Whiskey is technically distilled beer. It is made with a mash bill of grain (generally malted barley, rye, corn or wheat) that’s been heated and steeped with water to convert the starch to fermentable sugar (the resulting liquid is called a “wort.”) Afterwards, yeast is added and the wort is fermented and then distilled. All whiskey that comes off the still is clear in the glass; most are aged in oak barrels after distillation for months or years, which coax out different aromas and flavors depending on the type of barrel and add color and complexity. When it’s not matured in barrels, the spirit is called unaged whiskey or “moonshine.”
There is a general rule of thumb for the spirit’s spelling. If it’s produced in a country with an “e” in its name (the United States and Ireland) it’s spelled “whiskey.” If it’s produced in a country with no “e” in its name (Scotland, Canada, Japan, India) it is generally spelled “whisky.” However, exception exist, especially among American distillers who want to give a nod to Scotland (and maybe have adopted some Scotch distilleries’ techniques) by using “whisky” on the label.
WHAT IS WHISKEY?
The word “whiskey” is an anglicized version of the Gaelic words “uisce beatha,” which means “water of life.” It is thought that Irish monks brought home techniques for distilling perfumes from their travels to Mediterranean countries around the year 1,000, and then modified the process to make something palatable. Whiskey production dates back to fifteenth century Ireland and Scotland, when it was distilled first at monasteries and then by medical professionals and used as medication; at that time, the spirits were unaged and rather harsh.
Eventually, production made its way to the secular side, and in 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland received a license to distill Irish whiskey, making it the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world.
American whiskey has its roots in the American Revolution when it was used as currency, and George Washington also operated a still at Mount Vernon. Over the years, whiskey has been the impetus for several large events, starting with the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, when distillers rallied against a new federal excise on whiskey, and lasting from 1920 to 1933, when whiskey caused the women of America to start a Temperance movement in a crusade that led to Prohibition. Today, however, the American whiskey industry is booming, with Bourbon, rye, Tennessee whiskey, wheat whiskey and other styles extremely popular with enthusiasts.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, rye was the predominant style of whiskey in the northeastern United States, especially Pennsylvania and Maryland. It practically disappeared after Prohibition, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in the recent years.
By law, rye whiskey must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% rye, distilled to no more than 160 proof and aged in charred, new oak barrels; those aged at least two years can be designated as straight rye whiskeys. Because of its high percentage of rye, this style of whiskey has a bold, spicy character.
Rye can be enjoyed straight, with water or on the rocks, and is also the traditional ingredient in a Sazerac and Manhattan.
Regions & Styles
Though this whiskey takes its name from the state’s Bourbon County, it does not need to be produced in Kentucky—it can be produced anywhere in the United States. However, it does need to be produced from a mash bill of at least 51% corn and aged in heavily charred new American oak barrels. Those aged at least two years can be called straight Bourbon, and bottles with a high percentage of rye in the mash bill may be labeled “high rye Bourbon,” though this is not a technical classification. Bourbon tends to have a sweet character due to the large percentage of corn, and notes of vanilla, caramel and coconut from maturation in oak.
Bourbon’s origin is not well-known, but it is thought to date back to the late eighteenth century when Scottish, Irish and German immigrants brought their knowledge of distillation to Kentucky and Indiana. It is wildly popular today, with some distilleries having cult-like status. Bourbon can be enjoyed straight, with water or on the rocks, and is also a base for many popular cocktails.
Tennessee whiskey has the same legal requirements as a straight Bourbon whiskey (produced with a mash bill of 51% corn and aged for at least two years in heavily charred new American oak barrels,) with two exceptions. It must be produced in Tennessee and use a filtering technique called the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through or steeped in charcoal chips made from sugar maple to add character and smoothness. The process is named for the county where Jack Daniel’s distillery is located.
American whiskey can be labeled as wheat if the mash bill contains at least 51% wheat, and can be considered “straight” if it’s aged at least two years. There are only a few American straight wheat whiskeys produced.
Unaged whiskey is clear and spirited. There are also flavored versions, and due to the spirit’s high proof, it is able to pull out a lot of aroma and flavor from any fruits, vegetables or herbs macerated in it. Unaged whiskey is also used in cocktails, where it can hold its own next to highly flavored or high proof ingredients.
Corn / Moonshine
Also known as corn whiskey, corn liquor or white lightning, this whiskey is made from a mash bill of at least 80% corn and distilled to a maximum strength of 160 proof. It is bottled either unaged or aged in uncharred or previously used oak barrels, usually for a brief period of six months or less. Straight corn whiskey is aged in uncharred or used barrels for at least two years.
Legal, regulated moonshine is far different than the illicit hooch that was so important to the Appalachian region of the United States years ago, which was harsher and potentially dangerous if the distillers didn’t’ know what they were doing. However, some producers today still use the term moonshine on the label as a reference to its past.
For some, Scotch is the ultimate expression of whisky, while for others it’s a style that they just don’t understand. Admittedly, it is a complex category, not helped by the fact that two big misconceptions exist. One is that all Scotch is peated, with notes of smoke, brine and iodine, but that’s not true and there are more delicate, refined examples that showcase the fruit and the barrel instead of peat. Secondly, for all the press about single malts, the majority of Scotch is blended, meaning that distilleries can produce a “house style” that combines the best of several (or many) different spirits.
The earliest record of whisky distillation in Scotland dates back to 1494, when it was noted that an amount equaling 1,500 bottles was given to Friar John Cor. Production was first taxed in 1644, causing people to launch their own illegal distilleries, and by 1780 there were four hundred illicit ones and only eight legal ones. The introduction of the column still in 1831 and the phylloxera outbreak in France in 1880 that destroyed the wine and Cognac industry helped Scotch’s popularity.
So what is peat and how does it fit into Scotch production? Peat is the mossy accumulation of partially decayed organic material that’s compressed over many years, and it can be burned to provide the heat to dry and germinate (or “malt”) the barley. The more peat that’s used for malting the barley, the more notes of smoke, brine and iodine the Scotch will pick up. Islay Scotch is known to produce the most overtly peated whisky, but peated examples are found all around Scotland (and may or may not be labeled as so.)
Though there are certainly differences among individual distilleries that affect the aroma, flavor and profile of a Scotch, the region in which it is produced can account for some of its character.
In addition to the different regions where Scotch is produced, there are several kinds of whisky that affect the overall products:
The very word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha (“water of life”). Irish monks visiting Mediterranean countries in the year 1,000 brought back techniques for distilling perfumes, and adjusted them to produce potables. The Old Bushmills Distillery received a license to distill from James I in 1608 (the distillery was established in 1784), making it the oldest whiskey distillery in the world.
In the early twentieth century, Irish whiskey was the most popular style in the United States, until Prohibition forced many distilleries out of business. In the 1960s, the handful of distilleries joined and rebranded themselves as the Irish Distillers, and by the 1970s only New Midleton and Bushmills were left. However, during the past twenty years Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing spirits category, and as of 2015 there were ten distilleries with more in the works.
There are many different styles and production techniques, so it’s very difficult to classify Irish whiskey. In general, most are distilled three times (rendering a smooth spirit) and not peated (which means they are not smoky like many Scotches.)
Several laws laid out by the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 regulate production. It must be distilled and aged in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, distilled to less than 94.8% from a yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains, aged at least three years in wooden casks, and labeled as “blended” if it’s a blend of two or more distillates. Within those regulations are several different styles.
Japanese and Canadian Whisky
There are other regions around the world making whisky, including Canada and Japan (the latter has consistently won awards for its offerings), as well as countries like Taiwan and India.
Whisky in Japan began as an attempt to recreate Scotch. Production began around 1870, but it wasn’t until 1924 that the country saw the first commercial distillery. Two men are responsible for launching Japan’s whisky industry. Shinjiro Torri, a former pharmaceutical wholesaler, decided to build the country’s first distillery area, and hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied distilling in Scotland and brought home his knowledge. The duo launched Yamazaki Distillery in a suburb of Kyoto, in part because of the high quality water in the area. In 1934, Taketsuru left to launch Dainipponkaju, which would later become Nikka. Today, Japan has around nine active distilleries.
Not surprising, much of the whisky produced in Japan is similar to Scotch, with harmony and balanced being the overarching goals. As with Scotch, some are peated and some are not. Nikka and Suntory—the main producers—have several distilleries around the country, and are able to distill and age different whiskies in areas with different climates and water, leading to interesting blends. There are also single malt whiskies that showcase spirits from one distillery.
Japanese whisky used to have a mediocre reputation, but that all changed in 2003 when one won a Gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge. Since that time, it has won other awards, including blind tastings against Scotch. In the United States Japanese whisky is generally enjoyed straight or with water or ice, but in Japan it’s typically mixed in Highballs and other cocktails.
Canadian whisky is among the lightest and smoothest whisky categories. There are few regulations for its production, only that it be mashed, distilled and aged three years in oak barrels in Canada, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. Caramel coloring may be added, as well as flavorings including up to 9% of Sherry and other fruit-based wines.
This category is usually produced with corn in a column still, though some other grains may be added. It is a common misconception that Canadian whisky is mainly produced with rye, and even though the terms “Canadian whisky” and “rye whiskey” are used interchangeably, having the latter on the label does not necessarily mean that the spirit will have a noticeable
percentage of rye.