Whisky, or whiskey is a distilled spirit produced from grain. Different grains, such as barley, rye, wheat and corn, can be used to produce different styles, and most are aged in oak barrels. The spelling ‘whisky’ is used in Scotland, Canada, India, Australia, Japan and Europe, whilst Ireland and America prefer ‘whiskey'.
As with most spirits the history of whisky production is surrounded in mystery, it is generally assumed that it originated as a medicinal cure produced by monks - initially in Ireland - who had learnt the art of distillation from the Moors while doing missionary work in the Mediterranean in about the 5th century AD. As the climate was too cold to grow grapes for wine for distillation, barley beer was used instead. At this time there was a lot of travel between Ireland and Scotland as new monasteries were established, so distillation soon spread across the Irish Sea. Distilled spirits were used more as a medicine or tonic, hence its name ‘water of life’ which is ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced “oo-sh-kie-vahr”) in Gaelic, which eventually became ‘whisky’.
The earliest historical reference to whisky in Scotland dates from 1494, when the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of this year mention a monk, Friar John Cor, who was requested by the king to make "aquavitae" from eight “bolls of malt”. Production at this time was mostly on a small scale by monasteries, but by the end of the 16th century whisky distilling had become widespread amongst the farming communities.
A key food crop in much of Scotland and Ireland at the time was a type of barley known as “bere” (etymologically the root of ‘beer’ and ‘barley’). Due to the cold, damp climate dry grain could not be stored for any length of time. Grain that could not be used immediately was turned into ale which would last longer, but not indefinitely. Distilling the ale allowed it to be kept for a much longer time.
In 1643, England introduced excise duty on alcohol, followed by Scotland in 1644. This taxation resulted in large numbers of underground distillers who could not afford the tax moving into the highlands, and continuing to distil ‘bootleg’ whisky.
Colonization of America lead to distillation techniques being passed on, and many grain growing areas took these techniques and applied them to the corn, rye and wheat grown locally. The first distillations of whiskey by the Scots-Irish settlers occurred in the 18th century using rye. By the 1790s, in areas of Kentucky, distillers began routinely adding the local crop of corn (the ‘native grain’) to their whiskey and charring casks for ageing leading to the flavours and colours that are now associated with American bourbon whiskey.
The invention of the Coffey Still in 1831 made the distillation of whisky more efficient and cheaper. Scotch distillers began mixing the lighter grain whisky from these stills with the more full bodied malts to create a more rounded and consistent product, more suited to the English palate. This, combined with the devastation of the French brandy industry by American louse, resulted in a dramatic increase in demand for whisky.
In the 1870’s as the market became awash with Scottish blended whiskey the Irish and Americans adopted the spelling "whiskey", with the extra "e", to distinguish their product.
The raw materials required for the production of whisky are grain, water and yeast. The production process can be broken down into five stages – malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
A grain seed consists mostly of starch. To begin the fermentation process to produce alcohol, the starch must first be converted into fermentable sugars. Malting is carried out in three stages: steeping, germinating and kilning. Steeping involves soaking the barley to increase its moisture content. Germination requires fooling the barley into thinking it is spring and beginning to sprout. This means the barley needs warmth, air and moisture. Traditionally this was done by spreading the grain out on the floor of a building called a malting house and turning by hand. This method is labour intensive and too dependent on atmospheric conditions, so modern distillers often opt for quicker methods using specially designed germination boxes (in fact, very few distilleries still have their own maltings; the vast majority buy their malt from commercial maltsters, who produce it to the distillers’ specifications). Once the grain has started to shoot, the growth is stopped by drying it in a kiln. In Scotland this was traditionally fuelled by peat, and it is at this point where the characteristic peat smoke can be introduced and influence the flavour of the final spirit. After malting the grain is ground in a mill, producing a coarse flour known as ‘grist’.
Barley grist is mixed with hot water in a mash tun (a large vat made of wood or stainless steel) and gently stirred for several hours. Corn and rye flour often only needs to be ‘cooked’ in a mash tun for approximately half an hour at higher temperatures. Sugars dissolve and these are drawn off through the bottom of the mash tun. Any left over residue is collected and often used for farm feed.
Yeast in now added and triggers fermentation, converting the sugars to alcohol. Fermentation continues until an alcohol volume of 5 to 10% ABV is reached. It is worth noting that up to this point the production of whisky and ale or beer are extremely similar.
Distillation methods differ between country, region, style and distillery. Scottish malt whisky is all made in pot stills and grain in column, with blends being a mixture of the two. Irish whiskey is usually a mixture of pot and column (although interestingly Ireland initially refused to accept the continuous still, a major factor in the rise of scotch to dominance; some brands still produce an Irish ‘pure pot still’ whiskey). Bourbon is usually distilled first in a column still, then through a type of pot still call a ‘thumper’. In Scotland, malt whisky is traditionally distilled twice, while Ireland opts for three times; in America two distillations is the preference. Exceptions, of course, exist in all countries.
A pot still tends to produce a full flavoured, viscous final product, while column stills are generally associated with milder flavoured and lighter bodied spirit (although certain bourbons show that this is not always the case). Likewise, double distillation usually gives a heavier, fuller flavoured spirit than triple distillation, which tends to produce finer and lighter alcohol.
Whisky must be matured for a length of time defined by each country and style. The minimum is usually two or three years, but many whiskies are aged for considerably longer. Whisky is aged in wooden casks made predominantly from American or French oak. American straight whiskey is almost all aged in new charred oak. Scottish whisky is aged predominately in used bourbon or sherry casks; however since the arrival of ‘finishing’ it is not uncommon to see rum, sauternes, port or any other kind of barrel. Irish whiskey uses a variety of new and used casks, mostly bourbon and sherry.
Malt – whisky made from malted barley only and generally distilled in a pot still.
Single malt – malt whisky from only one distillery
Grain – whisky made from un-malted barley, wheat, corn or other grains (with a small amount of malted barley).
Vatted, blended or pure malt – a blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended scotch – a blend of malt and grain whisky.
Single cask – whisky from one barrel, unblended.
Cask strength – bottled without any dilution. The drinker is then able to dilute the whisky to their preferred strength.
Bourbon must be made in the United States, but it is a common misconception that it has to be from Bourbon County. Although historically bourbon did indeed come from Bourbon County, today no whiskey is made in the region. Bourbon must be aged at least 2 years in new oak charred barrels, and the age must be stated on the label if it is less than 4 years old. It must be made from at least 51% corn – most bourbon recipes typically contain 70- 80% - and must be distilled below 160 degree proof (80% ABV), and put into barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV.
Straight rye whiskey by law must contain at least 51% rye. European settlers in NE America around Pennsylvania and Maryland grew rye as they found barley did not take too well to American soils, and in the 1700’s American rye whiskey was the spirit of choice (bourbon wasn’t developed until late in the century). Because of the need to fund the revolution, George Washington began to tax distillers, and as a result they moved south and into Virginia Territory, the area which became Bourbon County, Kentucky. The state of Virginia was offering farmers 400 acres if they would clear the land and start growing corn, which naturally they began to distil, creating what would eventually become bourbon whiskey. Rye whiskey almost disappeared after prohibition but demand has increased enormously in the last few years.
Tennessee whiskey is generally similar to bourbon, in that it is composed of a mash of at least 51% corn (maize), distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), and aged for a minimum of two years in new charred barrels. But unlike bourbon, Tennessee whiskey undergoes a filtering stage called the Lincoln County Process, in which the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into casks for aging. This step gives the whiskey a distinctive flavour.
The previous styles of whisky are known as ‘straight’ whiskies. In order to be defined as straight a whiskey must meet certain: it must be distilled below 160 proof (80% ABV) and it must be aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels (with the exception of corn whiskey, which may be aged in new or used barrels, which should not be charred) at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). In addition to this, if a whisky is made from at least 51% of any grain – corn, rye, wheat – it is designated ‘straight bourbon whiskey’, ‘straight rye whiskey’, ‘straight wheat whiskey’etc. The exception, again, is corn whiskey, which must be 80% corn. ‘Blended whiskey’ in America refers to a mixture that is at least 20% straight whiskey combined with neutral spirits (or whiskey which cannot be defined as ‘straight’).
Canadian whisky is made primarily from corn or wheat, with a supplement of rye, barley, or barley malt. There are no Canadian government requirements when it comes to the percentages of grains used in the mash bill. The minimum age for Canadian Whisky is three years, with most brands being aged four to six years. Virtually all Canadian whiskies (except the pot-distilled malt whiskies of Glenora in Nova Scotia) are blended from different grain whiskies of different ages, frequently from a range of different stills.
One man is largely responsible for the existence of Japanese whisky. Masataka Taketsura, the son of a sake brewer, went to Scotland in 1918 to learn about whisky. He spent two years studying chemistry at Glasgow University whilst working at various distilleries. He returned to Japan in 1920 with his Scottish wife, and in 1923 he established the Yamazaki distillery with Shinjiro Torii, the founder of the company that would become Suntory. After ten years as distillery manager he left to set up his own distillery, Yoichi, and founded Nikka. These two companies still dominate Japanese whisky production.
Japanese whiskies began as a conscious decision to try and emulate the style of Scottish whiskies, which were being already consumed in Japan. This means they tend to follow the Scottish tradition, with malt whiskies being double distilled in pot stills and grain whiskies in column stills. There are certain variations and innovations unique to Japan, however - such as the use of Japanese wood, or using a Coffey still to distil malt whisky. There are currently about 10 whisky distilleries in Japan scattered throughout Honshu and Hokkaido, the two main northern islands of Japan. Casks are not exchanged as in Scotland, so the distilleries each tend to make a variety of spirits.
Irish whiskeys, both blended and malt, are usually triple distilled through both column and pot stills, although there are a few exclusively pot-distilled brands. The malting process also generally differs between Irish whiskey & Scotch, as Irish tends to use malted barley, dried in a closed kiln and then mixed with unmalted barley before being ground into grist. The use of unmalted barley started in the 1850s as a way to reduce tax bills. Irish pure pot still whiskey is generally labelled as such; it is a whiskey made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley distilled only in pot stills. These whiskeys tend to have an oily character; Redbreast 12yr and Green Spot are good examples. Standard Irish whiskey is a blend of malt and grain whiskies. There are now only 3 major whiskey distilleries left in Ireland; Bushmills, Cooley, and Middleton, but there is still a great range of wonderful whiskey available.
A number of countries around the world produce whiskies based on the high demand for Scotch in their domestic markets. India for example produces a large amount of “whisky” made from various barley and non-barley ingredients. While many of the brands would not be considered “export quality” or even technically whisky, there is a trend leaning toward the production of higher quality brands geared to compete in both domestic and export markets
A wide variety of both blended and malt whiskies are produced in Scotland. ‘Single malts’ are made from 100% barley malt and are the product of one distillery. The age statement refers to the youngest component in the vatting. ‘Blended’, ‘vatted’ or ‘pure malt’ is a growing category that came in to effect in 2005 and takes advantage of the rise in demand for malt whisky. Although its emergence as a category is fairly recent the style has been around for many years: the first whisky brand launched in 1853 was actually a blended malt, Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet.
Grain whisky is lighter in character and higher in alcohol than malt and is produced in column stills. The mash of either wheat or corn has a small percentage of malted barley added, for its enzymes, and the cereal is cooked in a pressure cooker at high temperatures to hydrolyse the starch. The spirit must be taken off the still at less than 94.8% ABV and the distillate must taste of grain. There are a few single grain whiskies produced but the majority of the volume is used in blended scotch. Vatted grain whiskies are even rarer.
Blended scotch is a mixture of single malts and grain whiskies. The grain whisky helps the malts to meld together. The usual ratio is around 60% grain to 40% malt but this varies according to style and producer. A blender will need to maintain the consistency of character shown by the brand. There is no fixed recipe so he will use his knowledge to combat the effects of different woods and the closures of different distilleries.
Scotland is split up into four main whisky producing regions; Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown, with each area producing whiskies which are similar in their broad basic flavours, although there are more than a few exceptions. However, unlike wine, it is wrong to assume that whisky demonstrates the effects of terroir. The reasons that whiskies from the same area demonstrate similar characteristics come rather from historical, commercial and cultural factors, as well as geography.
The Highlands is by far the biggest area consisting of the portion of Scotland north of a line from Dundee on the North Sea coast in the east to Greenock on the Irish Sea in the west, including all of the islands off the mainland except for Islay. Not surprisingly there is no unified Highland character but a wide stylistic range, generally aromatic, smooth and medium bodied, sweet start, grassy, fruity and citric, with palates that range from lushly complex to floral delicacy. You will find some of the best known distilleries in this region. The sub regions of the Highlands include Speyside; the North, East and West Highlands; the Orkney Isles; and the Western Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, and Skye).
The Lowlands encompass the entire Scottish mainland south of the Highlands except the Kintyre Peninsula where Campbeltown is located. Lowland malt whiskies are usually light bodied and delicate and most end up in blends.
Islay is an island off the west coast. Because there is no coal on Islay distillers have traditionally used peat to dry their malt, which results in whiskies which are intensely smoky and pungent in character, with a distinctive seaweedy aroma, and an iodine or medicinal tang that is said to come from sea salt permeating the local peat.
Campbeltown is a port located on the tip of the Kintyre Peninsula on the southwest coast that has its own distinctive spicy and salt-tinged malt whiskies.