What is whisky ?
Why is such a simple product such a complicated subject. Whisky after all is just 3 things, barley, yeast and water. So how on earth can there be hundreds of different bottles. I’ll try to keep it simple.
whisky is a product that has been around for a hundreds of years, somewhere around the 15th centuary, it was originally called “uisgebaugh” and over time became “Uisge Beatha” which translates to ” the water of life”. This liquid is said to have been made first by monks who then showed of their secrets. All of the early whisky made in Scotland was illegal. Around 1780 there was thought to be around 8 legal distilleries, and hundreds of illegal distilleries due to non payment of taxes, in 1823 the excise act came in where taxes were reduced and thereafter distilleries became legal. So what exactly is whisky in today’s market ?
First the barley is malted by soaking it in water, once germination has started the barley is dried from coal, wood or peat fires. In days gone past this was done at the distillery but due to the demand it is now generally bought in, today only a couple of distilleries use floor malting in the production (balvenie and highland park being two ) Once dried it is then ground and mashed with hot water in order to extract sugars. The liquid now called “WORT” it is now drained and fermented with yeast for around 2-3 days. We now have a product named “WASH” which is alcohol with a strength of around 7%..
It’s now time to put the wash into a copper still, at most distilleries distillation is done twice, some triple distill (Auchentoshan). Once the spirit is ready the first cut is separated so the pure middle cut can be collected, the liquid is now at a strength of around 70%. Before putting the new make spirit into barrels water is added to reduce the alcohol lever to around 62-63%.
We now have a spirit maturing.
Once matured it is then split into single malts and blends. We also have grain whisky and bourbon ( whiskey ) so what’s the difference?
The confusion usually starts with the word single. A single-malt scotch whisky is nothing more than the product of a single distillery. Not the product of a single batch or a single barrel. A single-malt may contain whiskies from many barrels produced at the distillery, but it can only have whisky produced at one distillery. This is not just confined to Scotland but anywhere in the world, Ireland, Japan and India are becoming very big in the malt world, producing some exceptional single malts. Many think this is the best form of whisky available.
Grain whisky ordinarily refers to whisky made from grains other than malted barley, such as whisky made using maize (corn), wheat or rye. Grain whiskies may also contain some malted barley ( by law in Scotland ). Grain whisky is linked to the invention of the Coffey still which enabled a continuous distulation to take place.
A blended whisky is whisky made at different distilleries and blended together, this could contain single malt and grain whisky. There could be anything from a couple of different whiskys up to 50-60 and more. This process can be extremely hard to perfect. It is unfair to be thought of as the poor relation to single malts. Blended whisky is after all the biggest selling form of whisky available.
Then we have bourbon. This is the American version of whisky and is usually made from corn or rye. While bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, it is mostly associated with the American South, and Kentucky in particular. At the moment bourbon has to be aged in new oak barrels. They then sell the used barrels to the whisky industry..
Once the whisky ( new make spirit) has been made it is then stored in oak barrels, here it has to stay for a minimum of 3 years in order to be called “Whisky”. Most single malt whiskys are matured longer, the average seems to be around 10-18 years.
We now have “WHISKY” so enjoy it.