By now you would have heard of the ‘award-winning Malaysian whiskey’ that has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
I’ll not speculate nor comment on the controversy surrounding the name, but I do want to raise a few questions about the spirit itself. The main one being: is Timah even a whiskey?
First of all, let’s talk about what makes a whisky a whisky (or whiskey).
Whiskies are usually spirits that have been distilled from grains such as barley, corn, rye, wheat and so on. There is a lot more to that, of course. Whiskies tend to differ from country to country, with each country having its own regulations for the spirit, and the spelling of the word ‘whisky’ versus ‘whiskey’ also differs from country to country. Here are some examples.
In Scotland, a whisky can only be called ‘Scotch whisky’ if it adheres to regulations set by the Scotch Whisky Association. These include requiring a whisky to be aged for a minimum of three years in an oak barrel, being bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol base volume (ABV), being made from only grains (like barley, rye, wheat and so on) and many other rules that define what is a single malt, a blended whisky, a blended malt, and so on.
Irish whiskey is another strictly regulated category that is quite similar to Scotch – it has to be distilled from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains (ranging from malted barley, corn, wheat, rye and so on), and aged at least three years in wooden casks, and all these have to be done in Ireland.
American whiskey also has its own set of rules and regulations. For instance, to be called bourbon, the spirit has to be made within the US, and also contain at least 51% corn grain. There are other regulations that govern the other styles of American whiskey like straight rye, straight corn, Tennessee sour mash, and so on.
Outside the traditional whisky powerhouses of Scotland, Ireland and USA, however, is where things can get a little confusing, especially with so many more countries producing their own whiskeys these days.
In Japan, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association recently amended their guidelines to ensure that when a bottle says ‘Japanese whisky’, it actually IS whisky made in Japan.
You see, previously, some Japanese brands actually imported foreign whiskies and rebottled or blended them in Japan and sold them as ‘Japanese whisky’. So now, the new “Standards for Labelling Japanese Whisky” states that a producer can only add the term Japanese whisky to its label if it fulfills certain criteria, including being made using raw ingredients and water from Japan; distilled and fermented at a distillery in Japan; matured in Japan for a period of at least three years, and also bottled in Japan.
Now, let’s head over to India. Did you know Indian whiskey brands make up more than half of the world’s top 10 best-selling whiskies in terms of volumes sold?
Brands like McDowell’s, Officer’s Choice, Imperial Blue and Royal Stag sell even more than the likes of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. There is a catch though – many of these whiskies are actually blends made from neutral spirits distilled from fermented molasses (which, outside India, is actually technically rum).
There are Indian whiskies that are closer to what the world considers “whisky” though. Single malt producers such as Paul John, Amrut and Rampur pride themselves on producing 100% malt whisky, and are highly regarded throughout the whisky world.
Where does Timah stand?
So, on to Timah then. Here are some facts about Timah that we can glean from its label and various press releases:
- It is a “Product Of Malaysia” that is “Distilled, Blended, and bottled in Malaysia” that contains 40% alcohol base volume (ABV)..
- It is a blend of two peated Scotch malt whiskies (the producers, Winepak, wouldn’t confirm where the malts are from, but when one hears ‘peated whisky’ one usually assumes it’s from Islay), and neutral spirit distilled from sugarcane molasses in Malaysia.
- It is ‘Double Peated’, apparently because the blend has two peated whiskies. Fact: There is no such term as ‘Double Peated’ in any known whisky industry, so is this their way of claiming a ‘World’s First’ for Malaysia?
Now, let’s take a look at what Malaysian law says about whisky. Here is what the Malaysian Food Regulations 1985 act defines as ‘whisky’:
“Whisky shall be the spirit produced by the distillation of cereal or cereal product which has undergone alcoholic fermentation. It shall contain not less than 37.5 per cent v/v of alcohol. (2) Whisky may contain caramel as a colouring substance and permitted flavouring substance”.
The fact that Timah is a blend of Scotch and neutral spirit made from molasses means it isn’t actually whisky in the truest sense. It DOES contain Scotch whisky, but it’s also not clear how much of the blend is actually Scotch and how much is just neutral spirit. In fact, you might even argue that it should be classified as a compounded hard liquor (CHL), which is defined as a “blend of two or more types of spirits”.
Globally, there are a few examples of whiskies that aren’t made solely from grain. As mention, most of the biggest whisky brands in India are actually made from sugarcane molasses and not grain. Over in the US, there is a category called “spirit whisky”, which is a “mixture of neutral spirits and not less than 5 percent on a proof gallon basis of whisky, or straight whisky, or straight whisky and whisky, if the straight whisky component is less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis.”
So is Timah actually whiskey? Well, since there has not been a precedent in Malaysia, one could argue that it could be pioneering a new category of “Malaysian whiskey”. (Another fun fact: Timah won an award for “Best Malaysian Whiskey” in a category where it was the only entry. It also won ‘Silver Medals’ in categories that had more than 20 silver medalists. Go figure.)
At the very least, Timah at least tastes like whiskey. The nose has a sharp grassy note typical of young malts, sweet fruitiness and a hint of peat. That light grassiness carries through to the palate, with bright green fruits in the middle, just a hint of lingering peat in the background. The finish, however, is short and sharp with some slight smoke, which could be the influence of the neutral spirits.
All in all, It’s an easy dram, typical of blended whiskies made with young Scotch, but nothing too spectacular. Is it a whiskey? To be honest, it’s probably more of a spirit drink rather than a whiskey. And if ‘Malaysian whiskey’ is going to be a thing moving forward, maybe it’s time we had some clearly defined rules for what whisky actually is in Malaysia.
Still, at this point, and with all the news surrounding it, does the casual Malaysian drinker even care in the first place?
Michael Cheang thinks it’s really important to know whether a whisky is really a whisky before taking a whisk at it. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).