. It comes in around $50 a bottle and it is approachable but also complex.

Highland Whisky: Highland Whisky is where things go off the rails. The highland region comprises anything north of Glasgow with the exception of the Island of Islay and the Mull of Kintyre. The highland region also has a sub region which comprises the islands not named Islay.  The Island sub region covers the isles of Arran, Mull, Jura, Orkney, and Skye.  To complicate matters, there is no real flavour profile that comprises highland whisky, or island whisky. They run the gamete of flavour profiles. A few examples of these are: Highland: Oban, Glenmorangie, Dalwinnie, Dalmore, Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar.

Island: Scapa, Highland Park, The Arrans Malt, Isle Of Jura, Tobermory, Talisker, 

Speyside Whisky: Speyside Whisky is any distiller which draws water from the river Spey or any of it’s tributaries. The largest concentration of distilleries in Scotland are centred in this small area. Like the highland region there isn’t really a distinct flavour profile that governs the area. Ex. Craggenmore, Glenfiddich, Glendronach, Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie, Linkwood, Longmorn, Aberlour, Benriach

Islay Whisky: First and foremost Islay is pronounced (Eye-Lah), not (IS-LAY), not (I-Lay) Whiskies from Islay are generally very peaty. The one exception to this is Bruichladdie which comes in peated and unpeated varieties. Ex. Lagavulin, Laphroig, Bruichladdie, Port Charlotte, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Kilchomen, and Bunnhabhain.**

Campbelltown Whisky: Campbelltown is a small town on the very tip of the Mull of Kintyre*** A few hundred years ago, Campbelltown has the most unlicensed distilleries per capita in Scotland. Distilling was a family past time and keeping it off the books was the best fuck you to the English they could think of. Nowadays Campbelltown has three functioning, on the books distilleries. Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. Campbelltown whiskies are known for being intense, well balanced whiskies. Springbank is probabaly my overall favourite single malt.

What Kind of Scotch Should I Buy For Myself?

Well it really is all about what you like, it’s the beauty of single malt. There are hundreds of different flavour profiles to explore. When I advised customers who were just starting out I did my best to find them something lighter. Laphroig is going to scare off even a seasoned highland drinker. I would recommend Auchentoshan 12 because of it’s price point, it’s value and it’s lighter style.  Longmorn would be another favourite, it’s a big powerful spirit but it has much sweeter notes than similar whiskies. Kind of a creme brulee thing going on. And third would be Glenrothes, they have different vintages which gives you an idea of how variable scotch can be year to year, but it is all very approachable stuff at the same time.

Glossary:

Malt: Any grain can be malted, but in scotch whisky it only refers to barley. Malting is the act of drying out germinated cereal grains. It’s one of the primary steps of alcohol production.

Independent Bottlers: This is a company that buys already distilled spirit by the barrel from single malt distillers. They exist as a means of cash flow for many of the smaller distilleries in scotland. Ex. AD Ratray, Gordon MacPhail.

Marrying Whiskey:Because the word Blending denotes a different product the term marrying is applied to the mixing of different whiskies produced in the same distillery. Your 15 year old whisky probably has 18-20-21-and 30 year old whisky in it.

Peat: A mossy biofuel used in the drying process of the germinated barley. Peaty scotches smell and taste smokey depending on how long and how intense the drying process is. Peat can be expressed in different ways. From smokey, to briny, to iodine-like flavours.

Cask Strength: This is a whisky that is not diluted before bottling. These whiskies can get as powerful as 60% alcohol but they are an awesome value because you can dilute to your taste and really stretch out the bottle.

The Angel’s Share: During the aging process, some of the spirit in the barrels will evaporate. This small amount of volume lost is known as The Angel’s Share.

Chill Filtering: This is a process before bottling where the whisky is cooled until the oils separate. They are then skimmed off which makes your whiskey not cloud when ice or cold water is added. It’s also a great way to remove flavour and mouthfeel from your whisky.

*And who knows maybe getting paid for it….hint hint.

**I would like to say that I not only remembered all the Islay distilleries but I also spelled them correctly by memory.

***Scotland’s Wang