Glossary of Whisky terms:
Whisky Miniatures. Other terms: sampler, mini whisky, minis, small.
mis-spellings: miature, minatures, miniture, minitures, minture,
minatures, minturs, mintures
Whisky also Whiskey also Whiskies
The name is an English corruption of the ancient name for spirits
"water of life" - which in Scottish and Irish Gaelic is "uisge
beatha" or "usquebaugh" and sounded to the English ear like "uishgi"
and hence "whisky". "Alcohol" incidentally is an Arabic word.
means simply that the whisky was distilled and matured in Scotland.
Whiskies are made in other countries, notably Ireland and Japan; whiskies they may be, and good ones even, but Scotch they
are not. Scotch comes from Scotland.
Such a whisky miniature contains a variable proportion of blended malt and
grain whiskies, commonly about 40% malt:60% grain. A good quality
blend may contain more than 40% malt, a cheap one much less. Many
malts may be incorporated in the blend to provide bulk then fine
elements of the final taste ("top dressing").
Single Malt Scotch
This indicates that the raw material is barley malt, by itself
fermented with yeast and distilled in a pot still. This produced
a far superior whisky miniature to the common grain whisky miniature found in blends.
Note however that just occasionally quality single grain whiskies
can be found.
Malt is essentially barley which has been allowed to germinate
by soaking in water then has been dried by the application of
heat. The malting process converts the stored starch into soluble
compounds such as the sugar maltose and by so doing makes fermentation
possible. Drying the malt over a furnace stops the germinating
process and lacing the furnace with peat imparts a peaty aroma
to the malt.
Grain whisky miniature
Indicates by contrast that the raw material is unmalted barley,
wheat or maize produced as a continuous process in a column still.
There are eight grain distilleries in Scotland (an older source
lists 15 note)
This indicates that the whisky miniature was made in only one distillery
and has not been blended with any other product from elsewhere.
It may however contain whisky miniature from several production batches
over a period of up to a couple of years. There are rather fewer
than 100 working malt whisky miniature distilleries in Scotland with the
dominant concentration in the Spey valley in north-east Scotland
around Elgin. A smaller group of particularly characterful malt
distilleries exists on the western island of Islay and there used
to be a third group centred round Campbeltown. About 120 single
malts can be identified including the bottled product of now-defunct
Such a malt is a blend of single malts. This produces a product
which is more consistent and can be "tuned" to bring out a particular
character. Such whiskies may be less demanding and can form a
convenient introduction to the rich and varied world of true single
malts. Lovers of malts will argue that it is precisely this inconsistency
that gives malt whiskies their charm.
This gives the age of the youngest component of the whisky miniature. Note
that maturation stops at bottling so both the year and the age
may be significant. A 12-year-old whisky miniature bottled 4 years ago is
still a 12-year-old, not a 16-year-old though different years
may occasionally be quoted.
Originally meaning "of tried strength or quality", this acquired
new meaning with the invention of the hydrometer - a floating
instrument used to determine the specific gravity of a fluid -
in this case an alcohol/water mixture. The definitions were progressively
firmed up via published tables but for purposes of argument, British
"proof spirit" contains 57.1% alcohol by volume or 49.28% alcohol
by weight at 51 deg F. American proof spirit by contrast contains
50% alcohol by volume at 60 deg F. 100 deg proof British spirit
therefore corresponds to 114.2 def proof in the USA, similarly
American 100 deg proof spirit is 87.7 deg proof British. On this
scale incidentally pure alcohol rates 175 deg proof (British).
Newly distilled malt whisky miniature is generally 115-120 deg proof as
it comes off the still. It is generally watered down and bottled
at 70 deg proof for the domestic British market. It has long been
noted however that whisky miniature bottled at full strength and diluted
in the glass tastes superior to the same whisky miniature diluted at bottling.
This has never been adequately explained but has in recent years
led to the availability of "cask strength" malt whiskies bottled
at typically 100-110 deg proof (57-63% alcohol by volume). These
may be drunk cautiously at their full strength but more commonly
diluted with a small splash of water.
Scotch on the rocks
Prejudice alert on!... Malt whisky miniature is drunk either as neat spirit
or with a small quantity of water to taste. It should *never*
be drunk with soda or other mixers, neither should it be necessary
to drink it "on the rocks". The traditional cut glass whisky glass
(tumbler-shaped) is not necessarily the best glass to savour malt
whisky and in "serious" whisky drinking circles a nosing glass
more like a small narrow brandy snifter is sometimes employed.
(prejudice alert off) failing which, it is a spirit which is made
to be enjoyed and if you enjoy it mixed with Pernod and Angustura
bitters who am I to judge?! Slainte.
Historians agree that whisky production, albeit on a small scale
actually began in Ireland somewhere around or before the twelfth
century and was brought across to Scotland somewhat later. The
first recorded instance of a grain spirit in Ireland dates back
to 1172 and it is not till 1494 that a firm record exists of the
same spirit in Scotland.
It is worth noting that until about the 1950s all malt distilleries
would carry out the entire process on the site - malting, fermenting
and distilling. Now only a few distilleries have their own maltings.
Many distilleries began their lives on farms. The distilling season
began after the harvest and continued until late April. Until
modern times this cycle was followed by all distilleries and even
now there is a 'silent season', usually in August when many distilleries
The malting process
As has been stated above, the process of malting converts the
plain barley grain into malted barley and by so doing greatly
changes its chemical makeup. The barley is first soaked for between
48 and 72 hours in tanks or 'steeps' and allowed to germinate.
Germination releases heat which has to be controlled in order
to keep the temperature around 60 deg F/16 deg C and avoid the
barley killing itself from its own generated heat. Traditionally
the malting barley was drained and spread out over a large floor
then turned regularly by hand with rakes or shovels. This was
repetitious and arduous work, leading sometimes to a repetitive-strain
injury called "monkey shoulder".
More recent maltings designs employed either mechanical rakes
(Saladin box) or large revolving drums to achieve the same effect.
The fully germinated malt is next transferred to the kiln for
drying on a mesh over a fire containing a certain amount of peat,
thus contributing to the peaty taste evident in many malt whiskies.
Traditional malt kilns draw the hot air from the peat furnace
through the malt by way of a chimney effect generated by the characteristic
steep roofs and pagoda heads of many Scottish distilleries. The
pagoda roof was introduced around the 1890s as it offered an improved
air draught, fanning the peat furnace to core temperatures which
can reach between 800 and 1200 deg C. In most cases, where most
distilleries buy in their malt they have mostly lost their function
other than a piece of visual identity. The malt is dried and roasted
in the peat reek at 60 deg C for two days and is then ready for
the next stage
The malt contains much detritus or 'combings', principally rootlets.
These are removed and used as cattle food. The malt is then coarsley
ground and becomes known as 'malt grist'.
Mashing and brewing
The malt grist is fed into the 'mash tun' where it is combined
with a carefully measured quantity of hot water. This completes
the conversion of dextrin into maltose and produces a fermentable
solution of the malt sugars caled 'wort' or 'worts'. Again, after
several washings to draw out the malt, the solid residue or 'draff'
is removed and sold as cattle food. The worts are held in a receiver
called an 'underback'. This must be cooled to prevent unwanted
decomposition of the maltose and to allow yeast to be introduced.
The cooled worts are injected with yeast and the fermented in
a further tank or tanks called 'washbacks'. Thirty-six hours or
thereabouts of sometimes violent fermentation produces a weakly
alcoholic (10 degrees or thereabouts) clear liquid called 'wash',
which will now be distilled
Distillation takes place in pear-shaped copper vessels called
'pot stills'. and at least two are required of different types.
The wash is first distilled in the 'wash still' to produce an
impure intermediate product called 'low wines'. This is then fed
via the spirit safe into the low wines charger ready for the next
stage of distillation. The spirit safe is a heavy glass-fronted
and padlocked box in which the emerging distillate may be inspected
and directed onwards or back for redistillation as appropriate.
When ready, the low wines are discharged into the low wines still
and the process repeated. The final product - raw, unmatured whisky
passes via the spirit safe to spirit receiver and spirit store,
ready for filling into barrels. Early and late distillation fractions
('foreshots' and 'feints') contain impurities so are recycled
back for re-distillation with the low wines. The 'safes' used
for spirit storage are exactly that. The moment the intermediate
product contains alcohol it comes under the control of the Excisemen
and the safes are a necessary means of ensuring that the spirits
stay where they are supposed to be and are accurately accounted-for.
The horizontal pipe from the top of the still to the worm is called
the Lyne Arm (I've also seen 'lye pipe'). There is a fair variation
in the design of these and distilleries will vigorously defend
the design of each as contributing something unique to the final
Further refinements include a bulge at the base of the column
(the "Milton Ball") and in particular the Lomond still which has
a refluxing coil in the head which enables the still to be 'tuned'
to produce a lighter or heavier spirit. Lomond stills have enabled
several distilleries to market two distinct malts. A few stills
have water cooling of the neck. Each still has a large hatch on
the top of the base of the still, the 'man door' for inspection
and cleaning. Further up the neck can be seen a small glass porthole
which allows inspection of the contents of the still to ensure
it does not rise too far up the neck and boil over. Before the
advent of the porthole a wooden ball was swung against the neck
of the still and the resulting 'ding' used to determine the state
Casks are critical to the taste and appearance of the final whisky.
The need is for casks wich will impart a characteristic taste
to the whisky without dominaing it or imparting a 'woody' flavour.
Principally two types of cask are used - Oloroso sherry casks
and American oak Bourbon casks. Some distilleries use intact barrels,
others remake barrels from selected staves from more than one
source. The barrel may be charred before use, a process which
apparently assists the release of vanillin from the wood. No two
casks are the same - one may produce a fine whisky and may be
refilled and used again whereas its neighbour may taste woody
after one filling.
The whisky is left a minimum of three years but usually between
8 and 25 years in wooden barrels to mature. The bonded warehouses
are cool and earth-floored to provide an even temperature and
humidity. The barrels lose about 2% alcohol per annum - the so-called
'angel's share'. It is worth noting the investment tied up in
each one of these modest low stone warehouses - each full-size
cask can contain up to 110 gallons - easily &163;15-20,000
of spirit once it reaches the shops.
Occasionally bottlings are produced from one single cask - the
so-called 'single single' malts. More normally, several casks
of similar ages from the one distillery will be 'married' by vatting
them together then maturing them further for a few months.