Whisky - Much More Than a Drink
Whisky lovers will tell you that their favorite spirit is no mere drink. Rather, it is a thing of such complexity that it rises above its earthly liquid form to embody tradition, craftsmanship, and maybe even a touch of the divine. Is this an exaggeration? Possibly. To enter into the spirit of whisky, we must step back in time, to explore its origins and cultural impact.
The Story of Whisky
Whisky's story begins in the misty valleys and mountains of Ireland and Scotland. Distillation using alembic stills reached the monasteries of the Celtic fringe between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was impossible to make grapes in this northern climate for the Eucharist. Therefore Celtic monks needed to be inventive. They used what was around them in abundance - grains, which they fermented, distilled, and aged in casks. The monks named this new golden spirit "uisge beatha" in Gaelic, meaning the "water of life," the word eventually changed to “Whisky”.
Over the centuries, whisky evolved from this early distillate in monastic cellars to become a cultural emblem that would cross oceans and continents. The Scottish and Irish immigrants brought their whisky-making skills with them during their westward expansion across the United States. They used whatever grains they found - mostly rye and eventually corn.
The modern world of whisk(e)y recognizes five broad types of whisky based on place of origin, grains used, and distillation processes. Whisky spelled with no ‘e’ encompasses spirits from Scotland, Canada, and Japan, and are stylistically similar. Whiskey with an ‘e’ refers to spirits that are made in the USA and Ireland.
What are the different types of Whisky?
In the most basic sense, whiskey is simply a hop-free beer that has been distilled. As the grain is steeped, the yeasts convert the sugars into alcohol. Different grains have different sugar contents. Corn, for example, has a higher sugar content than wheat or rye, creating a whiskey with a sweeter taste than one made from wheat or rye.
Scottish Whisky is divided into four types:
Single Malt: considered to be the pinnacle of Scotch whisky. It is made from 100% malted barley distilled twice in small pot stills which can produce a rich and complex character. A Single Malt Whisky is always the product of a single distillery and aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks. Frequently it is labeled with its place of origin - this is a very important detail as different regions produce different styles and flavor profiles in a whisky.
- Campbeltown: varied, usually full flavored with saline, smoky, fruity characters and notes of vanilla, and toffee.
- Highland and Islands: a broad range of whiskies for every palate from light to robust.
- Islay: mostly very robust, heavily peated whiskies with salty and medicinal notes.
- Lowland: soft and smooth with grassy, floral, toasty, and spicy notes.
- Speyside: lots of fruit notes like apple and pear as well as vanilla and spice, commonly aged in sherry casks.
Other Scottish styles include:
Blended Malt Whisky which is 100% malted barley and is a collaboration between two or more distilleries.
Blended Whisky is a combination of single malt whisky and wheat or corn whisky.
Single Grain Whisky is made from 100% corn or wheat and primarily used as part of the blend once it has been made in column stills.
Canadian whisky perhaps owes its initial success to Prohibition in the US from 1920-1933. With America forbidden from making or consuming alcohol, their northern neighbors were more than happy to fill the void and supply the ubiquitous speakeasies. To this day about 75% of production is exported to the US. Rye was one of the few grains that could tolerate the extreme winters but nowadays they are more likely to be based on corn. Canadian whisky is usually the product of a single distillery and is frequently a blend of two types of whisky: a base whisky and a flavoring whisky. The style tends to be lighter and sweeter. They are quite full-bodied which makes them an excellent base for cocktails.
Japanese whisky in its inspiration and distillation is nearly identical to Scotch. The prime differences lie in the use of a variety of different still shapes and sizes to tailor the spirit to create specific flavors. The concept of ‘kaizen’ or continuous improvement inspires the distilleries to produce the very best whisky possible. It is no surprise that Japanese whiskies often take Best of the Best class in tastings and competitions.
Irish whiskey makers will assure you that they invented whiskey in the 6th century AD. It has some similarities to Scotch but also deviates in certain key ways:
Single Malt Whiskey is 100% barley made in pot stills, usually distilled three times. A closed kiln heated by coal or gas is used to roast the malted barley giving clear barley flavours rather than the smoky, ‘peat-reek’ of many Scotches. Irish whiskey is made by a single distillery and aged for a minimum of three years.
Blended Whisky is a combination of single-malt and grain whiskey.
Single Pot Still Whiskey is unique to Ireland, made from 100% barley in a pot still. Irish whiskey is smoother and less sweet than bourbon mostly due to the triple distillation.
America produces quite an array of whiskies, but the key ones are Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, and Rye.
Bourbon originated in the south, especially in Kentucky although now it can be made anywhere in the US. It needs to be a minimum of 51% corn, and unlike Canadian whisky, it cannot have any coloring, caramel, or flavoring additives. It can however be watered down to hit a specific ABV. To be called “straight” bourbon, the spirit needs to be aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new-oak American barrels. Bourbon tends to have a caramelly sweetness with notes of vanilla.
Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey differs in that the corn content must be 51-79% and it must undergo something called the Lincoln County Process whereby the spirit is filtered through maple charcoal chunks prior to aging. This whiskey is generally mellower than Bourbon, less sweet, and usually with a smoky or sooty note from the filtering.
Bottled in Bond is a specific higher proof category (minimum 100 proof) aged in new oak for a minimum of four years. This process creates spirits that are quite robust from the higher alcohol.
Rye Whiskey must have a mash bill of no less than 51% Rye again aged in charred oak for two years. It tends to have a crisper, spicier, sharper mouthfeel than Bourbon.
When discussing whisky, different grains, different roasting techniques, and different kinds and sizes of still will all contribute to the range of flavors in a base spirit. However, during barrel aging the magic really happens. The choice of cask can have an immense influence on the final product. As the whisky slumbers in the cellar or warehouse, it draws out the flavors of the wood – the tannins, and vanillin, creating a myriad of complex aromas and flavors. Each passing year adds layers of complexity.