What is Whiskey?
Whisky is one of the more highly regulated spirits worldwide. There is a myriad of laws and regulations in place dictating how whisky must be made, what it must be made from, and where it should come from. If we must find a string that runs through all whiskies, it is that they are all made from grain (often malted), distilled similarly, and aged in wood barrels or casks.
Whisky versus Whiskey
The great Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, comes to mind when contemplating the different spellings of whiskey. Simply put, the United States and Ireland prefer to spell the word: whiskey. The remainder of the nations producing the dark spirit, spell it whisky. There are many unwritten rules and even some lore out there about which is correct or most appropriate, but most believe it comes down to regional preference.
There are three major types of whiskey, all quite popular by their more specific names. If someone were to ask if you would like a glass of bourbon, rye, or scotch, you should know that they are asking which type of whiskey you prefer. Here are the three major types broken down into the key pieces that make them…well, what they are.
- Bourbon: Bourbon comes from the “Old Bourbon” region of Kentucky, USA. It is made from corn, aged in new charred casks, and must be aged for at least two years.
- Rye: Rye gets its name from its typical main ingredient: rye. In fact, it must be made from at least 51% rye (according to the U.S. standard). Canadian rye is a little less predictable regarding ingredients. Rye is aged in new charred casks and must be aged for at least two years.
- Scotch: One of the more popular types of whisky worldwide, Scotch is made in Scotland. Made from barley, it finds itself in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.
The conversation about whiskey types and their production is far too complex to detail here. However, if you are interested in the nuances between them or want to become a whiskey connoisseur, check out our article called Bourbon vs. Rye vs. Scotch vs. Whiskey: What’s the Difference? There you will learn all you need to know about whiskey types and what makes them unique.
Scotch Whisky and its Regions
A unique aspect of Scotch whisky is its regional production. Each region claims its own flavor profiles and characteristics, however, many would argue that similar whiskies are produced throughout Scotland. There is also some disagreement over the regions themselves: traditionalists say there are four regions, while newer thinking splits them into six. In the list below, the first four are the traditional regions with the last two making up the “modernized” additions.
- 6The Islands
Each region produces many different whiskies from a long list of distilleries, large and small. All of these regions are unique in landscape and growing conditions, leading to what some think are intricacies in flavors. Scotch is aged for a minimum of three years, often for far longer.
Decoding the Whiskey Bottle Label
More so than other spirits, whiskey labels are often full of valuable information. Some informative pieces are more obvious: like the ABV or birthplace seen on many other liquor containers. However, there can be some complicated information as well. Here is a quick reference list.
- Alcohol Content: Indicated as ABV (alcohol by volume) or proof (the number of the ABV multiplied by two).
- Age: This indicates how long the whiskey stayed “in wood” or in its barrel for the aging process. Age is not everything as whiskies stored in warmer regions (think: bourbon in Kentucky) age faster than those in cooler demographics (think: Scottish highlands).
- Place: Whiskey is produced in a variety of regions including Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Canada, and the United States. Place of origin is typically mentioned on the label.
- checkSingle Barrel: Typically found on bourbon and Scotch bottles, this indicates aging in one particular barrel or cask.
- checkSingle Malt or Blended: Single malt whiskies are produced by one distillery with one malt, while blended whiskies are just as their name indicates – blends from multiple distilleries or malts and grains.
- checkTennessee Whiskey: Trick question, where is Tennessee whiskey made? If you answered Tennessee, you could be right but not necessarily. Tennessee whiskey indicates a bourbon that has endured a maple charcoal filtration period, said to produce a smooth result.
Whiskey Brands Information
|Jack Daniel’s||USA||$22||American whiskey||Standard|
|TX||USA||$30||Blended WhiskeyBourbon Whiskey||Standard|
|Crown Royal||Canada||$30||Canadian whisky||Standard|
|Virginia Black||USA||$33||American Whiskey||Standard|
|Johnny Walker||Scotland||$23||Blended Scotch||Standard|
|Macallan||Scotland||$45||Single Malt Scotch||Premium|
|Jim Beam||USA||$13||Bourbon Whiskey||Budget|
|Bird Dog||USA||$16||Bourbon Whiskey||Budget|
|Black Velvet||Canada||$8||Canadian whisky||Budget|
|Makers Mark||USA||$24||Bourbon Whiskey||Standard|
|Wild Turkey||USA||$20||Bourbon Whiskey||Standard|
|Kavalan||TaiWan||$96||Single Malt Whiskey||Premium|
Whiskey Pricing Drivers
As you can see in the chart above, whiskey pricing goes from minimal (budget) to average (standard) to high (premium) cost levels. What is it about each whiskey that causes such fluctuations in price point? Here, we will look at several factors that drive the cost of whiskey products.
As discussed earlier, the age of a whiskey does not necessarily indicate its quality. Barrel aging to its optimum age can be expedited by the regional climate and type of barrel the whiskey is in. Warmer climates lend themselves to quicker aging, while cooler climates require a longer time in the barrel to perfect the aging process. Bourbons are produced in warmer regions, therefore, are often found “younger” on shelves than Scotch whiskies produced in the cool climate of Scotland are.
While not necessarily an indicator of quality, age can lead to an increase in price for a variety of reasons. Primarily, very well aged whiskies (like 20+ years) are very limited productions. If a whiskey producer is aging a particular whiskey for 20 years, that means the barrel is tied up for 20 years. Imagine, making a product and not being able to sell it until 20 years from now – it would have to be a very expensive product to make up for all the whiskey you could have produced in that time frame. While age is just a number and does not always mean the whiskey will be better, the very expensive whiskies are usually well aged or very rare.
Like many products on the market, whiskey is not immune to the costs of production experiencing volatility over time. There are multiple factors that can encourage barrel costs to rise. First, whiskey is more popular than ever. All whiskey require some form of wooden barrel for aging. The necessary creation of new barrels for the multitude of whiskey producers has led to a rise in general market value of barrels, specifically oak. Speaking of oak, the lack of abundance in supply has caused a shortage of barrels overall in parts of the U.S. and Europe. This lack of supply combined with rise in demands has led to the rise in barrel pricing. Finally, for whiskies requiring well aged barrels, like Scotch, it can be challenging to find them available. Aged barrels are an extremely limited, costly resource and can drive up the overall price of the products aged in them.
Single Malt Whiskey
There is a common misconception that a single malt whiskey is the ultimate, most premium option when choosing. It is just that, a misconception. As an example, imagine a blend of four ultra-premium single malt whiskies that are seemingly made to be put together into one magical bottle of perfection. Once combined into their perfect blend, are they suddenly less valuable? No. Single malt does not mean it is more or less expensive. It simply means that it is without blend and made from one independent malt.
Some brands produce whiskies that cover the gambit of price points, from budget range through premium range. Most, however, tend to find a category and stick with it. So, why is it that a brand like Macallan gets a premium status while Johnnie Walker gets stamp with the standard rating? Often, it can depend on the ingredients each distillery chooses to use. Some choose rarer, less easily obtained malts or have a more complicated distillation process. Others, may utilize less expensive blends or single malts, that lead to a lower overall cost. Just as in aging and barrel type, more expensive does not always mean better.
Single Barrel Whiskies
The definition of single barrel can be convoluted as there are very few regulations on the term. Generally, it should mean that the whiskey in the bottle you purchased came from one singular barrel. Even some single malt whiskeys are aged in multiple barrels and then combined into one big batch before being bottled. The limitation of bottles being from one barrel can impact the overall cost of the product.
Taste is Everything
Whiskey finds itself in a category with wine as a drink that draws a cult following. Whiskey connoisseurs abound that could tell you the type, brand, and origin of a whiskey just by tasting it. Unfortunately, we cannot all be such experts. However, it really comes down to how you think each product tastes. As you have seen, cost is dictated by a variety of factors – some of which may have nothing to do with your opinion of a particular whiskey. So, before evaluating a whiskey based on its cost, consider judging based on its taste.