Like all types of alcohol, there are a wide variety of brands, origins, quality and price points to choose from. Sometimes you might want to just grab ‘a’ red wine to take to a housewarming, or ‘a’ bottle of vodka to make cocktails with friends. But when it comes to a drink you enjoy regularly, price and quality are significant factors.
This is especially true when buying whisky and bourbon online. Seasoned drinkers or first-timers who want to buy whisky as a gift will often gravitate towards a ‘premium’ whiskey. So what does this mean? Below, we take a look at what makes premium whisky, premium.
Like any food and drink product, the better the ingredients, the nicer it tastes. Fresher and higher quality ingredients in whiskey making result in a more pleasant and complex flavour. These higher calibre components also mean the end product is cleaner and free from any artificial substitutes. Cheaper whisky, however, tends to use ingredients that aren’t in the same tier and are lacking flavour. To counteract this, synthetic ingredients are often added in, thereby degrading the overall palate.
The whiskey distilling process has a few different cut points to it, which greatly impact whether or not the finished product is in fact, ‘premium’. During the distilling process, each of these steps helps determine how the drink will taste, but also how safe it is for the consumer. These cuts are as follows:
Foreshots: The first section of the liquid, which is a condensed vapour that can contain undesirable elements, including dangerous toxins such as methanol. This is not fit for consumption and should always be discarded.
Heads: The first part of the liquid fit for blending. This section is very high in alcohol content and still contains some unwanted flavours.
Hearts: This is the key player in the process. Clean and desired ethanol, high in quality and taste and safe for consumption.
Tails: This is the last section of liquid. Usually containing a mix of flavours and a higher water content that’s often not used.
It’s the distiller’s job to decide how much of each section they will use. This is how you separate the delicious from the dreadful. For cheaper whiskeys, distillers include a larger ratio of heads and tails to increase production and reduce waste. This keeps costs down but sacrifices the quality and flavour in return.
Premium whiskey will use a much lower percentage of these sections, and will instead focus on hearts, and discard the rest. To allow for so much waste, and balance out the costs, premium whiskey is then sold at a higher price point.
A Master blender
As consumers, we are naturally drawn to premium products when there are experts or celebrities involved in the brand. For whiskey fans, Master Blenders have the same effect. In addition to blending whiskeys, a Master Blender looks after the various barrels and monitors each whiskey’s development. They have to check on barrels sporadically and decide when each product is ready to be bottled. An intricate and crucial role that requires years of experience, practice and biology, it’s no surprise that the position is so highly respected in the industry.
Because of the uniqueness of the post, talented Master Blenders tend to stay in their role for years, continually building up consumer respect and notoriety for themselves and the product they work with. Famous Master Blenders include Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker and David Steward from Balvenie and Glenfiddich. It is names and brands like these that can influence consumers when they purchase whisky and bourbon online.
Age is another important factor to consider when it comes to premium whiskey. High-quality barrels can aid the ageing process, and their material can contain oils that add flavour to the whiskey, giving the taste more complexity.
You’ll often see ‘aged’ as a key feature in the description for top-quality whiskey, and here’s why. The longer whiskey spends ageing in a barrel, the more the liquid evaporates. This evaporation means there’s less product remaining. To allow for this loss, a company needs to charge more to cover its costs. This is why premium whiskeys will come with a higher price tag.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) measure is an integral part of establishing whether or not a whiskey is a premium whiskey. A higher alcohol content means less water and more flavour. Whiskey can be anywhere between 60%-70% alcohol when it is ageing in the cask. After this step, however, producers often add water and bottle the finished product at the industry standard of 40%. This removes some strength and flavours from the drink but maximises production quantities and keeps costs down.
However, there are premium whiskey-makers that don’t want to detract from the authenticity of the product. They will choose to bottle the liquid at cask strength, hence keeping the product at a higher quality.
A more pleasant ‘morning after’
Remember how we mentioned that some whiskeys contain higher amounts of heads and tails? These are by-products in the distilling process that can have some nasty inclusions. These impurities, when consumed by humans, need to be processed somehow. And that’s where our dreaded hangovers come in.
Higher quality whiskeys mainly use the hearts, and only small amounts of tails for a different flavour profile, meaning you’re consuming cleaner and less harmful ingredients. So the myth about cheaper whiskey giving you more of a hangover has some merit behind it. To save yourself the headache (literally) it might be worth spending the extra dollars on a premium whiskey with better ingredients.
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