The holidays are just around the corner and that means whisky is on my mind. This is always the time of year when my whisky consumption increases. Partly because whisky is a great companion to cold weather, partly because whisky is always a popular and safe gift and partly because with the holiday craziness a good stiff drink is just what the doctor ordered! As with anything I imbibe, I believe that gaining a good understanding of the drink can actually make it taste better. When you appreciate all the effort that goes into getting this bottle to your home you can truly appreciate the flavors better. So what does it take to make a whisky?
Whisky is a complicated and mesmerizing drink that has captured the imagination of people for centuries. We cannot possibly go into everything that goes into making a fine whisky and cover all the various styles in one sitting. I will attempt to simply and concisely cover the basics though.
Simply put, whisky is a distilled spirit that is distilled from various grains such as barley, rye, wheat and corn. Different mixtures of these grains make up the mash and each style of whisky adheres to specific rules when comprising the mash bill. We will cover the basic styles of Bourbon, Canadian and Scotch.
Bourbon is a mash that must be composed of 51% corn. The rest of the bill can be various other grains. Once the corn is milled water is added and heated to start fermentation. Other basic rules required to make a Bourbon is that it must be distilled in the United states. Bourbon must also be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There are other stipulations, but these are the basic ones. The aging process is perhaps the most important process in the production of bourbon. Ageing in the charred oak barrels is what gives whiskey it’s color and subtle caramel notes. Bourbon tends to be among the sweeter styles of whisky because of the corn content and the oak barrels.
Canadian whisky is whisky that is made (wait for it…) in Canada! Canadian whisky is not quite as straight forward as other whisky styles. Most likely because Canadians are so laid back, they don’t fret about rules quite so much. Canadian is quite popular in the northern U.S. because of the history of prohibition and the ease to bring whisky in the U.S. in small fast boats through Detroit and other border towns. Canadian whisky is a blended multi-grain spirit that typically contains a large percentage of corn. Even though Canadian whisky and the term rye whisky are used interchangeably in Canada, most Canadian whisky is composed primarily of corn, barley and only a touch of rye. One rule that is adhered to is that all Canadian whisky must be aged at least three years in Canada in wooden barrels of not greater than 700 Liters in capacity. The finished product must be at least 80 proof. The typical end-product is that most Canadian whisky has a lighter flavor profile and not quite as sweet as Bourbon.
Finally Scotch. Scotch whisky, simply called Scotch is a malt whisky or grain whisky made in Scotland. There are two basic types of Scotch: Single Malt and Blended. By law all Scoch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. In the case of blended Scotch, any age statement on a bottle must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend. Other rules that are required in Scotch production are: it must be produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley. Other grains may be added but must be fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast. The whisky must be matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks not exceeding 700 liters. It must contain no added substances other than water and plain caramel coloring. The minimum strength must be at least 80 proof.
Blended Scotch constitutes around 90% of all the whisky made in Scotland. Blended Scotch can contain both malt whisky and grain whisky blended together. This gives the whisky and consistent brand style. Typically lighter than Single Malt and less sweet than Bourbon, you usually get a hint of peat along with caramel and toast notes.
Single Malt Scotch means that it is only produced from water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. Usually more sought after among connoisseurs because of it’s purity, complexity and sense of place, it can come off as a bit more harsh than blended whiskies. Single malt usually has a more distinct peaty flavor from the water used along with hints of leather and oak.
This is an ever so brief description of whisky. I hope this inspires you to learn more and appreciate the complexities of the whisky world. It really will make you enjoy it more!