A spirit distilled from a maceration of grains, aged in oak barrels and usually distilled, usually, around 90 proof. Whisk(e)y is most often made with wheat, barley, rye or corn, all of which may or may not be malted(1) prior to fermentation. This liquor is known by two appellations, depending on where it is produced. Whisky (without an “e”) is made in Scotland, Canada, and to a lesser extent, Japan. Whiskey (with an “e”) is produced in the United States and Ireland(2). The reasons for the differences in the names have been lost to time. Interestingly enough, the plural for either spelling is ‘whiskies’, so in the long run, it just doesn’t matter. From here forward, please accept ‘whiskey’ as meaning both unless otherwise delineated.
Though the exact root is best conveyed by someone with Gaelic fluency, it is generally accepted that our word ‘whiskey’ is derived from the Gaelic term uisge beatha(3) , or translated, water of life. This follows a long tradition of naming alcohols ‘water of life’ (see Vodka). If you look at it in the right light, the Gaelic term bears a strange similarity to the Latin term agua vitae, which sheds some light on the history of the beverage.
It is accepted that the Irish were the first peoples to distill whiskey, though in many circles the Scots will claim to have perfected it(4). It is likely that until the Romans, who at the time had discovered the process of distillation, brought their new craft with them when they crossed the Channel and entered Britain. Much like the Spanish landing in South America, it is likely the Romans found the locals drinking a hearty concoction of whatever they could get to ferment (which in this case would have been very close to what would now be considered bad beer). A few bloody battles, enslavements and a little polite trading later and the Irish had made the first whiskey.
Whisky breaks down in this manner:
- Scotch (or Scots) whisky has four distinct regions in Scotland (Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside and The Islands) that it is produced, and these regions contribute their own special flavors based on the natural surroundings. Scotch is made using the malting process described at the end of this page. Scotch must be aged for three years in Scotland to be able to use the name legally.
- Canadian whisky is made much the same way bourbon whiskey is (see below) in that is contains a high percentage of corn but it is most often aged in used barrels, like Scotch. Canadian whiskies are almost always blended, which, combined with the corn, makes for a pleasantly mellow experience.
- Japanese whiskies are only recently starting to get recognition on the world stage. The Japanese industry was born out of a specific desire to recreate the Scottish whisky experience and as such many similarities can be detected. Notably, Japanese whiskies often contain an amount of rice, a grain that is not widely used elsewhere.
Whiskey can be traced as follows:
- Irish whiskey is made in much the same way as Scotch with one very noticeable difference. The Scottish distilleries burn peat to dry the malt, which adds smokiness to the flavor; Irish distilleries use enclosed kilns to dry their malt, which prevents the smoke from reaching the ferment.
- American whiskey has a few differences from its ancestors. The best known style of American whiskey is bourbon, which must by law contain at least 51% corn and is aged a minimum two years in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon is in fact a county in Kentucky, and is where bourbon whiskey originated from, but as long as the content and aging laws are followed, any non-blended American whiskey can be called bourbon.
One of the best known brands of American whiskey, Jack Daniels, is actually not bourbon. Originating in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the Jack Daniels brand was a commercial pioneer of a process called sour mash, in which part of the last batch of whiskey is used to start the new batch. This allows for a more consistent product through batches and keeps the same yeast strain alive.
Note (1): Malting is the process of allowing grains to sprout before fermentation. The process of sprouting changes the sugars contained within the seed that is the grain and makes them more complex and easier to release. Some malt is roasted dry shortly after it sprouts, killing the sprout, stopping the malt and adding a little smoky flavor.
Note (2): Wikipedia suggests an interesting mnemonic for remembering this…Scotland, Canada and Japan do not have the letter ‘e’ in the spelling of their names; the United States and Ireland do.
Note (3): The spelling of this may or may not be correct. As with many old languages, spelling is only as good as the scribe on the last manuscript.
Note (4): In an interesting (and unconfirmed at time of press) note, there is a legend that a giant strode across the isles between Ireland and Scotland and brought the gift of whiskey to the Scottish and touched off a never ending debate on who’s is better that who’s.
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