Maybe we first saw it on TV, then noticed the amber liquid in dad’s cabinet with crystal glassware. Of course, curiosity killed the cat. Probably most of us tried it way before we were ready to enjoy it and put a distance to it. Yes! I am definitely talking about whisky or whiskey. The spirit which you most probably met with some blend expressions if we are at similar ages.
Whisky is and indicator of social rank in many countries. It has always been the sign of being rich, charismatic and powerful which has been how it was promoted on TV and movies until now. This article will talk about what whisky is and give general information on whisky in simple words. Now let’s get in detail if it is whisky or whiskey.
Usque – Usquebaugh – Uisge Beatha
The word whisky comes from Gaelic word “Uisge Beatha” which means “Water Of Life”. Words like usque, usquebaugh and uisce also took part in this transformation. This word evolved into whisky until today. Irish who claimed their spirit is better than the Scottish one renamed it as “Whiskey” and took this word with them to the USA. Canadians used the word “Whisky” and created a relationship with the USA just like the one between Scottish and Irish men. Generally, Scotch, Japanese, Taiwanese, Indian and Australian whiskies are named as “whisky” whereas “whiskey” states American and Irish for the most of the time. Anyway, they are all marvelous!
Written documents tell that whisky history starts in just before 1494 on a purchase order for the funeral of a priest, John Corr. Order of 508 kilograms of barley for whisky is the first written evidence. However, it is believed that the production took place long before it between the families in Ireland.
Scotch whiskies can be classified into three branches which are Malt Whiskies, Blended Whiskies and Grain Whiskies. Blended whiskies can also be divided into two as Blended Scotch (malt + grain) and Blended Malt Whiskies. Blended whisky is the main type of whisky sold in the world with a big margin. Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s are some of the popular blended whisky brands.
Why Do We Call It ‘Scotch’ Whisky?
A spirit can be named as Scotch whisky if all the production steps including fermentation, mashing, distillation, aging and bottling take place in Scotland. Another thing is the raw materials that are to be used. Scotch whisky can only be made with water, grains and yeast which are distilled in copper stills and aged a minimum period of 3 years in oak casks lower than 700 liter volume. The final alcohol to be volumed should be at least 40%. Ingredients don’t necessarily have to be from Scotland.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Whisky produced using 100% malted barley from a single distillery in Scotland can be called a “Single Malt Scotch Whisky”. We can talk about 6 different whisky regions in Scotland which have whiskies in different characteristics. An important thing about this description is, ‘single’ refers to ‘single distillery’, not single type of grain!
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
Single grain whiskies are the whiskies which are produced by a single distillery using grains other than barley. The main usage of the grain whisky is to blend it with malt whisky to produce blended whisky. Grain whiskies are getting more popular every day due to their delicate nature and price line.
Blended Scotch Whisky
Still, 90% of whiskies sold in the market are blended whiskies. Plus, most of them are Scotch. Blended whiskies are made by blending of malt whiskies with grain whiskies.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Malt whiskies produced in different distilleries get together to form blended malt whiskies. Monkey Shoulder, Johnnie Walker Green Label and Island Green and Chivas Ultis are the most known blended malts in the market.
When American whiskeys are mentioned Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam are the first brands to come in mind in many countries due to their incredible distribution and brand force behind them. American whiskey is mainly known for Bourbon but there are different styles. Bourbons are the most popular type of whiskey in the US. Tennessee and rye whiskies are other types. There are also grain and malt whiskies in the USA.
- Regulations in the US, states the following rules for a whisky to be called as a bourbon.
- Distillation, maturation and bottling must be done in the US borders.
- Distillate should contain at least 51% corn.
- Distillate can contain at most 80% ABV(alcohol by volume) as it is distilled.
- Whiskey can contain at most 62.5% ABV at the moment it is put in the cases
- Bottled whiskey must have at least 40% ABV when it is bottled.
- The barrels should be charred fresh white oak barrels.
Tennessee whiskey is confused with Bourbon time to time. Firstly, Tennessee whiskey should be distilled, aged and bottled in Tennessee. After the distillation, it has to be filtered drop by drop with charcoal in a large tank, which is also known as the Lincoln County Process.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- A bourbon can be called a “Straight Bourbon” under necessary conditions
- It should be aged at least for two years in oak barrels
- If the whiskey is under 4 years old, it should be stated on the bottle
- If the whiskey is over 4 years old, the age youngest whiskey should be stated on the bottle
- Lastly, if all the process is handled in Kentucky, it can also be called Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Rules for rye whiskeys in the US are similar with the rules for bourbons. The main difference is the raw material to be used. Rye should be used by 51% during production. Also, it can be called “Straight Rye Whiskey” if the necessary conditions are met as in the conditions stated in “Straight Bourbon” topic.
Canada is the known origin of rye whiskies. However, the rye mash can be lower in amount and the conditions for barrels are not that strict. The most important rule is, the maturation should be done at least for 3 years. Also Canadian whiskies can involve 9.09% anything mixed in the whiskey!
Generally speaking, Irish whiskeys are easy to drink, not peaty, soft charactered and more like perfume when they are compared with Scotch whiskies. The most distinct difference in production is the number of distillations. In Scotland, whisky is generally distilled twice, while in Ireland it is generally distilled three times.
Irish whiskey lost its popularity due to numerous crisis, World Wars 1 & 2, and most importantly Prohibition Era in the US which was the main customer of the Irish whiskey market by that time.
Recently Irish whisky market is living a great moment since a huge investment is observed towards it. Quality is uprising. Jameson, Tullamore DEW, Teeling, Tyrconnell and Redbreast are great examples for Irish whiskeys.
When we are speaking of Irish Whiskey, we talk about blended whiskey with Jameson, single pot still whiskey with Redbreast and single malt whisky with Waterford!
Magic or hype? Nowadays everybody is rushing to buy one when Japanese whisky is in the conversation. However, they have been distilling whisky since the 1920s. Awards, advertisements in the last years made us to notice the beauty of the Japanese whiskies.
No argument that Masataka Taketsuru’s Scotland journey is what made Japanese whisky this good. His education at Longmorn and Hazelburn Distilleries are the main pillars for the Japanese whisky industry today. Taketsuru first worked with Yamazaki and then opened Nikka Distillery on the return and built the foundations for Japanese madness. Right now there are 8 distilleries in Japan.
They import the peat and a great amount of barley from Scotland. They also import the barrels. However, they started to use Mizunara wood from their own forests with some of their brands now. Perfectionist Japanese people are also doing their best to create splendid whiskies. Nikka, Yoichi, Taketsuru, Yamazaki are some of the awesome ones.
However, Japanese whisky also struggling to lose their infamous regulations issue, since there hasn’t been one. Especially, after the high demand for Japanese whiskies, most of the bottles in the market that claim to be ‘Japanese’, are actually not Japanese but blends of Scotch, Canadian, American and Japanese whiskies. You can read some more detail on my article I wrote for The Whiskey Wash.
This is often an overlooked section, but don’t get fooled, world’s best selling whisky and actually 7 out of 10 whiskies are made in India!! This can be shocking news but it has been a reality for years. Unfortunately, most of those Indian whiskies can be called ‘whisky’ if they were to be imported to the US or Europe as they are in India. They are blends of grain spirits with molasses spirits, which can be named as rum in the best case. For years, Officer’s Choice was the leading whisky in this category but this year McDowell’s No.1 took the lead!
However, India has been producing incredible single malts too! Brands like, Paul John, Amrut and Rampur are becoming more and more impressive every other day.
Whisky Or Whiskey?