From time to time, I get asked a few queries regarding whiskies and everything around it and so I thought it best to take some time out and pen some content around these queries themselves! I’m hoping you find this pleasant and insightful! *fingers crossed*
1. Whisk’?’y -To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’ ?!
To start with, the term ‘whiskey’ was coined by the Irish to differentiate themselves from their neighbours. This was at a time when Aeneas Coffey promoted his Coffey Stills (aka Column Stills) to the world in the hopes of introducing a cheaper, faster and more efficient method of producing whiskies. The system was frowned upon by the Irish as they felt the practice to be unauthentic and almost heretic to whisky culture. While the Scots lapped it up readily, the Irish continued using their Copper Pot Stills and hence wanted to distance themselves by adding the ‘e’. Unfortunately with time, these stills were also accepted and employed by the Irish which later spread to other parts of the world (including the ‘e’)!
Another common reasoning (read ‘folklore’) to the ‘e’ was the Irish felt they pronounced the word correctly, dissimilar from how the Scots did…
So to put an end, is there really a right way to the word whisk’?’y?
The answer is No…it’s really just a preference that was adopted between regions – kinda similar to the color vs colour debate!
2. All whiskies are scotch?
False – All Scotches are whiskies but not the reverse!
A common misconception amongst many are that scotches are just another name for whiskies that are premium and cost top dollar. However, for a whisky to be called a Scotch, it needs to be distilled and then matured for a minimum of three years on Scottish soil before being bottled and sold.
So the next time you sip on some whisky, consider using its country of origin as reference– Bourbons (American), Irish, Japanese, etc.
3.The age of a whisky denotes the average age of its contents?
Or so most would think….in layman’s terms, the age is nothing but a reference to the youngest whisky present in the bottle. For example, if a Blender was to blend whiskies aged 15, 30 and 12 years; the age on the bottle would display that whisky which was the youngest of the lot – “Twelve”.
4. Beer and Whisky are closer related than you think!
The basic ingredients to making whisky are water, yeast and barley. The barley once malted is dried, crushed (grit) and then added to warm water – this helps breaks down the starch to sugars. The sugar sweet mix (wort) is then poured into wooden washbacks where yeast is added. The yeast begins feeding on these sugars producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct. After around 2-3 days the alcohol content reaches around 7-8% and is now ready to be distilled. This ‘wash’ is nothing but a crude form of beer, which is then filtered, distilled, aged for a few years and then bottled and sold to a store near you.
So in effect, beer is to whisky just how wine is to cognac!
5. Whisky has a divine connection?!
Believe it or not it’s true!
Uisce Beathe or ‘Water of Life’ was a concoction first introduced by medieval priests replicating methods of distillation they learnt from the Persians used in the production of perfumes and aromatics. Although the history of distillation itself dates back much further, it was these priests that experimented with grain for crafting medicines that were used for curing small pox and other diseases of the time. This practice moved from priests to professional practitioners until it was finally made and sold commercially by farmers and locals alike.
Another fact: During Prohibition, many distilleries not only survived but also made decent returns (Laphroaig for one) by selling the spirit under the pretext of being medicinal in nature (and if that didn’t cut it, you always had the bootleggers and the mafia!).
6. Single Malt whiskies are also blends – Confused?
Though in most cases the only grain used is malted barley, don’t be fooled by the term ‘Single Malt’. The ‘Single’ here means the malt whiskies used are all procured from a single distillery and NOT from ‘a single type of malted grain’. Here the master distiller would sample malts from different casks or sections of the warehouse within the same distillery and then blend them in various proportions to form the final product.
If the malts were to come from different distilleries and blended, the product would have been called either a vatted whisky or a blended malt. Some examples of blended malts are Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder.
7. European Sherry casks are a rarity.
With the advent of whisky and its immense popularity many spirits such as sherries, cognacs and wines began losing a lot of ground, especially in Europe. This made the availability of European wine barrels all the more rare and therefore more expensive (~$1000). To keep up with the demand for the golden juice, many distilleries ran into partnerships with wineries and bodegas where they provided the barrels to age the wine, and after a set period these wineries would themselves hand them back for whisky maturation. There are also others that manufacture European barrels and fill them themselves with standard to substandard Sherries for around 1-2 years. This causes the wine to age within the wood allowing those characteristic flavors to seep in. Once done, these casks are then emptied and reused within the whisky industry – allowing us fortunate folks to enjoy all that sherry goodness! Yumm!!
8. Tennessee whiskies are bourbons?
Technically yes – the criteria’s that define a Tennessee and a Bourbon are similar for all but one step. A Tennessee based whisky is additionally filtered through 10 feet of charcoal drop by drop before being aged in newly charred American Oak barrels. This step mellows the whisky and filters out any remaining impurities.
9. I’ve heard of the Angel’s share, is there really a devil’s share?!
As whisky is left to age in barrels, it loses a bit every year due to evaporation. This loss varies from place to place depending on the ambient temperatures and is commonly known as the ‘Angel’s Share’. Similarly, when the barrel is emptied and the contents are sent for bottling, a portion is held within the wood itself and this share is called the ‘Devil’s Share’.
10. Bourbon and European Sherry oak aren’t the only barrels being used for whisky maturation.
Except for Bourbons which are required to be housed in newly charred American oak barrels, most distilleries continue to use barrels beyond just American and European Oak. Many now leverage a host of casks along with various maturation periods in order to get that desired flavor profile.
Some variations worth mentioning are barrels that previously housed Rum, Beer, Pedro Xiemenes and/or Port wines. Woods like those of Mizunara (Japanese Oak) and even bamboo have made their way in the manufacturing process; in addition barrel sizes are leveraged to induce different characteristics as the housed spirits now have a varied surface area to interact with depending on the barrel size– Quarter Casks, Sherry Butts, Hogsheads, being examples.
11. Whiskies do not age in the bottle unlike beer and wine.
Whisky is a type of distilled spirit while beer and wine are examples of those that are fermented. The relatively high content of sugars coupled with the lower concentrations of alcohol allows enzymes within to undergo complex chemical reactions that encourage it to age.
In the case of whiskies, the distillation process strips the spirit of any enzymes while the higher concentrations of alcohol induce a sterile environment that restricts ageing. And hence in theory, these distilled spirits could last decades if not more as long as they are sealed, air tight and stored appropriately.
However once opened, the spirit is allowed to interact with the outside air facilitating oxidation. Although this does not spoil the whisky, over time it could change its characteristics in terms of flavor, colour or smell.