In an earlier post, How to Drink Whisky, I gave a brief beginner guide to enjoying whisky with one important takeaway: As long as you like what you’re drinking, you’re doing it right. Hopefully, that gave you the confidence to start familiarizing yourself with the different faces of whisky but you may still want to know more before you start meandering the liquor store aisles. Over my next few posts, I’d like to arm you with some base knowledge on each type of whisky so you’ll know your Hibiki from your Highland Park, your Jameson from Jack, and your Four roses from Forty Creek. If those names confused you, you’re in the right place.
Now, I will admit, the world of whisk(e)y is vast and it’s only getting bigger as it grows in popularity. With that growth, there will almost be exceptions to each “rule” but this is a starting point and there’s no better way to start than with a simple question…
What is Whisky / Whiskey?
First off, if it’s American or Irish, it is whiskey. For Canada, Scotland, Japan, and pretty much the rest of the world’s whiskies, it is whisky. As a Canuck, my go-to is whisky.
Regardless of how you spell it, whisky is a distillation of spirits from fermented grain mash. Traditionally, this grain mash has been barley, wheat, rye grains, corn, or a combination of them but recently, some distilleries are branching out into different grains like millet, quinoa, and sorghum.
Depending on where it’s produced, whisky is distilled in either a pot still or a column still. A pot still, requires several distillations and then a cleaning between batches. Column stills came later during industrialization and allows for continuous distillation without cleaning between batches. You can find column stills wherever whisky is made although some whisky in Scotland and Ireland is still made using pot stills.
The Aging of Whisky
Whisky is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two to three years depending on the type of whisky. Bourbon is often aged for at least two years. Scotches at least three years but usually they’ll age for 10+.
You may be wondering, ‘what’s the point of aging?’ Well, I’m glad you asked. Aging is the difference between a potent or harsh moonshine and a rich, smoky scotch. Wooden barrels are toasted or charred creating a charcoal layer that filters the spirit. Because the wood of the barrel is porous, it breathes as the temperature rises and falls. This filtering, otherwise known as adsorption, takes out harsher notes and adds vanilla flavours and tannins. The longer a whisky is aged, the more time it has to pull flavour from the barrel, evaporate and condense, so it can mature and concentrate flavours. Aging can only happen while the spirit is in a barrel. Once it’s bottled, it’s a finished product.
Aging isn’t the same across the board. It’s dependant on climate which leads to our next point.
Location, Location, Location!
Whisky can be made anywhere in the world but the main 5 are Scotland, Ireland, Canada, America, and Japan. Each country, and each region in them, has different climates, ingredients, processes, and even laws that affect whisky production.
For example, bourbon is typically distilled in the southern States, think Kentucky, is predominantly corn, and can only use new oak barrels by law. The drier environment helps the whisky evaporate faster. This, combined with the use of new barrels, means that the spirit doesn’t need as long to develop the smoky, sweet flavours characteristic of bourbon. Compare this to scotch which is mainly barley, is aged in used barrels (usually bourbon) in a humid climate with less temperature fluctuations. This means scotch needs more time to coax flavour out of the barrel. Depending on where the Scotch is distilled, it may also have peatiness or briny tones.
The bourbon/scotch comparison is a short and basic example. Future blogs will go further into each category and the general characteristics you can expect. Until then, here’s a list of terms to get you on your way.
- Whiskey – Irish or American
- Whisky – Everywhere else
- Malt Whisky – Made entirely from malted barley, aged for at least three years. Mainly from Scotland
- Single Malt – all casks used in bottling came from a single distillery – does not necessarily mean it’s from a single cask – see cask strength
- Blended Malt – uses single malt casks from various distilleries. Can also be labelled ‘malt’ or ‘pure malt’
- Grain Whisky – Made from grains listed above, mostly wheat. Can be distilled to higher proof at the expense of flavour. Mainly used in blended whiskies.
- Blended whisky – Made from a mixture of different whiskies from various distilleries, usually more grain whisky than malt whisky. Different brands use different ratios but well-known brands keep the ratio consistent so the taste doesn’t change.
- Cask strength – bottled from the cask undiluted letting the drinker add water to taste.
- Bourbon – American whiskey made from at least 51% corn. Aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
- Corn Whiskey – American whiskey made from at least 80% corn. No age requirement Aged in new uncharred or previously used oak barrels.
- Rye Whiskey – American whiskey made from at least 51% Rye. Aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
- Wheat Whiskey – American whiskey made from at least 51% Wheat. Aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.
- Tennessee Whiskey – Essentially, bourbon that goes through the Lincoln County Process. Before being aged, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal made from specific sugar maple tree. Also known as charcoal mellowing.
Scotch – Whisky made in Scotland and aged for a minimum of three years. Broken down into 5 main regions, each has definitive characteristics that we’ll cover later
- Islands (Islay and Skye)
Made in Ireland, aged for at least three years. Usually, distilled in a pot still.
Made in Canada. Aged in wood barrels for three years minimum. No legal requirements on grain use or barrel type. Although we call it “rye”, it’s not to be confused with Rye whiskey.
Made in Japan using Scottish fundamentals. Aged in wood barrels, sometimes Japanese Mizunara oak.