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What is whisky?

Whisky is a fermented and distilled spirit made from a grain, matured in oak for at least 2-3 years depending on the country and bottled at 40% abv. As brandy is distilled wine, so to could you like at whisky as a distilled beer.

Types of Whisk(e)y

Scotch Whisky – Refers to a whisky made, matured and bottled in Scotland. Quite simply put, if it not Scottish, it’s not Scotch! There are 5 types of Scotch whisky:

1. Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Refers to a Scottish whisky made from malted barley and produced at a single distillery.

2. Single Grain Scotch whisky – Refers to a Scottish whisky made from corn or wheat, and distilled in a continuous or column still. Example: Celebration of the Cask Girvan

3. Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – Refers to a Scottish whisky made by blending two or more Scottish single malts. Example: Compass Box Spice Tree

4. Blended Grain Scotch Whisky Refers to a Scottish whisky made by blending two or more Scottish single grains. Example: Compass Box Hedonism

5. Blended Scotch Whisky – Refers to a Scottish whisky made by blending Scottish malt and grain whiskies.

Irish WhiskeyRefers to a whisky made, matured and bottled in Ireland at no lower than 40% alcohol by volume. There are a number of types of Irish whiskey, which unlike Scotch whisky, is spelled with an “e”.

1.Single Malt Irish Whiskey – Refers to an Irish whiskey made from malted barley and produced at a single distillery. Example: The Tyrconnell

2.Single (or Pure) Pot Still Irish Whiskey - Refers to an Irish whiskey made from a mix of malted and un-malted barley, distilled in a pot still and produced at a single distillery. Example: Redbreast

3.Irish Single Grain Whiskey – Refers to an Irish whiskey made only from corn at a single distillery. Example: Greenore

4.Blended Irish Whiskey - Refers to an Irish whiskey made by blending Irish grain whiskey and either Irish single malt or pot still whiskey (or all three). Example: Midleton Very Rare

American Whiskey (Bourbon)Refers to a whiskey made in the United States from a mash of Fermented Grains or a single grain distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume, and bottled no lower than 40%. American whiskey, is the only other type in the world, other than Irish spelled with an “e”. American whiskey doesn’t need d to be bottled in United States to be called Whiskey, though it must be distilled there. There are no age restrictions on American whiskey.

1. Bourbon WhiskeyRefers to a whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% corn and matured in a charred new oak barrel. Bourbon is mainly produced in Kentucky, but can be produced anywhere in the United States. Example: Buffalo Trace

2. Tennessee Whiskey- Refers to a Bourbon-like whiskey made in Tennessee who’s spirit is filtered through a vat of sugar maple charcoal before maturing in oak barrels.

3. Rye Whiskey – Refers to a whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% rye grain matured in a charred new oak barrel. Example: Jim Beam Rye

4. Rye Malt Whiskey – Refers to a whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% malted rye grain matured in a charred new oak barrel. Example: High West Redezvous Rye

5. Malt Whiskey - Refers to a whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% malted barley matured in a charred new oak barrel. Example: Strananhan’s

6. Corn Whiskey – Refers to a whiskey made from a mash of at least 80% corn. Example: Roughstock Sweet Corn Whiskey

7. Blended Whiskey – Refers to a whiskey made with at least 20% of any of the above whiskey types, blended together with or without up to 80% unaged neutral grain spirit. Example: Seagram’s Seven Crown

8. Straight Whiskey – Is a term which can be applied to most of the above whiskey categories if the whiskey was distilled to no more than 80% abv, filled into barrel at no more than 62.5% abv, matured for at least 2 years in charred new oak barrels, and have been bottled without the addition of other spirits, colourings or additives.

Canadian Whisky (Rye) – Canadian whisky is one of the more flexible categories from the producer’s perspective and confusing to consumers. Canadian whisky, while still colloquially referred to as “Rye”, is mostly produced from corn and need not contain any rye in its mash to be referred to as such. Some 100% corn whiskies have been bottled as rye. When rye is used in Canadian whisky, it is usually only a very small component added for flavouring. Some 100% Rye whiskies are on the market, like Alberta Premium and Lot 40. They are generally richer, heavier and spicier in style. Canada is currently seeing a small boom in micro-distillation. 

Japanese Whisky – Japanese whisky was born in the 1920s as part of its modernization along “Western” lines. The most popular whisky in the world at that time was Scotch whisky, so unsurprisingly Japanese whisky relies heavily of Scottish styles and traditions. Japanese whisky is dominated by two major drinks companies, Suntory and Nikka. The two account for more than half of the distilleries and more than 90% of production. Very little of it finds its way to Canada. While Scotland has over 100 malt distilleries and just over 5,000,000 people, Japan has only 7 active distilleries and 125 million people. While Scotland exports most of its whisky, most of Japan’s is consumed domestically.

1.Single Malt WhiskyMade very much in the Scottish style, these whiskies are produced from malted barley and come from a single distillery.

2.Single Grain Whisky – Are distilled from column still and produced at a single distillery. These are rare, but occasionally seen.

3.Pure Malt – One of the original Scottish terms for Blended Malt (the other was Vatted), these whiskies consist of two or more single malts blended together.

4.Blended Whisky – Most Japanese whisky is consumed blended. Malt and grain whiskies are combined to create a specific flavour profile. As there are fewer distilleries in Japan, and the two largest players don’t share stocks, individual distilleries need to create numerous different styles in order to provide different components for blending.

World Whiskies –Whisky can be made anywhere in the world, as long as you follow the basic tenants. Distilleries in more and more countries are getting in on the act and are increasingly being recognized for the quality of their whiskies. Even Pakistan and the tiny nation of Lichtenstein have whisky distilleries.

1. Australia – Australia has seen a real boom in the last decade, while most efforts are located in Tasmania new distilleries are popping up all over the country.

2. Austria – There are nearly a dozen, mostly small scale distilleries in Austria, many of which emerged in the 1990’s.

3. Europe – There are whisky distilleries throughout Europe, in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Spain and other places too. Most of them small scale, making malt whisky.

4. France – There are around 20 distilleries in France making malt whisky alone. France is a huge whisky market, and one of the largest for Scotch whisky in the world.

5. Germany – Germany has more than 20 malt distilleries, again mostly small, and a unique climate where home distilling is allowed.

6. India – India is the largest producer and consumer of whisky in the world. Much of what the country produces is made from molasses, not grain, and is looked upon as rum by the rest of the world. They do have one world class distillery, Amrut, which initially wasn’t           even available in India, and was only for export.

7. New Zealand – Only one malt distillery, South Island, is in operation, but is well regarded.

8. South Africa – Has a pair of distilleries, one of which produces the Three Ships Brand, which has recently won some awards.

9. Sweden – The Swedes are perhaps the most serious malt whisky drinkers in the world, so it is not surprising that this Nordic country has nearly 10 distilleries. One of them, Mackmyra is known internationally.

10. TaiwanThe island nation is one of the biggest and most profitable markets for the Scotch whisky industry. In 2005 a large malt whisky distillery was built south of the capital Taipei. Funded by a large food and pharmaceuticals firm the distillery sought out the                   expertise of the Scotch whisky industry’s Top Guns. The climate in Taiwan ensures the whisky reaches maturity at a very young age, and its 3 and 4 year old expressions started taking the world by storm in 2008/9.

11.Wales – Whisky production was a part of Welsh life in the 1800s, but ceased. In 2000 the Penderyn distillery opened making malt with a very distinct style. The distillery’s production is small and demand is strong.

How Single Malt Whiskey is Made

Malting – Before you can make whisky from barley it must go through a process called malting which produces the enzymes required to convert its starches to sugars and other proteins into material which can be used by yeast. Malting is an artificial germination induced by soaking the barley in water. When the process is complete the barley must be dried to remove the water and prevent to the grain from developing into a plant and consuming the sugars. After malting the barley is referred to as malt.

  1. Traditionally malting was done on site by distilleries in Scotland and Ireland. Most Scottish distilleries evolved out of farms and would have been making whisky from their own grain.
  2.  Traditional floor maltings soak barley in a steep and then spread it out over a large floor to allow it to germinate. The process takes 3-5 days depending on the season and environmental factors. Every four hours, 24 hours a day the barley needs to be turned, raked and or shoveled to ensure it is germinating evenly. This is a very grueling and laborious endeavor.
  3.  Only 7 Scottish distilleries have floor maltings still in use, and only one of them, Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown, malt 100% of their own barley on site in traditional floor maltings.
  4.  Most distilleries today rely on commercial malting plants which are more efficient, consistent and cost effective. Traditional floor maltings more than double the cost of the barley for distilleries that still use them, and most can’t produce the volume of malt required by the distillery.

Milling – Once the barley has been malted it needs to rest for about six weeks before you can make whisky from it. If you use it any earlier, the yields won’t be as good. The malt is run through a dresser and de-stoner before it makes its way into the mill. This is to remove bits of wood, stone, iron and other debris which may have mixed in with the barley. Milling creates a fine particulate dust, which can be explosive, and is by far the biggest danger in the whisky making process. Milled barley is referred to as grist. The key here is cracking the barley corn but not crushing it so small that the sugar and flour can’t be drained through the husk.

Mashing – The grist is mixed with hot water in the mashtun to separate the sugars and flower from the grain’s husk. Three to four waters are sparged onto the grain while rotating arms stir the grist. The first water goes on at around 63.5oC, hot enough to extract most of the sugar, but cool enough so as not to kill the enzymes. This water is drained off and a second goes on at a higher temperature, usually above 80oC. This second water will extract the harder to get at sugars and is also drained off. A third water is added near the boiling point to extract any sugars the first two didn’t extract, some distilleries will employ a fourth water. The third and fourth waters are reheated and become the first waters of the next cycle. The first two more-sugary waters drained from the mashtun, cooled and sent to a washback. Henceforth these sugary waters are referred to as wort.

Fermentation – Once you have your sugary water, you’re ready to start producing alcohol. The wort is filled into large wood or stainless steel vessels called  a washback. When made of wood, the preferred species are either Scandanavian Larch or Oregon pine. One small Japanese distillery, Chichibu, uses very rare and expensive Japanese oak, because they feel this stage is crucial to their flavour development. There is a lot of debate over whether wood or stainless steel is better. Wood is a better insulator, while stainless steel is easier to keep clean. Some distilleries believe that flavour congeners developed during fermentation can be influenced by micro-organisms trapped in the wood. Washbacks can range from just a few thousand liters to well over 60,000. Yeast is added to the sugary wort and fermentation ensues. The bi-product is CO2 and alcohol. At this stage you are creating a sweet and sour beer, which is very cloudy. Depending on how the distillery treats its fermentation, and the barley’s yield, the strength of the alcohol can range from 5-10%. This is all the alcohol you will have, from this point on it is all about refining and concentrating the alcohol, dropping most of the water, traces of barley and yeast. As it leaves the washbacks the cloudy liquid is known as wort.

·       Springbank distillery is unique among most distilleries in that it intentionally stops its fermentation around 5-6%. Most distilleries look for the highest alcohol yield per ton of barley, but Springbank is more concerned about tradition. When pressed why this is the case, the retort is the same: “because this is the way it’s always been done!”

Distillation – Most Scottish distillers employ one or more pairs of copper pot stills for their distillation. A few distilleries dabble in triple distillation, only one of them full time, Auchentoshan. The first distillation takes place in the wash still, so named for the cloudy beer that goes into it. The wash still will take the alcohol from 5-10% alcohol up to about 20%. The resulting liquid is called Low Wines, and they are completely colourless. The spirit will have no colour until it has matured in oak. The second distillation takes place in the spirit still, and this distillation is far more crucial than the first for flavour development. Only a small portion of the spirit that comes off the second still is kept, this is called the heart or middle cut. The heart generally represents no more than 15-20% of the spirit run. The first alcohol to come off the still the Head (or Foreshots) and the last, the Tail (or Feints), are not suitable for consumption and are set to the side. The heart will come off the still at around 70% and a great degree of consistency is sought here as this is the distillery’s core style. Until it has matured 3 years in oak barrels, it is just spirit and cannot be called whisky. The head and tails, which represent the bulk of the spirit run aren’t wasted, they are set aside and redistilled with the next batch of low wines.

Maturation – Most distilleries in Scotland fill their whisky into barrels at 63.5%. This standardized strength facilitates trading between distilleries. Some will fill at the strength the spirit comes off the still, especially if they aren’t concerned about trading casks (Springbank and Glenfarclas distilleries come to mind). The oak barrels have a number of effects on the whisky. The first is additive, with the oak being responsible for 100% of the colour and 70-80% of the flavour of the whisky after just 10 years. The second is subtractive, the more volatile elements of the spirit will evapourate from the cask and harsh elements like iron and sulphur will be scrubbed out by carbon in the charred oak. The third effective of the oak is interactive where air is pushed in and out of the cask changing the spirit and adding environmental characteristics. Up to 2% of the volume of the cask will evapourate each year, most of that alcohol; this is known as the angel’s share. Oak is the only wood allowed in the maturation of Scotch whisky, but not all oak is the same. Two principal species are employed, American Oak (quercus alba) and European Oak (quercus robur). But there are other types too.

  1. American oak typically comes in the form of 190-200L Bourbon barrels. In the US you can only use a Bourbon barrel once, so there is a surplus of oak. American oak tend to impart a golden colour and notes of honey, vanilla, coconut and white fruits.
  2. European oak typically comes in the form of Sherry casks from Jerez in Spain. European oak tends to give a darker more amber/mahogany hue to whisky, imparting flavours of dark fruits, chocolate, leather and tobacco. As the demand for sherry seasoned barrels for maturing whisky far exceeds the demand for sherry-wine, costs have soared and producers have had to get creative. Most of the sherry produced today is mainly used for seasoning casks.
  3. French oak is perhaps the next most common, usually ex-wine bariques or congnac casks. French oak imparts a spicy character and flavours somewhat between those of the two more dominant types.
  4. Japanese oak known as Mizunara is not used outside of Japan, and is very expensive.  It can add an oriental flare to the whisky with notes of sandalwood and a type of incense (kara). Some research by the Japanese whisky industry has shown that Mizunara wood can give a whisky a more potent coconut aroma than American oak. The oak is rare and difficult to harvest in Japan, and its porous nature allows for a greater amount of leakage and evapouration.

Bottling – The age of a whisky is determined only by one factor, the length of time it has matured in oak. As soon as the whisky has been bottled it stops aging. A 12 year old whisky 50 years in the bottle is still a 12 year old whisky! Most distilleries water their whiskies down before bottling to 40, 43 or 46%. If a whisky is bottled below 46%, it generally needs to be chill-filtered. Chill-filtration is controversial because it is a mainly cosmetic process that will keep the whisky from going cloudy or hazy if it is chilled or water is added. Whiskies bottled above 46% don’t need to be chill-filtered as the alcohol is strong enough to re-emulsify the water and oils. The debate over which is better continues, but the trend is towards bottling un-chill filtered at 46%.

  1.  A cask strength whisky is a whisky that has been bottled without dilution.
  2.  The age statement can be no greater than the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle!