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More about Whiskey

What is whiskey?

Whiskey is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made from grain or malt. It differs from other types of grain alcohol in that it absorbs colour and flavour from the barrels during aging, it retains more flavour from the fermented mash by being distilled at a lower proof and being less thoroughly filtered. As a result, it is much more flavoursome than vodka. Unlike gin and akvavit, it doesn't have other flavourings added.

Different types of whiskey

There are many different types of whiskey. These are distinguished from each other by the way in which they are made, what they are made from, and where they are made.

American blended whiskey must be at least 20% straight whiskey. Bulked out with neutral grain spirit, sherry can be added for colour. If it contains 51% or more of the appropriate straight whiskey, it can be designated as blended bourbon or blended rye.

Australian whiskey is made from barley, maize and millet. Australian malt whiskey must be 100% barley malt, and must be aged for at least two years. Australian blended whiskey must be 25% or more malt, and also be aged for at least two years. Most Australian whiskey drinkers opt for Scotch or bourbon.

Bonded whiskey, or bottled in bond, is a whiskey produced in the USA aged under government supervision. Must be 100 proof, and aged for at least four years, and is produced from a single distillation.

Bourbon is produced in the USA, and must be distilled from a mash containing 51-79% maize (corn). It must be aged a minimum of two years. It must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol. If it is younger than four years, this must be stated on the bottle. Bourbon is usually double-distilled, to about 65% alcohol. The mash is often over 75% maize, with the remainder being malted barley and rye. All bourbons today are sour mash bourbons.

Canadian whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, and can be made from rye, maize and barley or barley malt. Most Canadian whiskies are blends with a very high content of neutral spirit. Up to 2% by volume can be added flavourings, such as sherry, plum wine, etc.

Corn whiskey is US whiskey distilled from 80% or more maize. The legal version of moonshine.

De Luxe whisky - some blends are described as "De Luxe"; currently all De Luxe Scotch is at least 35% malt whisky, but this is not required, and in any case, is sometimes exceeded by non-de luxe blends.

Irish whiskey is made in Ireland, aged for a minimum of three years. Most Irish whiskies are blends, Irish malts are usually unpeated.

Malt whisk(e)y is distilled from barley malt. A large number of malt whiskies are made in Scotland, others in other countries, such as Japan, New Zealand and Germany.

Rye whiskey is distilled from a mash containing at least 51% rye.

Scotch whisky is distilled in Scotland, and aged a minumum of three years. Scotch can be either malt or grain whisky; the overwhelming majority of Scotch sold is a blend of both. Some blends have caramel added to colour them. Most Scotch is double-distilled. Scottish malts are often heavily flavoured with peat smoke.

Sour mash whiskey is made by adding some of the previous batch to the new mash. All bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys today are sour mash whiskeys.

Straight Whiskey is pure whiskey, undiluted by neutral spirit or other flavourings. In the USA, straight whiskey must be aged in charred barrels.

Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, with same 51-79% corn mash, minimum of two years aging. However, it is also charcoal filtered, or charcoal mellowed by the Lincoln County process, adding extra flavour and smoothness.

Making whiskey

The first step is producing the mash, either from grain, heated and treated with enzymes, or barley malt, or a mixture of both. In a sour mash whiskey, some of the last batch is added to the new mash. Once this is fermented, it is distilled.

Distillation can either be in pot stills, or continuous stills (Coffey stills). Double distillation is usual, Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled. Distillation to about 60% -80% alcohol is usual. If it is distilled to too high a proof, too much flavour is lost.

Once distilled, the new spirit is aged in barrels, usually oak barrels. Sometimes old barrels previously used for port, sherry or bourbon are used, sometimes new barrels are used. Barrels are usually charred on the inside. A relatively new development is the stainless steel barrel with an oak lid, with a few pieces of charred wood tossed in for more effect.

Drinking whiskey

At one end of the scale are whiskeys usually drunk mixed, either simply with Coke, or in some of the traditional whiskey cocktails. At the other extreme are whiskies usually drunk straight. Sometimes with ice, sometimes with a little water added to help liberate the flavour.

At any rate, if you enjoy it, you must be doing it right.

Folklore

Some people might try to tell you that bourbon must be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Not true, as it can be made anywhere in the USA, even Alaska if you wished. There are currently no whiskey distilleries in Bourbon County.

The Baptist preacher Elijah Craig is rumoured to be the inventor of bourbon. At any rate, he was an early distiller, and is sometimes credited with the invention of charred barrel aging.

The founder of the Laphroaig Distillery, Donald Johnston, died a true distiller's death when he drowned in a barrel of half-finished whisky.

The Tomatin Distillery in Scotland uses some of their cooling water for a heated eel farm.