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'.
The earliest historical reference to whisky in Scotland dates from 1494, when the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of this year mention a monk, Friar John Cor, who was requested by the king to make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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.