By Christopher Coates

Opinion: What is whisky? In 2022, there's no simple answer

New distillers are changing the formula and giving me a headache
The old adages ‘nothing in life is ever simple’ and ‘the more you know, the less you know’ have become mantras for me during my time as editor. A decade ago, when I first started my career in whisky, I would’ve confidently answered the questions ‘what is whisky?’ or ‘what is single malt?’ – today, I’m not so sure.

These particular issues have come to a head multiple times while annually checking and updating the category definitions for both the magazine’s tastings-review section and the World Whiskies Awards. In the past, for instance, I would’ve dismissed out of hand the entry of a spirit made using koji-saccharified barley, arguing that the malting process and, in particular, endogenous enzymes activated during mashing and fermentation, are key markers of whisky production.

And yet, there are many spirits labelled as whisky that have had bought-in enzymes added to the mash. The practice is especially common in the USA, where added enzymes are used for the production of many 100 per cent rye, corn and wheat whiskeys and even some multi-grain mash bill bourbons (to boost yield when only small amounts or no malt is used). It’s also worth noting that critically acclaimed single malts made from unmalted barley are also crafted in this way, side-stepping the expensive malting process, with very little in the way of controversy.

So, if saccharification by added-in enzymes is acceptable for one of the biggest whiskey-producing countries on the planet, and many others besides (though some, like Scotland, don’t allow it), then why can’t a traditional (at least in Japan, though not for whisky making), natural process like koji saccharification be accepted as simply another variation of established whisky-making methods? [See our article on Takamine's Koji spirit, to find out more about this.]

Admittedly, in the USA, it is accepted and both koji ‘whiskies’ and even (worryingly) shōchūs masquerading as whiskies are both freely on sale. It’s a thorny topic that will likely keep debate raging for years to come, though, for now, I think I’m still a member of team ‘endogenous enzyme’.

Similarly, in the past I would’ve said that double (as a minimum) or triple (as a maximum) copper pot still distillation, and the resulting weight of spirit that it creates, is a hallmark of single malt. Yet, today, there are distillers making malted barley spirits, which taste undeniably like single malt, that have been distilled only once, using specialist stills. Others, meanwhile, are broadly following the traditional route but using pots that are only partially made from copper.

The instinctive response to these exceptions is to say something along the lines of, ‘Ah, but does it taste of single malt? Let’s let flavour lead the way.’ It’s my understanding that this is one of the key reasons why column-distilled malted barley spirit is generally not accepted as single malt, instead being labelled as grain whisky in Scotland and (unofficially) as ‘column malt’ elsewhere. The fact is, column-distilled spirit does taste different, no matter the grains. And yet, this flavour-led approach to defining whisky leads to inescapable pitfalls.

The burgeoning category of rapidly matured and lab-engineered ‘whisky’ has gone from being a laughing stock to producing competitive products that are largely indistinguishable from conventionally distilled and matured drams. In fact, I’ve unknowingly blind tasted a few such products for these very pages. Some have scored as ‘OK’, others as ‘average’, and, most recently, one or two as very good indeed.

By pure coincidence, just a week or two after these reviews published, I heard on the grapevine that this particular company’s products have been withdrawn from the UK market following a complaint from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) – more on that as the story develops – on the grounds that the rapid-maturation method bars it from being whisky.

However, again in the USA, there are a number of whiskeys on sale that have never touched the inside of an oak container, despite most TTB definitions having this as a stipulation — although, famously, there is no minimum time limit.

All these issues and more (for instance, is oak intrinsic to the taste of whisky or just wood?) will continue to plague my thoughts as long as international innovators keep experimenting with whisky’s formula. It might give me a headache, but, in truth, I couldn’t be more excited.