Single malt Scotch whisky - what’s on the label and what it all means

Scotch can only be made, aged and bottled in specific ways and specific places – regulations which help ensure clear information for consumers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 4:01pm

Scotland has been making whisky for centuries, but as recently as 2009 the authorities were changing the rules about how the drink was produced and marketed, and reorganising the country’s whisky-producing regions.

The isles of Jura, Mull, Orkney and Skye, which were previously separate, are now part of Highland; there’s also Speyside (this used to be a subzone of Highland), Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown. The minimum alcoholic content of a bottle is to be no less than 40 per cent.

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Distillation, which takes place at least twice, and fermentation must occur at the same location and it can only be produced from a mixture of water and malted barley (although other cereal grains are permitted in certain styles). The minimum ageing is three years in a cask that has a maximum capacity of 700 litres, and this must occur in a permitted excise warehouse in Scotland. Scotch whisky cannot be exported in oak or wooden vessels. As of November 2012, single malt Scotch whisky must be bottled in Scotland.

Many whiskies are blends. The best whiskies of Scotland are its single malts which by strict definition have been distilled at a single distillery, in a pot still (it can be done in one or more batches) from water and malted barley. If there is a statement of age, the year of distillation cannot be included unless the year of the bottling, period of maturation (in cask) or the age of the whisky in years is also on the label.

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Sounds confusing? Yes, but not really – what this means, as I learned in a conversation with Master Sommelier Ron Mumford, is that a single malt that is labelled as 30 years old should also have the date that it is bottled. So, a bottle of Bowmore 1985 – 30 Years Old will also have on the label when it was bottled (no earlier than 2015). This is a better guarantee of provenance for the consumer.

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So if this is now 2016, should it not be 31 years old? No, because once a single malt is bottled, it is like a time capsule, as it can only evolve and develop while it is in the cask. Another tip? Most whiskies cannot be aged for more than 30 to 32 years in the barrel because of the “angel’s share” – the evaporation of alcohol that happens over time and which actually dilutes the strength of the remaining whisky in the barrel.

The latest trend in Scotch whisky is the use of different styles of wood. Previously, the Scots, being thrifty, used barrels that had been used to ship sherries or ports to the UK. Whiskies now can be transferred to a different cask (under the eagle eyes of an approved excise house, of course), so they’re being aged in casks that previously held Sauternes, Madeira or burgundy.

Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers