Whisky 101

Something came over me. I don’t know what it was, but I made an impulse buy yesterday. I’ll tell you all about that in due time, but first I need to devote a post for this mini-lesson. Welcome to Whisky 101.

So, what is whisky? (And what is whiskey? That comes later.) Well, whisky is the name given to a very broad class of spirits, but all whiskies share two important features.

(1) Whisky must be distilled from grains. If you start with grapes, you’re making brandy. If you start with sugar, you’re making rum. But if you start with corn, rye, barley, wheat or any other grain, you’re on your way to making whisky.

In general, the grain is mixed with water and heated to make what is known as mash. This mash then is allowed to ferment, producing alcohol. If you stop at this point and add hops, you’ve got yourself beer [1], but to make whisky, you must distill what’s left to concentrate the alcohol. As you distill, what is produced is some percentage of pure alcohol with the rest being water and impurities (read flavor.) In the case of vodka or neutral grain alcohol, impurities are undesirable, so these spirits are typically distilled to 95% or more alcohol then filtered. In whisky, however, some flavor from the original grain is desirable, so the alcohol content is kept lower, usually no more than around 80% or so.

(2) Whisky (at least any whisky worth drinking [2]) is aged in wooden barrels. Much (usually most) of the flavor and most (usually all) of the color comes during this process and the length of time spent aging varies considerably depending on both the type of cask used and the type of whisky desired. Whereas some wines mature after bottling, all spirits are as good as their ever going to be when they leave the barrel, so ages listed on the bottle always refer to the length of time spend in the cask.

Now it’s time to break down whisky a bit further. Like I said at the start, this is a broad category. Oh, and before I forget, I should back to whisky vs. whiskey. In the late 1800’s, a flood of whiskies from Scotland were introduced as new still technology came online. Unfortunately, many of these were of rather poor quality. In an effort to distance themselves from this wave of junk, the Americans and the Irish adopted the spelling whiskey. The distinction remains today and anything from these two countries gets the extra e, while products from elsewhere do not [3].

(1) Bourbon is the quintessential American whiskey. It must begin with a mash of at least 51% corn and it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Since the wood is new, much flavor is given off and bourbon only needs to age 3-6 years (on average). Though it is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, it may be produced anywhere.

Bourbon has two close relatives. Rye whiskey must start from 51% or more rye mash and Tennessee whiskey is a corn-based whiskey that is passed though sugar maple charcoal before it is aged.

(2) Scotch begins with a mash of predominantly malted [4] barely and is aged in used barrels, usually bourbon or sherry. Since the casks used are older, they give off their flavors more slowly and Scotches tend to be aged much longer with 8-18 years being typical and several decades not being out of the question. Peat is a flavor that is often (semi-uniquely) associated with Scotch whiskies. The peat is introduced in the heating of the mash and/or in the water used to dilute the finished product. Also, by law, Scotch must be made in Scotland. No exceptions.

(3) Irish Whiskey is produced in much the same way as Scotch, but it uses unmalted barely and a different distillation process. The result is a spirit which is sweeter and mellower since it lacks the smokiness and peatiness of Scotch.

(4) Canadian Whisky is generally a blend of several grain whiskies. While there is some love for the longer-aged versions, Canadian whisky tends to be the black sheep of the whisky family. Older generations might remember it having a strong flavor profile due to high rye content, (and even older generations might remember it as being the bootleg liquor of choice during prohibition), but today’s versions tend to be blander.

(5) Japanese Whisky is an oft overlooked category, and when it is remembered, some hold strong biases against it. The reason is that Japanese whisky is Scotch whisky made outside of Scotland. (Scandal!) Single-malt purists will argue that the subtleties that go into making a good Scotch can’t be duplicated outside the land of St. Andrew, but Japan (from a distillery viewpoint), is remarkably well matched. In certain places, climate, geography and access to spring water is comparable. Some even have access to peat and strive to duplicate that very Scotch aspect.

One last thing. There is often confusion about blended vs. single malt. A single malt whisky is one which is made up only of malted barley whisky from a single distillery. It may be a blend of whiskies from different barrels and therefore different ages, but it all was made under one roof. The term usually is used in the Scotch context, but Japanese and Irish whiskies that qualify may also be labeled as such. Blended, therefore, is a mix of single malt and other grain whiskies from different distilleries.

In very broad terms, single malts often have a few very distinctive characteristics that can be powerful and the result can be quite complex. While distillers try to keep the product consistent, there is inevitably some variation from batch to batch. Blended whiskies, on the other hand, are a balancing act of many different flavor profiles. The end-product is usually more consistent, but some argue that they don’t reach the same depth that single malts can. There are very good (and very bad) examples of both, so the point is maybe a bit moot.

Now that you are armed with some whisky knowledge, keep an eye out for a new, very related post. HINT: Konichiwa!

[1] OK. Before you write angry comments, I know I’ve left some important steps out. But in essence, spirit making and beer making follow the same process up until you distill it to raise the alcohol content. The point I’m trying to make is that whisky and other spirits start life at only 5-10% alcohol.


[2] Most moonshine, for example, is not aged. Wikipedia lists “corn whiskey” as a product distinct from moonshine; however, the illustrative picture shows that it is bottled in a mason jar. You can’t polish a turd.

[3] There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Maker’s Mark bourbon spells it whisky, but the company has a Scottish heritage.

[4] Malting a grain is a process by which it is allowed to begin germination. Sprouted grain gives slightly different flavors than unsprouted.



Filed under Drinks, Spirits

2 responses to “Whisky 101

  1. Pingback: Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky, 12 Year « bybe

  2. Pingback: Chasing the White Dog at Koval Distillery « bybe

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