New to Whisky?

A little help with the basics & terminology



The world of whisky and especially Scotch whisky is filled with specialised terminology which at first glance may, at best, confuse the newcomer or, at worst, drive them away from what could have been a wonderful journey of discovery. So, in this feature from Whisky Emporium I aim to help with an explanation of some of the termonology surrounding this great gift to the world to which our master distillers and blenders dedicate their lives.


Do you know your grain from your malt or your blended?

Perhaps gaga about Glasses?

Confuddled with casks?

Stumped by Stills?

or Ropey on your Regions?






The Stills


The spirit which after a period of maturation will be called whisky is produced through a process of distillation. But first, we begin with barley which is soaked in water to allow it to begin the process of germination, then it is dried, ground (into Grist) and added to hot water where it is allowed to ferment. This is a process called Mashing and takes place in a large container called a Mash Tun. This process creates a liquid rich in fermentable sugars which will later produce alcohol and is called the Wort. Yeast is added and the liquid sits for up to 4 days in another vessel called the Washback, allowing it to fully ferment. At this stage the liquid is like a strong beer with up to 10% ABV strength, so in order to increase the alocohol strength it now needs to be distilled.


Distillation takes place in stills known as 'Pot Stills' which are in fact, made from copper. There are two types of still; first the Wash Still is used, sometimes repeatedly, then the resulting liquid, called the Low Wines is further distilled in a smaller still called the Spirit Still in order to finally produce the spirit that will become whisky. However, not all this liquid has the honour of being selected to become whisky. The spirit coming out of this process is divided into three 'cuts', the Head, Heart and Tail. Only the middle cut (Heart) is considered perfect for whisky, the heads and tails are not.


Did you know that the shape of still defines the overall character of the resulting whisky? Tall narrow still create lighter, more floral or aromatic whiskies, whereas shorter ones create heavier, more full-bodied whiskies.

Coffey Stills; In the early 1800's a different type of still was also being used, these were continuos ones called Coffey Stills and were more efficient than Pot Stills as they produced less-flawed spirit. Unfortunately, these 'flaws' included many desirable flavours and much of the character of malt whisky, so use of them in malt whisky production was stopped, but they are still used today in the production of grain whisky.




The Casks

as modelled by my dear wife


The spirit (Head) selected for maturation to become whisky is filled into oak casks where it sits in warehouses for a minimum of three years before it can be called 'whisky'. Up until that time it is referred to as New Make or New Spirit. This spirit always used to be filled into the casks at full strength, straight from the stills, but today it is often filled at strengths of around 63-65% ABV.

The casks themselves are usually made from either American White Oak or European Oak as these have proven to be the best for whisky maturation. Although 'new oak' has been used, current thought is that previously-used casks help add more character to the whisky and the ones in widespread use today are ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks.


American law dictates that casks may only be used once for bourbon maturation, so these are a sensible and very common option for Scotch whisky as they are dismantled and shipped to Scotland after that single use. Sherry casks are, obviously, made from European Oak and sourced in the major sherry-producing regions of Spain. The first time a sherry cask is used for whisky it is referred to as 'First Fill', then second-fill ... etc.


Cask sizes & volumes; Bourbon casks are generally 200 litres in size and referred to as 'Barrels'. Sherry casks come in various sizes which include Hogsheads (250 litres), Butts (500 litres) and sometimes Puncheons (450 litres).

As maturation is dependent upon time spent in a warehouse and the interaction between the spirit and the wood, some distilleries have begun to use what they call Quarter Casks (125 litres) as they increase the percentage of the whisky in direct contact with the wood, thus aiding or even speeding up and intensifying maturation, creating a whisky with totally different character to one from a 500 litre butt over the same period of time.



Did you know that the colour of a whisky is highly dependent upon the type of cask used? Bourbon casks will produce much lighter-coloured whiskies than sherry casks, but some producers also use artifical colouring (caramel) to help darken their products. Here in Germany this must be stated on the labels, but this is not yet the case in all countries.

Flavour is also dependent upon the types of cask used; As bourbon casks are charred on the inside, these carbon deposits help filter the impurities from the spirit during maturation and also help produce vanilla flavours in the resulting whiskies, whereas sherry casks help produce richer, dark fruit (like raisin, prune & currant) flavours in the whisky, along with stronger wood (oak) and sherry ones. Obviously, first-fill casks produce richer flavours than second-fill ones ...... and so on.




The Whisky


So, the new spirit must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years before it may be called whisky. However, this process called maturation causes some of the spirit to be 'lost' due to the fact that the casks 'breathe'. This loss, or evaporation, is affectionately known as the "Angel's Share".

The whisky that remains will have also lost some of the original (ABV) strength and if filled at 63% it will, after three years, have dropped to around 55-60%.


The whisky may be left to mature for more years, or bottled, depending upon many factors including quality, standard age expressions for that distillery, economics (the bean-counters always have their say) and the whims or choices of the Master distillers and blenders.

Below you will find some more common terminology for whisky.


Original Distillery Bottling (OB)


Whisky which is bottled directly for the producing distillery and not sold on to private individuals or independent bottling companies for them to bottle is known as an 'OB' or Original Distillery Bottling.

Many distilleries have set ages for bottling whisky which they believe best highlight their whisky's characteristics, so they bottle and sell the whisky at these ages. For example Ardbeg 10y, Laphroaig 10y


Independent Bottling (IB)


Distilleries also sell casks to other companies for them to bottle and sell, or even to private indiviuals or clubs and societies. Once bottled these offerings are known as IBs or Independent Bottlings. Some of the more well known Independent Bottlers include Gordon & MacPhail (G&M), Signatory, Douglas Laing, Murray McDavid and Hart Brother's just to name a few.


Single Malt Whisky


Single Malt whisky basically means the product of just one distillery', so everything in that particular bottle is the output of just one distillery, usually named on the label. For example; The Glenlivet Single Malt means all the whisky in that bottle was produced by The Glenlivet Distillery.


Single Cask Whisky


Single Cask whisky means that not only is it the product of one distillery, but also from only one specific cask from that distillery. By their very nature single cask bottlings are limited editions (limited to the number of bottles from the one cask!) and will often have the individual cask number and number of bottles detailed on the label. They may also include the distillation and bottling dates.


Single Grain Whisky


Whereas Malt whisky is produced from only malted barley, grain whisky may be produced from a mix of malted barley, unmalted barley, wheat and corn. Grain whisky is often very smooth and very little tends to find its way into bottlings of grain whisky as most of the production forms the basis of blended whisky.


Blended / Vatted Whisky


It used to be so easy; Blended whisky was a mixture or 'blend' of grain and malt whiskies, whereas vatted whisky was a mixture or 'vatting' of only malt whiskies. But alas, the SWA has now redefined every 'mix' to be called blended whisky so we have Blended Scotch whisky, blended grain whisky and blended malt whisky.


The Age of Whisky


No matter if it's a single malt, grain, blended, IB or OB, if a whisky label states an age it refers to the youngest whisky used in that bottling. So, if the label states 30y, then the bottle may contain whisky older than 30y, but nothing younger than 30y.




The Glass


Other than something to hold our favourite dram, does it matter which type of glass we use?

You bet it does! Whisky should be savoured slowly, including the aromas which are an integral part of the whisky experience and the shape and style of the glass we use dictates how these aromas are presented to our noses.

Please click here to view the extemsive report I recently made on whisky glasses.




The Regions


Scotland tends to be geographically divided into whisky producing regions. There is often much debate about exactly how many regions there are and whether a particular whisky belongs to one or another region, but I personally work with the following six regions: Lowland, Campbeltown, Highland, Speyside, Islands & Islay although I hasten to add that 'Islands' is not an official SWA recognised region.

It is also dangerous to make broad statements about all whiskies within a region as there are always exceptions, but again I usually try to help beginners by offering the following examples of general characteristics:

My thanks to Thorleif for permission to use his whisky map of Scotland which may be further seen here




Lowland whiskies are traditionally triple distilled and due to the tall narrow stills which are typically used by this region’s distilleries, tend to be light and more aromatic in character.




Once a thriving and possibly a major whisky-producing region, but sadly few names now remain.




Very often, but not exclusively, quite rich-tasting and full-bodied, Highland whiskies offer an insight into the richer, more powerful flavours of Scottish single malts.




Home to many of the household names in Scottish single malts and also to about half of all Scottish distilleries, Speyside remains the largest regional producer of single malt whisky. Speyside whiskies typically offer a variety of flavours and are often described as ‘complex’ due to the wonderful combination of flavours one can experience within a single expression.




Island whiskies offer a whole range of styles and flavours thanks to the variety of different distilleries and geographical locations covered by this region.




Although also an island, Islay enjoys its own regional categorisation due to its typical style of whiskies. Thanks to the unique geology of the island, the resident distilleries produce some of the most distinctive drams, encompassing the strong flavours of peat, smoke, sea, salt and iodine.




One final word from the author; Don't put ice in your whisky, it kills the flavour and enjoyment!

Slàinte Mhath

Keith Wood, Whisky Emporium



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