Whisky 101

Whisky (whiskey) is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Grains used include barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat and corn. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, usually made of charred white oak. Scottish and Canadian whiskies use the spelling "whisky" whereas Irish whiskies use "whiskey." American and other styles vary in their spelling. I will adopt the Scottish convention and refer to it as "whisky."

Whisky Glass | Image Credit: Eat-Drink-Etc.

"Whisky" is an anglicized version of the Gaelic word "uisce" (uisge) meaning "water." Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as "aqua vitae", which translates into "water of life." This was translated into Gaelic as Irish (uisce beatha) and Scottish Gaelic (uisge beatha) which convey "lively water" or "water of life." Early forms of the word in English include uskebeagheusquebaughusquebath, and usquebae.

In about 2000 B.C., distillation was most likely practiced by Babylonians in Mesopotamia. However, the evidence supporting this claim is disputable.

In the 13th century A.D., the earliest records of the distillation of alcohol can be found in Italy, where alcohol was distilled from wine. At this time, the art of distillation spread to Scotland and Ireland, along with the common practice of distilling spirit alcohol for medicinal purposes. 

In 1494, the first evidence of whisky production in Scotland appeared in an entry from the Exchequer Rolls where malt was sent to "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aqua vitae." Early production of whisky largely occurred in a monastic setting. 

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries. With monks in the general public needing to make a living, whisky production moved out of the monastic setting and into personal homes. In those days, whisky was not allowed to age and was very potent and not diluted, resulting in a raw and somewhat brutal taste compared to today's product.

In 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery received a license to distill Irish whisky, making it the oldest licensed whisky distillery in the world. 

In 1707, the Acts of Union merged England and Scotland, causing taxes on whisky to rise dramatically.

In 1725, the English Malt Tax caused most of Scotland's distilleries to shut down or move underground. Scots took to distilling their whisky at night when the darkness would hide the smoke risking from their stills. This resulted in the drink becoming known as "moonshine." 

Whisky is divided into many classes and types based upon fermentation of grains, distillation and aging in wooden barrels. There are two overarching categories of whisky: malt and grain.

  • Malt Whisky: Made from a fermented mash produced primarily from a malted grain. Unless otherwise stated, it is assumed that the primary grain is barley. Malt is a germinated cereal grain that has been dried in a process known as malting. The grains are made to germinate by soaking in water, and then prevented from further germinating by drying with hot air. Barley is a major cereal grain part of the grass family. In Scotland, malt whisky must use a 100% malted barley mash and must be distilled in a pot still.
  • Grain Whisky: Made from grains other than malted barley, such as corn, wheat or rye, though grain whisky may also contain malted barley. Grain whisky is typically distilled in a continuous still resulting in a higher percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV), but less flavorful spirit compared to malt whisky. Because of this practice, grain whisky is seldom bottled by itself in Scotland, but more commonly blended with malt whisky to create blended whisky, which account for over 90% of Scotch whisky sales.
Malt and grain whisky can be combined in various ways.
  • Single Malt Whisky: Whisky from a single distillery, made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. Unless described as a "single-cask," it will contain whisky from multiple casks of different ages. 
  • Blended Malt Whisky: Whisky made from a mixture of single malt whisky from different distilleries. If labeled "pure malt" or just "malt," it is almost certain to be a blended malt whisky.
  • Blended Whisky: Whisky made from a mixture of malt and grain whisky often containing whisky from numerous distilleries. Whisky simply described as Scotch or Irish whisky is likely a blended whisky.

Distillation is the process of separating mixtures in boiling liquid. A distilled beverage is an alcoholic beverage containing ethanol, which is produced by the fermentation of grain starches. Fermentation refers to a biological process in which sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose) are converted into cellular energy, thereby producing ethanol and carbon dioxide as waste. This fermentation process is induced by yeast.

There are two primary types of stills used for distillation. 
  • Pot Still: Heat is applied directly to the pot containing the wash. Often called batch distillation, this is the traditional means of distillation. 
  • Continuous Still: Allows the mash to flow gradually and continuously over the heat through a series of partitions. Small portions of fermented wash receive the greatest amount of heat, which increases the amount of potable alcohol collected. Invented in the 19th century, this is also called a Column or Coffey still.

Whisky does not mature in bottles, only in the cask, so the age of a whisky is the time between distillation and bottling. During the aging process, the cask interacts with the whisky and changes the chemical makeup, ultimately impacting the taste. A whisky's age is often listed on the bottle - the age statement must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product.

Whisky Barrels | Image Credit: Professor Whisky

Alcohol strength is expressed on whisky bottles as "Alcohol by Volume" (ABV). Typically, bottled whisky is 40%-60% ABV. Whisky is considerably stronger when it first emerges from the cask (60%-63% ABV). Water is then added to create the desired bottling strength. If the whisky is not diluted before bottling, it can be labeled as "cask-strength."

Distillation by Wikipedia
Distilled Beverage by Wikipedia
Ethanol Fermentation by Wikipedia
Grain Whisky by Wikipedia
Malt Whisky by Wikipedia
Scotch Whisky by Wikipedia
Whisky by Wikipedia

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