Whisky is now made in various countries all over the world, most notably in Australia, Central Europe, England & Wales, France, India, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan. Styles vary but the focus seems to be on malts and malt-based blends in the Scotch style, although American-style whiskies are also being made.
An Irish blended whiskey is made from pure pot still, single malt and grain whiskey, or any two thereof. The names of Irish whiskey types are not defined by law so descriptions are those of convention. Typically a blend will contain grain whiskey (there are very few – called “pot still blends” – that don’t), which, unlike Scotch grains or Irish grains intended for standalone bottling, are distilled close to neutrality, and intended only as a lightening agent…so as not to interfere with the flavour of the “master” components.
Irish single malts as with their Scotch counterparts are whiskeys are made from 100% malted barley, and are the product of a single distillery (although with its handful of distilleries, some producing various different styles of single malts, this latter point is not as significant a distinction in Ireland). They are produced using pot stills.
Blended malts are a blend of various distinct single malts (two or more). They are also commonly known as pure malts and vatted malts.
Whilst blends may constitute the mass volume, pure pot still whiskeys are the heart of the Irish whiskey tradition. These must be made in a pot still and, by convention, from a mixed mashbill (recipe) of malted (20-40%) and unmalted (60-80%) barley. The unmalted, or “raw”, barley is what gives Irish whiskey its defining flavour.
Grain whiskeys are are made in continuous stills from any grain or combination of grains, and the bulk produced is used for blending. Single grain Irish whiskeys are sometimes bottled in their own right – they are the product of a single distillery, and usually made from a single type of grain (with a bit of malted barley thrown in for fermentation purposes).
Single malts differ one from another partly because of the influence of terroir. This observation has led to the frequent classification of malts by geographic region, on the basis that whiskies from the same region, forged in similar environments and using similar ingredients, share commonalities in style. Whilst having merit this should be considered a loose guide rather than a fixed rule. Individual whiskies can vary significantly within regions. What constitutes the whisky regions also varies – we have used the official Scotch Whisky Association classification.
Speyside: the most populous whisky region. In very broad terms prominent malts from the region have become known for flavours reminiscent of heather, flowers, and honey, sometimes with the restrained appearance of peat. They are by and large acknowledged as elegant malts.
Highlands: from salt and peat in the west, honey in the south, to spice in the north and fruit in the east, with grass, wax, and smoke apparent here and there in between. Highland whiskies range from the craggy and austere to the voluptuous.
Islay: an island off the west coast of Scotland, it has built the reputation of its whiskies on the influence of peat, specifically the local peat which is redolent of medicinal seaweed, and which is a favourite amongst “peat freaks”. Expect robust whiskies with phenolic, pungent, smoky flavours.
Lowlands: the capital of grain whisky production, perhaps this has affected the character of its malts. Lowland malts are generally light, floral, and soft, with hints of lemon and zesty fruit, and the maltiness of the cereal ingredients often detectable.
Campbeltown: best known for its smoky, oily, distinctly briny whiskies, this peninsula is the smallest of the regions: only 3 active distilleries remain.
Independent bottlings are typically single malts offered by entities independent of the distiller, whereby whisky, usually new-make (i.e. unaged), would be purchased from a distillery, and subsequently aged, blended, and bottled by these independents, thus resulting in a single malt product well varied from the distillery or proprietary version, or an independent blend or blended malt. This phenomenon is most common for Scotch, and availability in SA is limited. Independent single malt bottlings can be offered in the name of the distillery or in another separate name, depending on the agreement reached.
Most Canadian whiskies are blends of a relatively small percentage of straight whisky, with blending whisky that is distilled close to neutrality. Distinguishing features include ageing in small wood (casks of less than 700L), the addition (up to 9.09% in alcohol terms) of a flavouring material (usually some sort of other spirit or fortified wine), and occasionally blending before maturation (which is unusual). Other styles such as single malts are now starting to be made.