Simply put, a whiskey is fermented grains that have been distilled and aged in a barrel. An aficionado will tell you that there is a world a difference between whiskey, whisky, Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whisky, or any of the combinations of drink names and geographic location. Part of the regional variations come from the available grains, wood to make the barrels, or fuels to fire the stills but you can’t disregard the history, craftsmanship, and particular tastes that passed from the localities to the drinks they were producing.
Is it Whisky or Whiskey?
The short answer to this question is yes. Both words are anglicizations of the Gaelic word uisce or uisge, depending on if you’re Irish Gaelic or Scottish Gaelic. Uisce means water so, in a way, whiskey is Irish for water. The Gaelic differences in uisce continued in anglicization with the Irish using “whiskey” and the Scottish using “Whisky”. As these two ethnic groups migrated or passed on their process, they took their spelling with them.
American style guides suggest whiskey is made in America, and all other countries make whisky, but it isn’t that simple. There are some American whisky makers and plenty of countries that make whiskey. A handy mnemonic is that countries with an “E” in the name make whiskey, like America or Ireland. Counties without “E’s” make whisky, like Scotland and Canada. You’ll soon see that the regional differences in the spirit run far deeper than spelling.
A Brief History of Whiskey
Whiskey has been a part of Irish and Scottish traditions for so long, it’s nearly impossible to say which country made the drink first. There are some well documented facts that you can look at to learn about the history of one of the world’s favorite drinks.
13th Century – First distilled liquor in Europe: An Italian monastery make first distilled spirit in Europe to treat colic and smallpox.
1405 – First recorded history of distilled spirits in Britain: The Annals of Clonmacnoise attributes the death of an Irish chieftain to drinking too much “aqua vitae” at Christmas.
1494 – First history of whisky in Scotland: A royal order is sent to Friar John Cor for 500 bottles of liquor.
1536-1541 – Secularizing whiskey production: King Henry VII dissolves monasteries which moved the production of liquor into the general public.
1608 – First licensed whiskey distillery: Old Bushmills Distillery obtains a license to produce whiskey making it the first distillery in the world. (Northern Ireland). The process was still evolving and the spirits were not aged at the time. This was a raw form of whiskey that wasn’t as smooth as its modern counterparts.
1707 – Merging of England and Scotland: The Acts of Union combined England and Scotland which dramatically increased the taxes on Scotch.
1725 – Rise of moonshine: The English Malt Tax effectively shut down commercial distillation in Scotland. Moonshine was produced under the cover of darkness to hide the smoke from the stills.
1791-1794 – Whiskey Rebellion in America: A “whiskey tax” was imposed on liquor production to pay war debt. Frontier farmers considered this taxation without representation. An armed insurgency of 500 farmers attacks the local tax collector near Pittsburgh PA. George Washington marches with a force of 13,000 militia men to restore the peace. The conflict ends without bloodshed. This tax was repealed by President Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800’s.
1820’s – First whisky production in India. A distillery was built near Kasauli but moved to Solan to take advantage of nearby spring water and proximity to British summer capital of Shimla.
1823 – Legalization of UK distillation. For all practical purposes, the Excise Act of 1823 legalized whisky production and put an end to the Scottish moonshining.
1831 – Invention of the column still. Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey Still, the first column still. The column still allowed for continuous distillation which was a much more efficient process than the traditional pot stills. This led to wider availability of whiskey to the masses.
1880’s – Devastation of French brandy industry: The Great French Wine Blight destroyed most of the grape crop, which in turn prohibited brandy production. Whisky soon became the primary liquor and many world markets.
1924 – First commercial whisky in Yamazaki Japan.
2005 – Kavalan Whiskey became first commercial whisky in Taiwan.
Malt Whiskey vs Grain Whisky
One of first and most emphatic distinctions amongst whiskies is the type of grain used in the mash. The first whiskeys were made with malted barley and can be labeled “Malt Whiskey” and other grain combination needs to be labeled grain whiskey or some kind of blend.
Barley is a cold weather grain that grows very well in northern latitude countries, like Scotland and Ireland. The gain’s thick husk needs to be processed before human (or yeast) consumption which makes malting a perfect option. Malting is a process of sprouting the grain and then halting germination by the application of heat.
Many food products like malted milk balls, Ovaltine, malt shakes, and Milo. If you have ever tasted these products, you know the deep flavors they have that are semi-sweet and almost chocolaty. These are some of the flavors that malting imparts to whiskey.
Whiskey produces impart even more flavors with how they dry the grain. Drying with some portion of peat imparts even more earthy flavors into the mix. Scotch purists will tell you that the malting, particularly with peat, is essential to avoid having a flavorless spirit.
Pot Stills vs Column Stills
You can see from the Whiskey Timeline that the Coffey Still, the first column still, wasn’t invented until 1831. By definition, all whiskeys produced before that date were made in pot stills. Pot stills operate on a batch basis, as opposed to the continuous operation of a column still. They also require cleaning between batches. For both of these reasons, pot stills have lower yield and require more labor than continuous stills.
Many purists believe pot stills produce a higher quality product. Their low rate production, combined with copper construction, remove many impurities like sulfur and esters from whiskey. Certain liquors are required, by law, to be distilled in pot stills. These include Irish and Scotch malt whiskies, single pot whiskey, and cognac (distilled wine).
Scotch Whisky, or just Scotch, originated with malted barley whisky distilled in pot stills. Frequently, peat was used in the malting process, which imparted significant flavors. This type of Scotch is called Single Malt Scotch Whisky. If a distillery uses other grains than barely and column distillation, that product is called Single Grain Scotch Whisky. These are the two primary bases that are used to form blended Scotch Whisky.
Blended Scotch Whisky comes in three types of blends. Blended malt Scotch whisky is constructed by blended two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries. Blended Scotch grain whisky is formed in the same way, but with single grain whiskies from different distilleries. The final, and broadest category is blended Scotch whisky, which is a blend of both malt and grain whisky. Whisky elitists flock towards single malts for their intense character. A skilled craftsman can produce a wider variety of tastes and finishes for every pallet by blending. There are simply more pieces to work with. 90% of all Scotch whisky produced is blended.
Scotland has several legally defined whisky regions that each produce distinctive products. The Highlands is the most geographically diverse region and produces a wide choice of whiskies. Recently, Speyside was made a distinct region in the Highlands due to the large number of distilleries there which generally produce Scotch on the sweet side with a fruity finish. Another choice for sweeter scotch in The Lowlands. On the other end of the spectrum is the Isle of Islay, which is famous for smoky, peaty drinks with hints of the sea. It’s a man’s Scotch for the mature palette. The other islands of Scotland are simply considered part of The Highlands. Historically, Campbelltown was once considered “The Whisky Capital of the World”, but now it now only houses three distilleries.
Ireland has a claim as the birthplace of whiskey along with Scotland. The earliest recorded whiskey drinking (and subsequent death) occurred in Ireland in 1405 and the first licensed distillery in the world was in Ireland (Old Bushmills Distillery -1608). Many people preferred the lighter Irish whiskey to its peaty Scottish cousin, but what happened to the industry?
Unlike Scotland, which adapted to the Coffey Still and began blending whisky, Ireland stubbornly resisted the technology. In 1878 Irish distillers distributed pamphlets describing the product of Coffey Stills as “Good, bad or indifferent; but it cannot be whiskey, and it ought not to be sold under that name.” What’s more, the Irish War of Independence and subsequent trade war with Britain cut Irish whiskey producers off from their largest market. In 1887 there were 28 distilleries in Ireland. By 1970, there were only 2.
Irish whiskey wasn’t destined to fade into the sunset. The long history and insistence on quality and drinkability fueled a revival. Peace, prosperity, and whiskey were bound to return. For the last 20 years, Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirits in the world. There are now over 16 distilleries in Ireland with about that many more planned. Irish whiskey is here to stay.
Bourbon is an American whiskey with corn as the primary grain. Other legal requirements to be bourbon include:
Produced in the United States
Aged in new, charred oak containers
Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
There are many theories about how an Irish / Scottish spirit made in America came to be named after a French dynasty. Some most popular stories are that it was named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where more than a few drinks have been consumed, or Bourbon County Kentucky. Bourbon County Kentucky was part of Bourbon County Virginia before Kentucky’s statehood. With all of the confusion about the shifting geographic boundaries, you could imagine a barrel of American whiskey being stamped “Old Bourbon” as its port of origin, before being shipped down the Ohio River to New Orleans.
Tennessee Whiskey is born of bourbon, with one major distinction – charcoal mellowing (and being bottles specifically in Tennessee). Another feature of Tennessee whiskey is that the water often comes from cave springs that are common in the state. The pure water source and charcoal mellowing have produced a product that is very mellow, consistent and drinkable. These characteristics are what makes Jack Daniels, a Tennessee whiskey, the world’s best-selling whiskey brand. Still today, every drop of Jack Daniels comes from a single spring in Lynchburg Tennessee.
Canadian Whisky, being a New World whisky, is blended with a high percentage of corn. What sets it apart is the inclusion of rye grain added to the mash bill. Rye whisky and Canadian whisky are often used interchangeably. Another fun fact about Canadian whisky is its history during American Prohibition. Although many distilleries engaged in smuggling, none did it more brazenly than Hiram Walker. Situated in Windsor Ontario, directly across from Detroit, a significant amount of its production during the 30’s left by night on the back of speedboats.
India has produced whisky for almost 200 years, and why not? The country was overrun by British and there was access to abundant spring water. They had everything one might need for mass production except an easy supply of grain. What grain was available, was more often used to feed people than make spirits. Instead, they turned to blending with a spirit primarily based on fermenting molasses.
In many parts of the world, molasses-based spirits would be considered rum, even if it was aged in a barrel. Vijay Mallya, an outspoken and flamboyant Indian whisky tycoon one said Europe’s refusal to acknowledge molasses-based whisky was “imposition of British imperialism”. There were also claims that the tropic climate of India ages whisky fast enough that one year is more than enough to age a whisky. Mallya is now living in England fighting extradition back to India to face charges of financial crimes so might question his character.
Indian whisky might not be whisky in the traditional sense, just like the Irish claimed spirits from a Coffey Still wasn’t whiskey, but they make a lot of it. India is the biggest consumer of whisky in the world by volume, and most of it comes from domestic production. Despite the huge market share, it’s only the 19th largest market by price.
Japan begin commercial distillation of whisky in 1924 but, unlike India, they have focused on authentic reproduction of Scotch Whiky. Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Takesuru opened operations in Yamazaki. Like Lynchburg, Yamazaki was chosen for its pure water. Takesuru studied organic chemistry and the University of Glasgow and apprenticed at the Longmom Distillery, where he learned the art whisky straight from Scotland. He is known as the father of Japanese Whisky and part of the reason why Japan is known as having the most Scottish of all whiskies outside of Scotland. (They also have regions very similar in climate to Scotland where quite a few distilleries have been founded). Japanese Scottish style whisky has winning top international honors, even over top Scottish single malts.
A distinctly Japanese facet of their whisky industry is the vertical integration of the companies. Japanese industry is notoriously competitive and reluctant to trade with their competitors. Japanese blenders simply have fewer flavors to work with. This makes for fabulous single malts, but blended malts make up the majority of the world market, which limits their acceptance in the international markets.
In 2005, Kavalan Whiskey became the countries first private whiskey company. They built their distillery in Yilan, directly across from their bottled water plant. Despite a great source of water, they still need to import the grains and barrels to the subtropical country. International attention for Taiwanese Whiskey reached the highest pinnacle in 2015 when the World Whiskeys Awards named Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique the “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky”. Ironically, the spirit is considered a bit expensive for the domestic market and the belief is that the foreign imports are more authentic. Taiwan is the world’s 4th largest market for Scottish Whisky.
The World of Whiskey
Whether you spell it whiskey or whisky, drink drams from Islay or shots from Shinshu, the world is crazy for whiskey. From the backwoods of Tennessee to the high-power business meetings in Taiwan, the sun never sets on the world of whiskey. The process evolved over centuries from rock gut that could kill and Irish chieftain to a complex process that you need a degree in organic chemistry to understand. Luckily, you don’t need to understand everything about whiskey, to enjoy it.
Note: all photography was original except where marked. Published with permission from photographers.
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