Choose your whisky well: advice from our sommelier
How is whisky made? What is the difference between a “single malt”, a “blended” whisky or a “single cask”? This month, the cellar master of La Cave Rive Droite, Benoit Cornillault, helps us to distinguish the main types of whisky, by focusing on how they are made. Also discover his selection of Japanese, Scottish and French whiskies, to find the eau-de-vie for you, to suit your tastes and the occasion.
What are the ingredients needed to make whisky?
Whisky is made of only 3 ingredients: cereals, water and yeasts.
The most common cereal is barley, but you can also make whisky with wheat, rye or corn.
Each raw ingredient has its importance, allowing very specific flavours to be obtained. Water, for example, itself determines 5% of the aromatic palette. Its aromas vary depending on whether it is soft water from a lake, or “hard” water with a higher concentration of mineral salts.
What are the main stages of production?
Whisky requires numerous steps in its fabrication, which allows the distilleries to express their own style.
During malting, barley is first humidified to promote germination. Then, it is placed in an oven, the kiln, the reveal its aromas. It is also during the drying that peat is added, bringing the smoky notes so characteristic of peated whiskies.
The malt thus obtained is then brewed with hot water to liberate its sugars. In contact with the yeasts, they transform into alcohol during fermentation.
During distillation, generally carried out in a copper still, the whiskies are distilled twice, or 3 times in the case of Irish whiskeys. So are obtained notes even more subtle and light, often floral.
The whiskies are finally place to age in barrels. The type of wood used, the age of the barrels, their size and the time spent in the cellar all are characteristics that variously influence the colour and aromas of whisky. Barrels that contained Sherry or Xérès are particularly sought after because they bring delicate notes of candied fruit, figs or plums, and a lovely amber colour.
What difference is there between a single malt whisky, a blend malt, a blended whisky and a single cask?
- The “single malt” refers to a whisky made with malted barley coming from a single distillery, like the “select distillery” from Kavalan.
- We also distinguish “blended malt” from “blended whisky”. The former refers to whiskies obtained from “single malts” of several distilleries, like the Nikka whisky from the Barrel. As for “blended whisky”, this mixes grain whiskies with barley whiskies from different distilleries.
- the “single cask” is whisky coming from a single ageing barrel. It is a rare product whose bottles are often numbered. In general, single cask is a “cask strength” whisky; it has not been diluted with water after distillation and so retains it retains its natural alcohol content.
What nuances exist between Japanese, French, Taiwanese or Scottish whiskies?
From one country to another the water, the climate and the expertise vary and bring valuable differences.
- Country of whisky, Scotland has a large number of distilleries like The Dalmore, Glenfiddich or The Balvenie, to name but few. On the palate, Scottish whiskies are dry and strong, sometimes peated with saline, iodised notes.
- Japanese whiskies are particularly renowned for the elegance of their flavours, obtained during distillation. The most sought after are notably aged in “mizunara” barrels, an especially rare variety of oak. Among the best, is Nikka from the barrel: a strong, spicy whisky with a smoky finish.
- Taiwanese whiskies are generally rich and rounded. Kavalan is a charming whisky, with notes of exotic fruit and vanilla.
- Finally, since the 2000s, France has begun to develop with some good houses like Michel Couvreur and his Intravagan’za, with notes of flowers and candied fruit, with good complexity. Le Domain des Hautes Glaces also proposes a remarkable range of whiskies. The organic barley used to make it is grown in the heart of the Alps. Double distilled, the single malt has aromas of exotic fruit, almond and chocolate.
And to finish, what are the 3 criteria to consider when making your choice?
It all depends on personal taste and the occasion at which it will be enjoyed. As an aperitif, a lighter whisky is preferable whilst as a digestive, a more complex whisky, like a peated whisky, is appropriate.
In the same way, to discover whisky, one begins with something rounded and smooth like the blended whiskies. Then, one moves on to something stronger, like peated and single cask whiskies.