Whisky Terminology

Whisky Terminology

In this section, you will find a list of terms which pertain to the various aspects of whisky. Please note that this is a work in progress and that it will be updated over time with new terms.

Whisky – A type of alcohol produced from malted barley and aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day. While this is the typically accepted view, there can be variations in the minimum maturation period and this does happen in countries such as Australia (which observes a minimum maturation period of 2 years).

Whiskey – A type of alcohol which is produced pretty much in the same way as whisky but is more commonly seen in countries such as the US and Ireland. Whiskey uses a variety of grains to create a desired flavour profile.

Scotch – The term given to whisky which is produced exclusively in Scotland. No other country can use the term to describe their whisky.

Single malt – A type of whisky which is made with stocks sourced from a single distillery and containing only one type of grain (in this case malted barley). Produced either with an age statement or without.

Single cask – Whisky that is bottled from one cask, usually showcasing the cask number and the amount of bottles filled.

Blended malt – Single malt whiskies sourced from a variety of distilleries and blended together without the addition of grain whiskies.

Blended whisky – Whisky that is composed of a mixture of single malts and grain whisky of different ages. Blended whiskies either come with or without age statements. If it comes with an age statement, the age will reflect that of the youngest whisky used within the blend.

Single grain – A type of whisky which is made with stocks sourced from a single distillery and usually containing a grain which is not barley.

Blended grain – Grain whiskies sourced from a variety of distilleries are blended together without the addition of malt whiskies. Usually exhibit a lighter and more delicate character in contrast with their blended malt counterparts.

Distillery bottling – Whiskies that are produced by the distillery itself, usually referred to as official bottlings.

Independent bottling – Whiskies that are produced by independent companies such as Douglas Laing and Signatory. Unlike their distillery bottling counterparts, these bottlings are usually single casks which exhibit a variety of styles and tend to have a large amount of batch variation. Independent bottlings are usually non-chill filtered and do not have any additional colouring.

Chill filtering – A process which involves passing the whisky through a chilled filtration system in order to remove the oils which are present within the whisky. This is for cosmetic reasons and prevents the whisky from becoming cloudy when water is added to it, although it can also affect the flavour of the whisky.

Colouring – Due to the presence of batch variation within whiskies, distilleries sometimes add a caramel colouring known as E150a to their whiskies in order to equalise the vatting process and “age” their whiskies cosmetically. This is a process which is frowned upon by consumers in general but is still a widespread occurrence within the industry.

Peated – Whiskies which are made using malted barley which is roasted in a kiln where peat is the source of heat. The smoke that is produced when the peat is burned tends to imbue the barley with a smoky character, which is then passed on to the whisky itself. Peat levels in the whisky are measured by the relative phenol contents and measured in parts per million (ppm).

Unpeated – Whiskies which are made using malted barley that is not roasted in a kiln where peat is the source of heat. This results in a whisky that is not smoky and therefore referred to as unpeated.

New make spirit – The end product from the distillation process is known as new make spirit. As it has not been aged to the legal minimum requirement of 3 years and 1 day, it cannot be referred to as whisky. New make spirit is usually transferred to casks in order to be transformed into whisky.

Casks – Oak barrels which are used to mature the new make spirit into whisky. There are a wide range of casks used in the maturation of whisky, the most common of which would be those which used to contain bourbon. Casks which previously used to contain spirits such as sherry, port, wine, cognac and even other whiskies are typically used by distilleries in order to mature their whiskies. These casks can be used multiple times in order to imbue the new make spirit with a character and finish that is desired by the distillery.

Grist – Malted barley is ground down into a powdery substance known as grist. The grist is usually composed of the barley husk, the milled barley and the flour. Distilleries usually grind their malted barley differently in order to obtain specific proportions of each by-product. The most common ratio is: 70% husk, 20% milled barley, 10% flour. These by-products are then sent to the mash tun to begin the whisky making process.

Mash tun – A large, circular tank usually made from stainless steel or copper which mashes the grist by combining it with hot water of different temperatures in order to extract the sugar from the grist. The sugary liquid which is produced as a result is known as the wort and is then transferred into the washbacks.

Draff – This refers to the leftover grist from the mashing process. The draff is usually sold to farmers who use it to feed their cattle. It is rich in vitamins and therefore beneficial for the livestock.

Washbacks – Large circular tanks which are either made from wood (usually Oregon pine or Siberian larch) or stainless steel and are used for fermentation. The wort is transferred from the mash tun and distiller’s yeast is added to the mix in order for the wort to ferment into a weak beer of approximately 8-9% abv. This liquid is known as the wash and is now ready to be transferred to the wash stills for distillation.

Wash stills – The first in a two part distillation process. The wash is transferred from the washbacks into the wash still, where the wash is heated up and the resulting vapour rises to the top. The vapour then passes through a condenser which converts the vapour back into a liquid, albeit with a higher abv of approximately 25%. This liquid is known as low wines and is then transferred to the spirit stills for the next stage of distillation.

Spirit stills – The low wines and feints produced in the wash stills undergo further distillation, which increases the alcohol content to approximately 85% abv. The process of distillation within the spirit stills are the same as those within the wash stills, although the spirit stills are traditionally smaller in size. The spirit is then transferred to the spirit safe for sorting.

Condensers – Large, cylindrical tubes made of copper which are used to cool down the vapours produced during the distillation process so that they are converted back into liquid form. Distilleries use condensers with different angled lyne arms in order to increase or decrease the amount of copper contact with the spirit. The amount of contact that the spirit has with the copper will determine the character of the whisky. As a rule of thumb, more contact = lighter and more delicate flavour and character & less contact = heavier and more robust flavour and character.

Spirit safe – A rectangular glass-paneled piece of equipment which is used to distribute the spirit into various categories. The master distiller uses the spirit safe in order to determine the alcohol range at which the spirit is to be collected for maturation. Generally, spirit between 72-86% is considered to be unsafe for consumption and is discarded, while spirit below 60% is considered to be too weak to be matured. The ideal range for maturation would be between 60-72% and this is known as the ‘middle cut’ or ‘heart’ of the spirit.

Foreshot – This refers to the spirit which is between 72-86% abv and is considered to be hazardous for human consumption. This spirit is usually discarded as there is no use for it.

Feints – This refers to the spirit which is below 60% abv and is usually combined with the low wines from the previous distillation and re-distilled.

Pot ale – This refers to the residue which is left behind at the end of the distillation process. This is also considered to be hazardous and has to be disposed of properly as it can be poisonous to humans and wildlife.

Floor maltings – This refers to distilleries germinating or malting their barley requirements in-house, in specially designated areas known as floor maltings. This used to be a common practice throughout the industry during the early days but is now limited to only six distilleries throughout Scotland.

Maltings facility – A commercial facility which produced malted barley for distilleries. The barley is malted and even peated to the exacting specifications of the distilleries which purchase it. An example of a maltings facility would be the Port Ellen maltings facility in Islay.

Core range – This refers to the whisky expressions which make up the core of a distillery’s product range. The core range is comprised of whiskies that the distillery is committed to produce and sell for an extended period of time. The purpose of having a core range is so that the distillery is able to showcase the character and stylings of their expressions.

Travel retail exclusive – This refers to whiskies which are released by distilleries exclusively for the travel retail or duty free markets. The reason for doing so would be to capture the attention of potential new customers as well as seasoned drinkers who are looking to try something different from the traditional fare. Unlike normal bottlings which are traditionally 700ml, travel retail exclusive bottlings tend to be larger in size and usually come in 1L bottles.

Alcohol By Volume (abv) – Alcohol by volume refers to the amount of alcohol that is present within a specific bottle of spirits or wine. In the case of whisky, the abv would have to be a minimum of 40% in order for it to be considered as whisky and this is an industry wide threshold which has to be strictly adhered to.

Cask strength – Cask strength refers to whisky which has been bottled direct from the cask without being watered down or diluted down. Whisky is traditionally watered down to between 40-46% by distilleries in order to dilute the alcohol content and give their whiskies a less intense character. However, distilleries also may choose to release bottlings at cask strength in order to provide consumers with a different perspective with regard to a particular expression.

Peat reek – This refers to the peaty, smoky scent which characterises whiskies which have been peated. The peat reek can vary from distillery to distillery as well as from one expression to another. Distilleries which peat their whiskies to a heavier degree will have a more pronounced peat reek while the opposite will apply for distilleries which peat their whiskies to a lighter degree.

Single estate – A new term in the whisky world, pertaining to whisky which is made entirely from the produce of a single estate. This would include the barley being sourced and grown entirely on the estate and all aspects of the distillation and maturation also being conducted on-site. The purpose of this would be so as to showcase the terrior of the estate and its effects on the whisky which is produced.

Ullage – A term used to describe the shortfall in liquid within a bottle due to evaporation or leakage. Commonly seen in sample bottles and whisky bottles which are exposed to sunlight and high temperatures as well as those which have been improperly sealed.

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