What is whiskey?
whiskey/whisky: from the Gaelic “usquebaugh”(alt. sp. “uisge-beatha”) meaning “water of life.”
Simply, whiskey is an alcoholic liquor distilled from grain and aged in wood casks. What defines a whiskey’s type and classification (and even the spelling) is a little more complicated.
Whiskey, most commonly, is distilled using barley, corn, rye, wheat or oats. Technically, anything capable of producing neutral spirits can be turned into whiskey (beet whiskey anyone?). Officially, every whiskey producing country has laws governing what can and cannot be called whiskey. In India for example, they make a ‘whiskey’ using fermented molasses. This has lead to a trade stand-off with big whiskey producing countries like the UK and Ireland who say that whiskey must be made from grain (primarily barley). If only India would call their spirit ‘rum,’ there would be no problems. See below for more a more detailed explanation of whiskey classifications.
What are the classifications of whiskey?
These are legal classifications. The method of making whiskey is largely the same. However, the stills used for each style can vary greatly.
According to UK law, single malt Scotch whisky is made, in Scotland, with neutral spirits distilled from malted barley (only) and aged in oak casks for at least three years. The barley is often malted over peat fires, giving Scotch that characteristic ‘smoky’ quality. Furthermore, upon bottling, the whisky cannot be blended with whiskies from other distilleries or using other grains. Blended whiskies can be produced using various grains and using whiskies from multiple distilleries.
Scotch whisky can further be divided into regional categories. Although traditionally these regional classifications held great significance, advances in technology and an increased sense of adventure among master distillers has lead to these titles being somewhat anachronistic (see below for more info on the regional Scotches).
Irish whiskey differs from Scottish whisky is a few distinct ways. While Irish whiskey is also distilled from barley, there is no law requiring that all the barley be malted. Coal is used for the malting process (most of the time). Traditionally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, whereas Scotch whisky requires only one distillation. The exceptions to triple distillation come from the Cooley distillery where they typically distill only twice. Triple distillation, unpeated malt and the addition of green (unmalted) barley produce a cleaner, more subtle and mellow flavor.
Irish whiskey makers also boast that the use of caramel coloring is illegal in the production of whiskey and that it is common practice to change casks as whiskeys age, imparting more of the character of the cask into the finished product. Scotch can spend an eternity in the same cask, although this is rarely the case. Whatever the law allows, the master distillers know what makes a tasty dram.
Bourbon is named for the county in Kentucky that made it famous. Bourbon has been produced all over the US including, Pennsylvania, Oregon and New York. According to US law, the grain content of bourbon must be at least 51% corn and aged in fresh charred white oak barrels. A two year minimum is required to be called straight bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey is produced exactly like bourbon, except that it is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before casking and is typically aged for four or more years.
Other American Whiskeys
All other whiskeys produced in the US can be called “American Whiskey” (for a great example, I suggest Michter’s US1 Unblended American Whiskey). However, there are a few less general categories. Rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye. Corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn and does not require aging, although it is usually aged at least six months in uncharred barrels to mellow the flavor.
Usually referred to as ‘brown vodka’ by whisk(e)y enthusiasts. Canadian whisky is often bland and uninspired (for an affordable exception, try Forty Creek Barrel Select). Called “rye whisky” in Canada, Canadian whisky is usually multi-grain and aged for three years in wooden barrels.
Whisky Around the World
The following countries also produce whiskies to varying degrees of success:
Wales (I know it’s part of the UK, but it can’t be called “Scotch”)
England (just opened operations in 2006)
The Isle of Man
What are the regional classifications for Scotch whisky?
The largest whisky-producing region in Scotland, the Highlands produce a wide variety of malts that make it difficult to categorize. Generally, Highland malts are powerful, rich and smoky, but less so than its Island cousins. Whiskies from the North Highlands are medium to full-bodied with notes of heather and peat. In the South, you will find a milder, sweeter, more floral dram. Some highland distilleries of note are; Glengoyne, Oban, Glengarioch, Old Pulteney, and Dalwhinnie.
Just off the coast of Scotland are a series of islands; Mull, Orkney, Jura, Arran, Shetland, Skye, and Islay. Although Islay is distinct enough to be region, the other islands are grouped together. Often described as “Islay Light,” the Island malts are hearty with notes of salt, peat and smoke. They are good stepping-stones for someone looking to work their way up to the more daunting Islay malts. Talisker, on Skye, and Highland Park, on Orkney, are the most recognizable distilleries on the Islands, but you will also find the distilleries of Scapa and Tobermory.
Considered the center of whisky distilling in Scotland, the Speyside region lies between Inverness and Aberdeen nestled into the Grampian Mountains. There are currently 84 producing distilleries in the region. These are the sweetest whiskies found in Scotland. With flavors ranging from light and floral to heavy, rich and sherried, it is no surprise that Speyside whisky is often described as complex. It also comes as no surprise that some of the most famous names in Scotch whisky come from this region. The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, the Balvenie and Glen Farclas all hail from the Speyside.
Islay is a small island west of the mainland that is home to the heaviest, peatiest, smokiest, and briniest whiskies known to man. To call them burly would be an understatement. There are eight producing distilleries on Islay, including Lagavulin, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Laphroaig.
Lying just south of an imaginary line that runs from Dundee to Greenock, the Lowlands produce some of the smoothest and subtlely complex whiskies on the market. Light, dry and slightly alcoholic in flavor, Lowland whisky has light notes of the salt, peat and smoke that define Scotch whisky. This light flavor comes from the use of larger stills. Lowland whisky makes a good aperitif and can help transition an Irish whiskey drinker into the more bold flavors of Scotland. For an introduction to the Lowlands, try Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, or Bladnoch (not characteristic of the region, but worth a try).
While technically part of the Highlands, Campbeltown was once a thriving whisky region. Today, the classification is used mostly for historical reasons and many whisky enthusiasts have ceased using Campbeltown, preferring to group these whiskies with the Highlands. Towards the end of the Kintyre peninsula, the sea air gives the whiskies of this region a mild saltiness. A dram is Campbeltown can be medium to full bodied and usually has some peat notes. The biggest name in Campbeltown is the Springbank distillery.
What is “medicinal” whiskey?
“Medicinal” is often a term used to describe the flavor of single malt whiskies from Islay. However, the term medicinal whiskey usually refers to whiskey distilled in the United States during prohibition. A very few distilleries were allowed to continue production as long as they only produced whiskey for medicinal purposes. These were often given to the lame and the blind. By 1927, the production of medicinal whiskey was up to about 1.8 million gallons. Prior to prohibition, whiskey was sometimes used by doctors to dissolve herbs to create tinctures or used straight to clean wounds during battle.
While we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle have always believed that whiskey helps with many ailments, there is some science to back it up. There’s evidence moderate consumption may help with your cholesterol and may help reduce development of coronary heart disease in men over 40 and in post-menopausal women. Moderate drinkers also tend to live longer. Slainte!
What is the difference between a “single malt” and a “blend?”
A single malt whisky’s grain content is 100% malted barley. What goes in the bottle all comes from the same distillery, although it is acceptable to blend a single malt from multiple casks. Many whisky drinkers consider these whiskies the cream of the crop. However, we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle would never support such elitism. There is a time for a single malt, a time for a blend, a time for age, a time for youth, a time for bourbon, a time for Scotch… Turn, turn, turn.
Sometimes, distilleries release single cask (single barrel is used for bourbon) bottlings. As the name implies, the whisky all comes from the same cask. For this reason, these bottles are unique, rare, and more expensive.
A blended whisky is made from whiskies produced at multiple distilleries and with varying grain content. Blends typically consist of 2-3 grain spirits, which add little to the taste profile, and 15-35 malt whiskies.
A blended malt (formerly called alternately vatted or pure malt) is a blend made completely of single malts from different distilleries. There is no grain alcohol added to the mix.
What is the difference between “age” and “vintage?”
The age mark on a bottle of whisky, whether it is from Ireland, Scotland, or the U.S., denotes how long the whisky has been stored in casks since distillation. In the case of whiskies created from multiple casks, this is the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.
Although more common with wine some whisky distilleries (Glenrothes for one) use a vintage demarcation as well as an age mark. The vintage is the year the whisky was put in a cask for the first time.
Is whiskey expensive?
The price of whiskey varies greatly depending on the style, age, classification and availability. You can find some really great deals out there. Canadian whisky Forty Creek Barrel Select is less than $30. One of the best deals in Irish whiskey is Redbreast pot stilled whiskey at around $40. With single malt Scotch, you will probably not find anything worth drinking for less than $40 (if you find one, let us know). I am sure there are deals out there though. Blended whiskies are sometimes cheaper, but as demand for grain and the whiskies themselves goes up so does the price. Some of the best deals come in the form of bourbon. If you are on a budget, there are several great bourbons for under $30, some are less than $20. If you are in Kentucky, bourbon is even cheaper thanks to interstate trade laws.
Do you have any advice for first time whiskey drinkers?
Take your time. Savor every sip. Have some patience. You may fall in love with whisk(e)y with your first dram. However, you may try several before you find one you like. You may never find one you like. Chances are, out of the many styles, classifications and distilleries you will be able to find something you enjoy. The best advice is to find somewhere to drink that has a good whisk(e)y selection or seek out an organized whisk(e)y tasting. You may even find a liquor storeowner that has taster bottles. This is a good way to taste several whiskies with out spending a lot of money.
Here are some tips on how to get the most out of every dram:
Sampling whiskey is like sampling wine. Drink from a cognac glass or one made specifically for whiskey. Observe the color and viscosity of the whiskey as you swirl it in your glass. Inhale deeply the aroma and attempt to separate the different elements in the whiskey vapor (this process is called “nosing”). If you are trying a cask strength whiskey, add a little water so the alcohol smell does not overpower the more delicate aromas. Search for scents like leather, peat (damp earth), fruit, grass, malt, vanilla, and gas (petrol not farts). Take the whiskey into your mouth and swirl it around. What does it feel like in your mouth? Is it oily, dry, fuzzy? Try to isolate the various flavors as the whiskey washes over your tongue. Is it salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umame? Does is taste like Nilla wafers or fresh mown grass? Finally, swallow the whiskey and let it wash over your entire body. Does it have any lingering effect? Is there an aftertaste (“finish”)? Does it burn going down?
If you haven’t already added water, try adding a little water and starting the whole process again. Is it different? We don’t advise adding water to Irish or Canadian whisk(e)y. The flavor is usually too delicate to stand up to dilution.
You can also try letting the whiskey breathe. This can change the flavors through oxidation. Experimentation is the key. I tried some whiskies that fell flat with water and others that became a whole new sensuous journey. Also, try adding a cigar or food to the mix. Dark chocolate, especially with mint, makes a great addition to glass of single malt Scotch. Try blowing your cigar smoke across the surface of the whisky. You may be surprised at the results.
I’ve got a bad bottle of whisk(e)y, what do I do?
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When life gives you bad whisk(e)y, you make cocktails. Many a crappy whisk(e)y has been saved by the addition of a mixer or two. People put Seagram’s 7 in 7up and Jack Daniels in Coca-Cola for a reason. So, try a Scotch and soda or a whisky sour. Make a Manhattan. Be creative. If all else fails, use it to degrease engines, clean wounds, or dissolve herbs to create tinctures.
What makes you qualified to help me?
Here at Whisk(e)y Apostle, we are dedicated to proselytizing the way of the malt. That means that we endeavor to bring you the most up to date information on whiskey in all its forms. We also seek out as much whiskey as we can find in order to bring you our experiences and tasting notes. We have no formal training, we are just a couple of guys who really love whiskey.