Where to start, where to start. Well I guess there is no better place to start than at the very beginning. Back before Jack Daniels, back before Whiskey had an “e”, back before America itself was even around….
What is Whisky (or whiskey)?
Whisky (or whiskey as America calls it) is an anglicisation of the Classical Gaelic word (uisce) meaning “water”. Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae (“water of life”).
Technically, it is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. This mash is typically aged in wooden casks, which gives it that distinct brown color and taste. However, within the category of “whiskey” lie several confusing subsets, often containing subtle (yet important) differences.
When did Whisky get its start?
The origin of whiskey began over 1000 years ago when distillation made the migration from mainland Europe into Scotland and Ireland via traveling monks. The Scottish and Irish monasteries, lacking the vineyards and grapes of the continent, turn to fermenting grain mash, resulting in the first distillations of modern whisky.
Types of Whisky
As we said before, within the realm of Whiskey lie several confusing subsets, often containing subtle (yet important) differences. These subsets include Bourbon, Rye Whiskey, Corn Whiskey, Irish Whisky, Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch, Single Malt, Blended Malt
Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon does not have to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States it dang well pleases. However, there are a few requirements before it is given the prestigious title of “Bourbon”. The first distinction comes down to what is called the “Mash Bill“, the Mash Bill is basically the ratio of grains within a given Whiskey. The Mash Bill for Bourbon must contain at least 51% Corn. Pretty straight forward.
In addition to 51% corn, Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn. Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume). It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume). And it must be aged for at least 4 years, or the age needs to be stated on the bottle.
Malt Whisky AKA “Scotch”
Scotch = Any grain or malt whisky made in Scotland. I know, I know.. I wish there was more to this, but the only requirement is it be made in Scotland. It does typically mean however that the quality whisky you are about to drink is going to be really good. The Scottish take great pride in their whisky making abilities.
Now when you hear the term Malt I want you to think Barley. Malt whisky is typically only made in Scotland with few exceptions, and always ranks among the best and most prestigious whiskies their are. Think Macallan, Glenfiddich, Ardbeg. Malted Whisky must be made from malted barley (which is Barley that has been sprouted then dried), and has to be distilled in pot stills.
The process of malting is elaborate and used to be very time-consuming and physically demanding without the modern technology. Today the process is industrially optimized and most companies purchase their malted barley, however there are a few Distilleries out there that still work the craft and malt their own. One being the Highland Park distillery.
One of the ways Scotch Whisky differentiates itself over other whiskies in the world is because it is the only type of whisky that is “Peated.” Remember we said that Scotch is typically a malted barley. Well once the grain germinates and sprouts, the distillery must stop the germination before all the starches are lost. The process for this is called “peating” which is the smoking and drying out the barley grain using the peat found in the country side of Scotland for the fuel. This gives the barley a nice smoky flavor which stays with the whisky through the distillation process.
One other note before we move on: If now you are curious and are eager to try some malt whisky, be sure that the whisky you get is spelled without the “e”, if what you have in your hand says “Malt Whiskey” you can be sure that what you’ve got is not from Scotland and probably not the quality you are expecting.
In order for a Whiskey to label itself as a Rye Whiskey, it must contain at least 51% Rye in its Mash Bill. Rye typically has a spicy fruity flavor compared to the sweet smooth flavor one would find in a Bourbon.
Fun Fact: Its not uncommon for Canada to interchange the term Canadian Whisky with Rye Whiskey as most Canadian Whiskey is distilled using predominately Rye.
Rye Whisky has not been as common as bourbon or scotch over the years, however, it has recently started a resurgence and is starting to come back into popularity.
Irish Whiskey, like Scotch, is typically also made with a high barley percentage and is distilled 3 times. This gives the whiskey a very smooth flavor thats a bit less sweet than most American Whiskeys. Probably the most popular Irish Whiskey is Jameson. If you’ve ever had it, you can probably taste the difference between it and any bourbon you’ve tried.
Now that you have the base knowledge of what Whiskey is, how its made, and the many types of Whiskey around the world, you are ready for more! Our team of Whiskey Lovers regularly posts new and interesting content ensuring you will be the most knowledgable person you know about all things Whiskey