Since its creation in the Middle Ages, millions have considered whisky or whiskey their favourite drink. Mankind finds the experience that comes from nursing the amber coloured liquid in their hands, inhaling its smoky and wooden aromas and then gulping it down to feel its warmth, simply magical.
The beverage and the culture surrounding it has gained massive fame over the centuries. More people join in as they acquire a taste for it. People celebrate and honor the drink any chance they get. So, in the spirit of that, this post will discuss almost everything that has got to do with whiskey. First of all, we’ll understand what whiskey really is. Then, we’ll find out when and how it was first made, following which, we’ll see how whiskey is produced today. Finally, we’ll look at how whiskey lovers like to enjoy their drink and then attempt to comprehend why they like it.
What is whiskey?
The term whisky or whiskey acts as an all-inclusive word to describe different types of alcoholic distilled spirits made from mashed and fermented grain. For example, all Scotch is whiskey but not all whiskey is Scotch. The actual name of the whisk(e)y may depend on its place of origin, type of grain used, ageing and blending methods. In this case, Scotch refers to whiskey made in Scotland.
Grains such as barley, corn, rye, wheat or their combinations are used to make whisk(e)y. Other grains may also be used, but currently, the majority of whiskies are made with these four grains. Once distilled, the liquid is aged in wooden casks for a few years. The final product is a beverage containing at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). The beverage has a range of flavours and aromas, though it generally tastes smoky, spicy and warm.
What is the difference between whiskey and whisky?
At this point, you may be asking yourself, is it whiskey with an ‘e’? or, whisky without an ‘e’?
Both are correct, it just depends where the whisk(e)y is from. Ireland and the United States usually spell whiskey with an ‘e’. Whereas Scotland, Japan and Canada spell whisky without an ‘e’.
The plural for whisky is whiskies. For whiskey, it is whiskeys.
The word whisky or whiskey comes from the word Uisge beatha or usquebaugh. It is the Gaelic translation of the Latin phrase aqua vitae or, ‘water of life.’ Gaelic is a language that was and is still spoken in both Ireland and Scotland.
People mispronounced the Gaelic word so much, that it was eventually shortened to usky by the 18th century. Usky further evolved into the word whisky.
It was originally the Irish whiskey makers who began adding an ‘e’ to the word. They did this for marketing purposes, to differentiate their beverage from Scottish whisky and other Irish competitors from rural areas.
Types of whiskey
The type of whiskey depends on where the whiskey is from, the kind of grain and recipe used, the ageing method, the blending process and dilution, among other factors. Here are some of the most popular types:
Single Malt Whiskey: This means that the whiskey was made of only one type of grain, which in this case is malted barley. It also means that the whiskey was distilled in pot stills by one single distillery.
Single Malt whiskey is usually associated with Scotch as this type of whiskey is believed to have originated in Scotland. This also means that this whiskey has to be aged for at least 3 years in an oak cask no larger than 700 litres. Single Malts in other countries can use other types of grain instead of barley.
- Examples of Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Image Credit: Independent UK
Blended Malt Whiskey: As the name suggests, it refers to a blend of several single malt whiskies, from different distilleries.
Malt Whiskey: This refers to whiskey that is distilled using a mash bill containing at least 51% malted barley. Like most whiskey, malt whiskey must have at least 40% ABV. Most Scotch is usually a malted whiskey of some sort. As such, it is highly sought after by whiskey lovers.
Rye whiskey: This is whiskey produced using at least 51% rye for the mash bill. It produces a lighter but spicier tasting drink. Regulations for making rye whiskey differ from country to country.
Blended Whiskey: This is a whiskey made by mixing different whiskies. The blend can have whiskies made from only one grain or a combination of grains. Additionally, they’re sometimes even mixed with neutral grain spirits. Neutral grain spirits are odourless, colourless spirits made by repeatedly distilling grain mash. The result is a one of a kind whiskey with rich and complex flavours.
Types of whiskies from their places of origin
Scotch: Scotch refers to whiskey from Scotland. If the whiskey isn’t produced in Scotland, it isn’t considered to be Scotch. The whiskey must contain a minimum of 40% ABV, which is usually double distilled. Finally, it must age in oak casks for at least 3 years. These casks aren’t required to be new. In fact, many a time, casks are reused from sherry, bourbon, wine, rum or cognac production. Most scotch is malt or single malt whiskey.
Irish: Irish whiskey has to be produced in either Ireland or Northern Ireland. What is special about Irish whiskey is that all its grain mash must contain some percentage of malted barley. This may be blended with other grains and even unmalted barley, but it has to have malted barley. The whiskey is normally triple distilled, producing a lighter spirit. Producers can add some amount of colouring, like caramel, to bring that iconic amber colour to the liquid.
Whiskies from North America
Bourbon: Bourbon is a type of whiskey made in the USA. It was in fact named after Bourbon County in the state of Kentucky. By law, it has to be made using a mash bill containing a minimum of 51% corn. Bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak barrels, which are freshly made barrels whose insides are charred to different degrees. The darker the char, the darker will be the colour of the whiskey. No colouring can be added to bourbon.
- Bourbon from Kentucky. Image Credit: Jim Bean
Tennessee Whiskey: As the name suggests, this type of whiskey was invented in Tennessee. And, naturally, it has to be made in the state of Tennessee. Like Bourbon, it must be made with a mash bill with at least 51% corn and then use the Lincoln County process after distillation. In this process, the distilled whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before ageing. As a result, it produces a smoother whiskey.
Rye whiskies are then blended with whiskies made from other grains. Here they can use various whiskies and even other types of alcohol, such as sherry, for the blend.
Much like Scotch, Canadian whiskey also has to be distilled and aged in Canada, in wooden casks no bigger than 700 litres for a minimum of 3 years. And, they are permitted to add colour and flavourings, to up to 9.09% of the bottled spirit. This results in whiskies with a vast flavour profile.
Decoding some whiskey jargons
Malted: This means that the grain is allowed to germinate so it can release the necessary starches, sugar and enzymes required for production. Once released, germination is stopped.
Mash or mash bill: This refers to the mixture of crushed grains mixed with water that resembles porridge.
Pot Still: This is a piece of equipment used for the distillation process. These kettles are traditionally made of copper. They have a large bulbous base and a relatively long and narrow neck with a spout-like structure. Irish and Scotch pot still whiskies and malt whiskies have to be distilled in pot stills.
- The traditional copper pot still. Image Credit: BrewsnSpirits
Proof: Proof is another measure of the amount of alcohol. It indicates the strength of the drink, just as ABV is used. It is usually used for hard liquor.
There are different proof scales in different countries. In the UK, for example, 100 proof equals 57% ABV. Meaning 1.75 times the ABV will calculate the proof. Luckily, today, the UK simply uses the ABV measuring system.
In the US, ABV measures half of the proof. So whiskies, which are said to be between 80 – 100 US proof, equal 40%-50% ABV.
In France, proof and ABV follow a 1 to 1 ratio. Hence, an 80% ABV equals 80 proof.
How and when was whiskey invented?
The technique of distillation was likely to have been invented and developed in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago. The Mesopotamians used this technique to manufacture perfumes.
From there, this art is believed to have diffused across Europe during the rule of the Moors between the 8th and 15th centuries AD. From there, Christian monks learned the method and further developed it to produce concoctions using grapes and other fruits. They’d prepare them for religious ceremonies and medicines to treat diseases such as smallpox, colic and palsy. It was also used as an anaesthetic. For this reason, production was restricted mainly to monasteries up until the 15th century.
- Illustration of medieval monks in their distillery. Image Credit: Joseph Haier via Neat Stuff
Distillation reaching Scotland and Ireland
Monks, travelling from continental Europe, reached the shores of Scotland and Ireland. Over there, they couldn’t find any grapes as they did in mainland Europe, so they used whatever was available – grain. That is how they distilled fermented grain mash into the first whiskey between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Some theorize that the Christian missionaries had no role to play. They believe that Scottish Highland farmers had discovered how to distil whiskey as they were trying to find methods to use up excess barley.
However, whether it was Ireland or Scotland to be the first to produce whiskey is debatable. Earlier evidence comes from 1405 Ireland, where there is a record of the head of one clan dying from consuming excessive aqua vitae.
While the first evidence from Scotland comes from the 1494 Exchequer Rolls, recording the fact that King James IV of Scotland ordered sufficient malt to make around 500 bottles of aqua vitae.
Aqua vitae, or the water of life, is thought to have been whiskey.
In the 16th century, whiskey production moved from the monasteries to individual producers after Henry VIII of England dissolved all monasteries. Many of these individual producers were monks finding new sources of income.
By the 17th century, whiskey and making whiskey was introduced to America via the colonists. Soon after, a significant population of Irish and Scottish people migrated to North America, established distilleries and began using local grains such as corn, to produce whiskey.
How is whiskey made?
The exact process of producing whiskey can be unique to a country or even a distillery. However, the general process of making whiskey can be divided into two main steps. The fermentation and the distillation. Alcohol is created through fermentation, while distillation concentrates the amount of alcohol in the fermented liquid.
- The Process of Making Whiskey. Image Credit: ticklishpanda123 via Vecteezy
First of all, the grain is crushed to prepare it for making the mash. The grains are dried before being crushed. In Scotch, barley needed to make the malt whiskies is roasted over a peat fire. Peat is an organic layer of soil found on the surface of the land. It is made of decomposed plant matter. Peat fire provides that smokiness to Scotch whiskey.
Crushed grain is mixed with clean water obtained locally. This is then boiled to create a porridge-like substance. Once it cools, yeast is added to the porridge and it is left to ferment. After fermentation, the liquid, which is beer, is filtered and is then sent for distillation.
The liquid is distilled as many times as required using either pot stills or column stills. Here the beer is heated into vapours that condense and come out from the other end of the distillation equipment. This liquid is highly concentrated in alcohol.
The high proof liquor is poured into wooden casks or barrels and left to age for a specific amount of time. During this time, the whiskey develops its signature aroma, flavour, texture and some colour.
Next, colouring and flavours are added, wherever it is permitted. Then, if needed, it is blended and then diluted to the proof required for bottling. This is usually 80 US proof or 40% ABV. The final step is bottling the liquid in clear glass bottles. Once a whiskey is bottled, it stops maturing.
What causes variation in flavor?
- Image Credit: Whisky.com
For instance, the source of the water used plays a crucial role in deciding the flavour. If two distilleries are located in the same area, but if each draws water from a different source, each will produce very different whiskies with distinct flavour profiles.
The climate also has a part to play, especially during the ageing process. The quality and characteristics of the air in a place can decide whether the whiskey will be smooth and mellow or harsh.
Another factor is the method of distillation and the apparatus used for the process. The design of the apparatus, in particular, shall determine the texture and taste. The skill of the people responsible for the distillation process is also another important factor.
Whiskey traditions can refer to either the way a certain whiskey is crafted or the way that it is consumed. Here we will discuss the latter.
When it comes to drinking whiskey, there is no fixed or correct way of drinking it. However, there are some classic ways to enjoy the drink, as recommended by whiskey connoisseurs and whiskey lovers.
This is whiskey poured into a glass without any water, ice or mixers. It’s just pure whiskey. The drink is swirled to agitate the liquid, thus opening up its flavours and scents. Purists swear by drinking whiskey this way. They believe it is unacceptable to add ice to whiskey because it dilutes the drink. However, whiskey lovers strive to avoid snobbery, so, they drink it neat only if they prefer to.
Speaking of diluting whiskey, many people like to add a splash of water to their drink. This seemingly aids the senses to properly detect the aromas and flavours of the whiskey. Many find that the alcohol content in a neat drink is too numbing so they cannot taste or smell anything. Whereas, with a little splash of water, it releases the hydrophobic elements, making it easier for the senses to detect.
On the rocks
- Whisky stones. Image Credit: Man of Many
This refers to adding ice to a dram of whiskey. This achieves the same result as water, but it chills the drink and takes longer to dilute the drink. Ice can be in the form of ice cubes or a big ice ball. Many bars use larger ice cubes as they take longer than normal ice cubes to water down the drink. In the case one wishes to only cool their drink without diluting it, they use chilled whiskey stones. These are even available in the shape of ice cubes.
Whiskey is mixed with other mixers and ingredients to create a balanced drink without masking its qualities. Popular examples are the Manhattan, Whiskey Sour and the Old Fashioned.
To truly experience whiskey, some things to look out for are its appearance, smell, taste and mouth-feel. Drinking whiskey is an art that honours the efforts of the makers and the entire process of making the beverage.
What does Whiskey Symbolize?
- Image Credit: Man of Many
Some drinks, whether alcoholic or non-alcoholic, have become a symbol of national identity for countries around the globe. It is a representation of the country’s culture, values and way of life.
In Scotland, Ireland and the United States, whiskey is deep-rooted in their cultural heritage and history. Currently, whiskey is, unsurprisingly, the national drink of Scotland, where it represents impartiality between social classes, generosity and masculinity. This is because the drink was originally only allowed to be consumed by men. Today, everyone can enjoy the drink and they do so wholeheartedly.
Similarly, bourbon is the national drink of the United States. On top of it being a symbol of the country, its entrepreneurial spirit and hard work, it is also a symbol of love. As such, many like to gift bourbon to their partners.
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