Ask me about whisky several years ago and you would have received a totally different answer from me. However, I have always held an appreciation for the craftsmanship, quality and aging of this precious dram. Being somewhat of a cigar aficionado; whisky was always close by and seemed like the perfect companion. So I have since immersed myself into this whisky culture and what a journey it has been.
So what is whisky?
Whisky or whiskey (meaning “water of life”) is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak.
Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels.
Whats in a name? Whisk(e)y…… The general school of thought is that the spelling should depend on the style or origin of the spirit being described. The spelling “whiskey” is common in Ireland and the United States while “whisky” is used in all other whisky producing countries.
American whiskey is a whole other world and too much to include in this post so I will save that for another time and just focus on whisky (scotch) which is a huge subject unto itself.
Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, although some are distilled a third time and others even up to twenty times. Scotch Whisky Regulations require anything bearing the label “Scotch” to be distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks, among other, more specific criteria. Any age statement on the bottle, in the form of a number, must reflect the age of the youngest Scotch whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed age whisky. Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.
The basic types of Scotch are malt and grain, which are combined to create blends. Scotch malt whiskies are divided into five main regions: Highland, Lowland, Island, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown. All of which offer distinct characteristics and regional identity.
Types of whisky:
- Malt whisky is made primarily from malted barley.
- Grain whisky is made from any type of grains.
Malts and grains are combined in various ways:
- Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. Unless the whisky is described as single-cask, it contains whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognizable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, single malts bear the name of the distillery, with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
- Blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled “pure malt” or just “malt” it is almost certainly a blended malt whisky. This was formerly called a “vatted malt” whisky.
- Blended whisky is made from a mixture of different types of whisky. A blend may contain whisky from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand. The brand name may, therefore, omit the name of a distillery. Most Scotch, Irish and Canadian whisky is sold as part of a blend, even when the spirits are the product of one distillery, as is common in Canada. American blended whisky may contain neutral spirits.
- Cask strength (also known as barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted.
- Single cask (also known as single barrel) whiskies are bottled from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these whiskies may vary substantially from cask to cask within a brand.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been bottled for many years may have a rarity value, but are not “older” and not necessarily “better” than a more recent whisky that matured in wood for a similar time. After a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel does not necessarily improve a whisky.
While aging in wooden casks, especially American oak and French oak casks, whisky undergoes six processes that contribute to its final flavor: extraction, evaporation, oxidation,concentration, filtration, and colouration.