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If you’ve read any of our other posts, you’ll know that here at Whisky Foundation, we’re all about stripping away the crusty image of whisky drinking.
That’s because we know that there’s a lot about whisky culture – the whisky words, the attitudes, and the elitism – that can be off-putting to the casual whisky drinker.
And this is especially the case for independent bottlings. As a niche subset of whisky, independent bottlings can be even less accessible than their original bottling counterparts.
But it shouldn’t be like that.
At Whisky Foundation, we don’t want it to be like that.
That’s why, whether we’re writing our Whisky Bluff to Whisky Buff series or writing articles explaining different aspects of the whisky-making process, we’re always looking for ways to make whisky drinking accessible to all.
And breaking down the language we use to talk about independent bottlings is a key part of that.
The whisky words we – and other whisky drinkers – use are often esoteric (sometimes accidentally, sometimes accidentally-on-purpose).
We’ll throw terms like moth-balled, chill-filtration and expression around with reckless abandon, forgetting that people new to the world of independent bottlings might not understand them yet.
So, that’s why we’re going to break down a few independent bottling-specific (in most cases) whisky words this month; to make things accessible and break down the barriers between hardened whisky drinkers and enthusiastic new drinkers.
Whisky Foundation’s whisky words to plain English translator:
Ah, we’re kicking things off with a simple one: the cask.
But, in terms of independent bottling at least, there is almost nothing more important than the cask. It’s what gives the whisky its colour, character and flavour. After that – as is almost par for the independent bottling course – IBs are often moved to another cask to finish ageing.
What is a cask?
It’s pretty much just the wooden barrel the whisky is matured, aged or finished in. (For a more detailed explanation of how this works, why it’s important and the differences that different types of wood make, we’ve written a comprehensive article on casks. We used Latin names for the wood and everything.)
Right, now we’ve got cask out of the way, let’s kick things off with a few terms that begin with the word ‘cask’.
Cask finish simply refers to a whisky that has been transferred from the primary barrel (the barrel that it started to mature in) to a second (and sometimes even third) barrel for extra maturation.
This is particularly common for independent bottlings. Independent bottlers often transfer their whiskies to a sherry, bourbon – or even, rum or beer – cask to finish the whisky in a special way.
(If you’ve never tried a sherry finished IB, you’re missing out. We love them here at WF. Here are a few of our favourites.)
Another cask-based term! This one is a little simpler. It just means that the whisky has been bottled at the strength that it came out of the cask. It hasn’t been diluted in any way; it’s as the cask intended it to be.
(Distilleries tend to dilute their whiskies to around 40.0%ABV to ensure a consistent product. Independent bottlers are more concerned with producing an outstanding, one-off whisky than a so-so consistent whisky, so they ignore this step.)
Put simply, chill filtration is a process that removes the esters, proteins and fatty acids from whisky to give it consistency and make it look appealing. (Although, we’re yet to see a glass of whisky that hasn’t been a sight to behold, regardless of whether it was chill-filtered.)
The problem is, these esters, proteins and fatty acids give the whiskies an oilier texture, long finish and a richer flavour. (In other words, they improve the whisky.) So why bother removing them at all?
It’s a big topic for fans of IBs – there have been many debates, arguments and studies into whether chill-filtration can be detrimental to a whisky. To get up to speed, check out our article on chill filtration.
If you’ve tried had an independent bottling, then you might have experienced chill haze. Did it appear a little hazy or cloudy?
That was chill haze.
You see, the things that make whisky so great – the smell, the texture and the taste – all come from compounds within the whisky. These compounds are soluble in both aspects of the whisky; the water and the ethanol.
However, some of them are only soluble at certain temperatures. (If you’re interested, that’s the esters, proteins and fatty acids.)
Once your whisky falls below a certain temperature, these compounds clump together to form small particles (known by scientists as micelles). Light hits these micelles and makes the whisky look hazy and cloudy – hence the term chill haze.
Here’s one of the professional-grade whisky words: congener.
A congener is a chemical compound found within whisky, responsible for the taste and smell of the whisky. They form during fermentation, distillation and maturation and give the whisky its unique characteristics. (Chill-filtration removes some of these congeners, too. Another reason to avoid it, where possible.)
However, scientists also think that congeners might at least be partially responsible for hangovers. Suddenly chill-filtration doesn’t seem so bad, eh?
Coopers are the unsung hero of independent bottling!
A cooper is a highly-skilled person who makes and crafts the casks that whiskies are matured in.
Without them, there’d be no cask strength, no cask finishes and – worst of all – no whisky at all.
Ah. Here’s one of those pieces of lingo that seems fancy for the sake of it.
Ask your average whisky buff and they’ll say that it’s the Scottish term for a measure of whisky. (They might even tell you the word stems from ‘Drachma’, the Greek word for sixty grains, which is the equivalent of an eighth of an ounce.)
But really, it is just a fancy way of saying a measure of whisky.
Floor malting is a traditional method of malting grain that dates all the way back to the 3rd Century A.D. It forces the grain to produce the sugars and enzymes needed to make sweet, sweet whisky.
The floor malting process requires the wet grain to be put on a smooth concrete floor while it germinates. Over the course of four or five days, the grains germinate and produce the sugar that is then fermented into alcohol.
Most distilleries don’t use floor malting anymore – machinery is capable of producing similar (and more consistent) results – but there are a few that still do.
And at Whisky Foundation, we love to see people doing it the old-fashioned way.
Have you ever heard of a distillery referred to as mothballed or silent?
It essentially means a distillery that is no longer in use. It no longer makes whisky.
Usually, distilleries are mothballed during periods of financial crisis or strain. (Such as the crash of whisky demand in the 1980s, which caused lots of distilleries to go silent.)
However, some independent bottlers are keeping the memories of these distilleries alive by producing IBs of their whiskies.
If you see one, snap it up. They’re rare, special treats that will probably never be seen again. We like to think of them as the swan song of the distillery; a beautiful, but once-in-a-lifetime, blaze of glory.
Did we miss any? Are there whisky words that leave you a bit baffled? Let us know and we’ll add them to the list!