Whisky Basics

So full disclosure I am by no means an expert on whisky, it just happens to be a passion of mine, and this is more or less just an excuse to stretch my fairly limited by nonetheless enthusiastically gained knowledge on the subject. I also want to add that even among actual experts, the field of whisky is one of debate, ambiguity, dispute and nuance so any information you might find either here or elsewhere must be taken with a pinch of salt, or given the fact we are dealing with whisky perhaps take it with some water. Now that we’ve gotten that terrible attempt at humour out of the way, let carry on.

So is it Whisky or Whiskey?
Both are technically correct, and interestingly enough the reason for the difference in spelling can be reflected in the Scots and Irsh variations of the phrase ‘Water of Life’ from which we derive the word whisky. In Scots Gaelic the phrase is rendered as ‘Uisge Beatha’ while the Old Irish rendering of the phrase is ‘Uisce Beatha’. This deviation in spelling continued on after the root words were subsequently anglicized and it became either ‘Whisky’ or ‘Whiskey’.

As you continue to read this post, you will notice that we are using the spelling used most commonly in Scotland (as well as the vast majority of the world who make and consume the grain spirit) rather than the spelling used in Ireland and the United States. This is simple down to a cultural preference as Off the Record is a Scottish based blog. It is unclear why America adopted the Irish spelling of the world over the more widely used spelling, but I do know that American writers used both spellings interchangably from the 18th century onwards right up until the introduction of newspaper style guidelines after which the adopted a consensus and a standard spelling for the grain based spirit. Additionally, I’ve found that Americans will use both terms, reserving whiskey for product made in America, and using whisky for those made outside.

What is Whisky?
Whisky is a broad term for a distilled liquor made using a fermented mash of cereal grains, which are subsequently aged in wooden containers. As well as the specific process used to make them, which can vary depending upon the type of whisky being made, they are also set apart or distinguished by the type of grain which is used in the distilling process, whether it be wheat, barley, malt, rye or corn.

Straight or Blended?
So whisky can come either straight or blended. A straight whisky is a whisky which has not been blended with anything else, or if it has it’s only been mixed with another whisky from the same distiller and distillation period. This is not to be confused with ordering a drink straight, which has a few different meanings but usually means either a straight pour of a spirit or a spirit which is chilled and served in a cocktail glass. However usually when people order things straight they mean they want it neat, with means without ice or mixers.

A blended whisky is any whisky which has been mixed with something else, whether this be another type of whisky or an external flavouring agent. For example, I am a huge fan of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which is a blend of Canadian whisky, blended with Cinnamon flavourings and sweetners.

With or Without Water?
So some experts and tasters will add water to their whisky, usually no more than a few drops, although I have heard of people adding a couple teaspoons, in an effort to ‘open up’ the drink. Adding a small amount of water, apparently enhances the tasting experience by making it easier to nose and distinguish the flavour on the palate. Some purists will say you shouldn’t add water, I personally don’t add any, but I think it’s entirely up to personal preference.

Peated and Unpeated Whisky?
So particularly in Scotland you have the option of your whisky being peated or unpeated, what this basically means is whether or not peat was used in the production of your whisky. Now what is peat? I hear you ask. Peat is a plant material composed of partially decayed vegetation and organic matter which has accumulated in waterblogged areas such as moors, bogs and fens. Peat varies, with some peat being in more watery locations such as those found in bogs, while peat found elsewhere can be woodier. Either way, before being used it is left to dry for a few weeks until it turns into a solid peat brick.

Now you’re probably wondering how that relates to Whisky, historcally Scots used peat to heat the pot stills, where the spirit is distilled. However this is not how the peat lends its smoky flavour to the whisky, instead whisky makers will use the peat to dry the malted grain mash, and it is during this process that the peat imparts its unique flavour profile into the mix. Now the specific flavours imparted to the final product will depend on the type of peat used which will vary depending upon the specific elements that compose the peat which obviously varies.

Single Barrel and Cask Strength?
So single barrel basically means that the whisky is bottled from an individual distillery cask, this is usually used to preserve the flavour of a specific batch as flavours can differ wildly between casks even at the same distillery. As for cask strength, this refers to a whisky which forgoes the dilution process and instead is bottled directly from the cask. Cask strength whisky is usually very strong and as such isn’t for everyone.

What is Scotch?
Scotch whisky or simply ‘Scotch’ is a broad term, mostly used in North America, for any whisky made in Scotland. In fact UK regulations dictate that to be called Scotch it must be made produced and bottled entirely in Scotland. In addition to that requirement, a scotch is usually made with malted barley, with a potential mix of other grains.

What is Malt Whisky?
Malt whisky is a whisky which is predominantly produced in Scotland, and to be considered a Malt Whisky it has to be made from Malted Barley, and it also needs to be made in a pot still. A single malt, is a whisky which is made in the same process as a malt whisky but is the product of a single distillery. I should add that this is not the product of an individual batch or even cask, but a single distillery.

What is a Rye Whisky?
So as the name sugggests, a Rye whisky is one which is made with a rye and malt mash. Depending upon where the whisky is made, there are requirements as to how much rye needs to be used to be classified as a rye whisky but I think I will go with the American requirement, that to be considered a rye whisky it must be made of at least 51% rye. Rye whisky is particularly popular in America and Canada, In America as I touched on above they have some strict requirements for what is considered a rye whiskey, because on top of being required to be made of at least 51% rye, they must also be distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof and aged in charred, new oak barrels. In Canada, their are no such requirements needed to be classified as a rye whisky, they can use that term regardless of the specific composition as long as the flavour embodies that of Canadian Whisky.

What is Corn Whisky?
A corn whisky is a whisky that is made primarily using corn, it is mostly an American trend, and they stipulate that to be considered a corn whisky it must be made using 100% corn whisky. It is apparently very neutral in flavour, as such is is usually used when making blended whiskies.

What is a Bourbon?
Bourbon takes it’s name from the French Bourbon dynasty, from which Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Bourbon County in Kentucky derive their names. To be considered a bourbon, it must be made in America. It can be made anywhere in America, but bourbon is intimately connected with the American South, so much so that approximately 95% of Bourbon produced is made in the state of Kentucky. To be called a bourbon it also needs to use at least 51% corn in its mash, and it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

So that’s everything I have to say about whisky right now, please feel free to educate me if I got anything wrong. I hope you liked what I had to say.

First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org/


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