As a spirits category whisky is incredibly diverse with several sub-divisions of style, flavour and general appeal, based on the method and country or specific region of manufacture. We take a closer look at whisky, how it's made and the essential facts.
Whisk(e)y is a type of distilled alcohol beverage made from any grain-based product, fermented, distilled and generally matured in oak barrels. As with all spirits, the base product varies and tends to be linked to the exact location of both where the grain is farmed and where the distillery is located.
- Colour: Ranging from pale straw / light gold to rich, orange / amber – determined by the type and length of cask maturation
- Region: Scotland, USA, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Australia, central Europe and India
- ABV: Minimum 40% ABV
- Maturation / Age: ‘Scotch whisky’ must be aged in oak casts for a minimum of 3 years, there is no legal minimum duration for ageing Bourbon
- Made from: Can be made with any grain but Scotch whisky must contain malted barley, while maize (corn), wheat and rye are also used for American whiskey. Indian whisky is often made from molasses sugars and a mix of malted barley or other cereal giving it a more rum-like taste and texture.
- Translation: Whisky – spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland and widely across America but not in Scotland or for single malts made in other parts of the world including Sweden, Japan and India. The name is believed to have originated from the Gaelic word ‘uisge beatha’ meaning ‘water of life’.
The earliest records of the distillation of alcohol date back to Italy in the 13th century where alcohol was distilled from wine. But the first records of whisky production – mentioned as ‘aquavitae’ date back to the 15th century where the art of distillation had spread to Ireland and Scotland and found favour with the king at the time, James IV of Scotland, who had a great liking for Scotch whisky.
Shortly after, during the dissolution of the monasteries under the rule of King Henry VIII, whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms. Whisky production at this time was still in its infancy and due to restrictions on ageing tasted strong and potent.
After England and Scotland merged in the early 1700s, the English Malt Tax of 1725 came into effect increasing the tax on Scotch whisky and forcing producers to hide existing stock and distillers to operate during the darkness at night to hide the smoke from the stills – for this reason the illegal drink became known as ‘moonshine’ and at one point was over half of Scotland’s whisky output. This practice eventually ceased in 1823 after the passing of the Excise Act legalising distillation for a fee.
Scotch whisky’s popularity increased, and become firmly cemented, in the late 19th century after the phylloxera epidemic decimated many of France’s vineyards and in turn its brandy production.
The American history of whisky can be traced back to the states of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania where in 1791 is began to be brewed as a rye-based product. Its status as a highly coveted sundry and profitable product for farmers converting corn to alcohol led the President at the time George Washington to introduce an excise tax intended to generate revenue for the war debt incurred by the American Revolution. It was met with open resistance leading to the Whiskey Rebellion which saw hundreds of distillers convicted. It was repealed in the early 1800s during the Jefferson administration. By 1870 the whiskey trade had become well developed across America though production oversight was difficult to maintain and fraudsters often passed-off non-whiskey drinks packaged in whiskey bottles. Eventually, authenticity standards were introduced including the widely adopted trend for sealing and labeling bottles, as well as the ‘Bottled in Bond’ act which stipulated whiskey must be 50% alcohol by volume, produced in one season by one distiller and must be stored in a federally bonded warehouse under the supervision of the U.S Government for at least four years.
High levels of public drunkenness spurred the policy of prohibition between 1922 and 1933 which prevented the production and sales of all alcohol, except for whiskey prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies.
By 1964, legal statutes and quality controls were enforced for Bourbon – to be 51% corn distilled to 80% alcohol, made only with natural ingredients and for ageing to take place in specific barrels of charred oak. Other American whiskies were required to meet additional standards for grain type, aging and proofing.
Method of production:
Whisk(e)y can be made from a number of different grains which, unlike grapes, are full of insoluble starch that needs to be converted to a liquid sugar solution through a process called malting. The process begins by steeping the grains in water in a warm environment to encourage germination. Once the grains begin to grow, enzymes are released modifying the starch. The grains are then heated enough to halt germination but preserve the enzymes. Mashing – first crushing the grain then mashing with hot water – dissolves the soluble starches allowing the enzymes in the malt to convert the starch into sugars, typically maltose, creating a sugary solution called ‘wort’ that can then be fermented. Yeast is then added for fermentation to begin which normally takes around 48 hours or longer depending on what characteristics are desired. The liquid produced is called ‘wash’ which must be distilled to create whisky – traditionally twice in Scotland and three times in Ireland. Alcohols from the middle or ‘heart’ of the distillation are skillfully removed by a stilllman and taken away and matured to become whisky. The best grain for this is barely as it creates more enzymes more efficiently than any other grain.
Whisky aging takes place in the cask, not in the bottle, and is defined by the time between distillation and bottling. During this time the whisky will interact with the cask, particularly American and French oak casks, changing the chemical make-up and taste of the end product.
While aging, the whisky goes through six process that will define its eventual flavour: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration and colouration.
Some distillers like to age their whisky in barrels previously used for other spirits, including Rum, Madeira or Sherry, to add additional or specific flavour profiles.
- Quarter – 125l
- American standard Barrel (ASB) / Bourbon Barrel – 200l
- Hogshead – 225-250l
- Butt – 500l
- Pipe 550l
- Gorda – 700l
Types of whisky:
All Scotch whisky must be distilled in Scotland to a strength of no less than 94.8% ABV but bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and be aged in oak casks for at least three years. Scotch whisky can be separated into two main categories – Malt Whisky which can only be made from malted barley and must be distilled in pot stills and Grain Barley which can be a combination of malted barley and other grains and distilled in column stills.
Malt whisky is made from just three ingredients – water, barley and yeast, and is probably the most widely recognised style around the world. Occasionally these will be made with barley that has first been smoked with peat (where peat is used as the fuel during the kilning process) to impart a smoky or medicinal flavour which can vary from light to pronounced depending on the amount of peat used. Unpeated styles of single malt tend to be lighter and fruitier with a sweet malt taste. The Scottish islands of Islay, Skye and Orkney are renowned for their peated whiskies. A large part of a malt whisky’s flavour will depend on the type of barrel used with most distillers preferring used barrels to new ones, in particular ex-bourbon ones for vanilla, coconut and spice flavours. These whiskies tend to be lighter in colour than those aged in European oak and are more aromatic on the nose and subtle on the palate. Scotland’s cool, humid climates lends itself well to even and slow whisky maturation with few malt whiskies available younger than 10 years old.
- Well-known peated whisky brands: Laphroig, Adrberg, Talisker, Highland Park
- Well-known unpeated whisky brands: The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich
Grain Whisky, which is not as commonly available as malt whisky, can be made using any grain product as its base. It is never peated and is distilled to a higher degree of rectification giving a sweeter, lighter flavour than malt whisky.
Blended whisky accounts for the vast majority of worldwide sales of all Scotch whisky (roughly 92% of the worldwide Scotch market). It is made-up of whisky from two or more distilleries and comes in three permitted types: Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Blended Grain Scotch Whisky and Blended Scotch Whisky (a mixture of malt and grain whisky). Master Blenders, as they’re known, have the task of creating the same style of whisky time after time carefully balancing the intensity of the Malts with the lightness and elegance of the Grains.
- Well-known blended Scotch whisky brands: Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark
Single whiskies are made by one distillery with Single Malt, as opposed to Grain, whiskies representing the majority of the premium market. Unless they are marked specifically as ‘single cask’ they are made by blending whiskies of different casks and ages and are usually released with an indication of age (if so, this will be the youngest whisky in the blend).
- Well-known Single Malt Scotch brands: Macallan, Lagavulin, Glenmorangie, Bowmore, Aberlour
There are several differences between American and Scotch Whisky, notably that the base spirit is created from more than one ingredient – usually a trio of grains including corn (maize), rye and malted barley, though newer, experimental distillers are using niche grains such as quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, millet and oats. The percentage or breakdown of grains is known as the ‘mash bill’ and will affect the type and flavour profile of the whisky.
- Corn (maize) adds sweetness and roundness as well as yielding a higher amount of alcohol than other grains
- Barley adds a toasty, rich malty taste
- Rye adds a spiciness and earthiness
- Wheat is neutral, creamy and soft, imparting more flavours from the oak barrels used while also accentuating the sweetness in the corn
American whiskies must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and, with the exception of corn whiskey, must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Those that are aged for two years or more are considered ‘straight’ and if they contain more than 51% of a specific grain will be additionally designated as a straight version of that type.
Bourbon whiskey is usually distilled twice using column stills, it must contain at least 51% of corn (maize) and be aged in new charred oak barrels. Some bourbons are matured in non-air-conditioned warehouses to create an accelerated aging process and rapid extraction of colour and flavour from the wood. Generally, bourbons share an off-dry, sweet and smooth undertone with varying notes of spice, caramel, coconut and vanilla. While Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA nearly all producers can be found in the southern state of Kentucky.
High Rye – a mash bill containing 20-35% rye – it will have more pronounced spice
High Corn – unless it’s a specific Corn Whisky which has to have a minimum of 80% corn – will have more than 51% in the mash bill, typically 60 or 70% and will be sweeter in flavour
Wheaters – where wheat has replaced rye in the common corn-barley-rye trio are softer and a bit sweeter
- Well-known Bourbon brands: Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Jim Bean, Woodford Reserve
Tennessee whiskey, of which Jack Daniels is the top selling American whiskey in the world, differs from bourbon and other American whiskies in its use of the Lincoln County Process which involves the whiskey being filtered through or steeped in maple wood charcoal before being transferred to casks for aging. According to the North American Free Trade Agreement ‘Tennessee whisky is a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorizes to be produced only in the State of Tennessee’.
- Well-known Tennessee Whiskey brands: George Dickel, Jack Daniel’s, Prichard’s, Collier and Mckeel, Nelson’s Green Briar
Typically, Irish whiskies are blended, distilled three times, use unmalted barley and are generally unpeated which gives them a smooth texture with a spicy and fruity flavour. By law, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years, although in practice it is much longer. At one point in time Irish Whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world with more than 30 distilleries in the country and, despite a long period of decline from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, is seeing a resurgence in production and exports.
- Well-known Irish whiskey brands: Jameson, Redbreast, Tullamore Dew, Powers, Tyrconnell
Biggest-selling global brands of whisky
- Johnnie Walker – biggest selling Scotch whisky brand in the world
- Jack Daniel’s
- Canadian Club
- The Glenlivet
- Chivas Regal
- Jim Bean
- Maker’s Mark
Highest whisk(e)y consuming nations around the world
- United States of America
Did you know?
- The naturally occurring loss of alcohol volume during whisky maturation is known as the ‘angels share’ and can vary from 2% in Scotland where consistently low temperatures limit overall evaporation rates to up to 10% in hotter countries such as India and America.
- France is the number one whisky drinking country per capita with 2.15 litres drunk per person and is the largest consumer of Scotch whisky in particular, by both volume and value in the world.
- Mint Julep
- Jack and coke
- Old Fashioned
- Rusty Nail
- Whiskey Sour
- Hot Toddy