Enter a whisky specialty store and you’re faced with walls of whiskies – a spectrum of golds, ambers and rubies in glass bottles of varying shapes and sizes. Their prices are just as varied and the most expensive bottle on the shelf isn’t always the best for your palate or the most collectable for a connoisseur. How do you sift through the overwhelming number of options to find the right bottle? Here is a checklist on what to look for in a truly collectible whisky:
Single malt – While it’s a misconception that single malts are the best whiskies (there are equally amazing rye, bourbon and Irish pot-still whiskies), they are popular because of the category’s rich history and strict regulations. A single malt can contain liquid from different casks married together, but the distillate inside all of these casks must have been produced entirely from malted barley at a single distillery.
Single cask – Generally, the fewer the number of casks vatted to create one whisky, the rarer it is. That is why single cask whiskies are so highly coveted. Does a single cask whisky taste better? Not necessarily, but it is very rare because it can never be duplicated again. (Experiments have shown that even two identical casks made from the same tree, filled simultaneously with the same liquid and stored in the same conditions for the same amount of time will taste differently). Such an expression will usually mention the outrun (exactly how many bottles produced), the bottle number (you can sometimes choose a bottle with a special number) and the cask number.
Natural color – Artificial coloring is a huge controversy – and a surprisingly widespread practice – in the world of aged spirits. While some experts say coloring is so minimal it does not affect taste, others argue that coloring (a form of caramel, known as E150A) must affect the taste when other seemingly miniscule production factors like water source and warehouse height do. How can you tell if there’s been no added color? Many producers showcase their pride by indicating that the product is natural in color and/or non-chill filtered (see last point) somewhere on the label. But not always, so it’s best to ask the sales consultant or Google if you’re not sure.
Cask strength – A bottle of whisky must be at least 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) in order to legally fit the category. But in reality most whiskies are not a perfect 40 percent when they are tipped from the cask, which is why water is often added to dilute alcohol content. This of course produces a consistent product but also dilutes flavor while producing more bottles for better business. A whisky that has not been diluted (or only slightly diluted) is considered of higher quality because its entire flavor is maximized for the customer. Such whiskies’ alcohol percentage would not likely be a whole number, reading 53.4 percent instead of 40 percent for example.
Non-chill filtered – Whisky is stored in oak casks for years, absorbing oils from the oak, which gives the liquid much of its flavor. Later, as a result of the aforementioned dilution with water, oil particles disperse away from water, congealing and often making the whisky look unattractively cloudy. A true connoisseur will be unfazed, but most consumers would be deterred by murky liquid. Because of that, whisky producers usually filter chilled whisky through specialized cloth to get rid of these oils, at the cost of filtering out some flavor. Non-chill filtered whiskies are considered of higher quality because they retain all the flavor imparted throughout the production process.
This is a three part article on whisky.
Part one: The spirit is in the details
Part two: The top 12 rare whiskies Lebanon can buy