2020 © Lautaro Molina Y Vedia for Museum Tales
Lets start with what is Whiskey. Whiskey is a cereal based alcoholic spirit composed of 3 main ingredients; Water, yeast and a cereal often for Whiskey this cereal will be rye, Corn or wheat.
A Similar drink is also made in Scotland (Scotch Whisky). This is made slightly differently with the cereal used being Malted Barley.
For this Whisky to be called Scotch it has to be fully distilled and matured in oak barrels within Scotland for a minimum of 3 years. Before the 3 years are up you are legally not allowed to call it Whisky, instead it is referred to as “Spirit”.
Linguistic point. The word Whisky originated from the Gaelic word “Uisge Beatha meaning “Water of life”. In Japanese it is pronounced « uisuki ».
A difference just for fun? In the 19th century, Scottish migrants did not produce a whisky of incredible quality, the main aim being to drink it and not to remember it the next day. The Irish, took this much more seriously and exported a spirit of a much higher quality, differing from the Scottish product in particular by a triple distillation, instead of a double distillation.
In fear of being mistaken for incompetent drunkards by the Americans, the Irish, proud of their know-how, added an « e » thus marking a difference between the two drinks.
Over time, Scots have improved considerably to the point of being the inventor of the best spirits in the world, in all categories combined. Their method of double distillation is the most widespread (also in Canada, and Japan…). As a result, there are more than 120 Scottish distilleries in operation, compared to about 90 in Ireland.
Single Malt VS Blend. The most widely used cereal is barley. It is said to be malted and is not mixed (hence the single ) with other cereals (grain-based) such as corn, wheat and rye.
In order for the whisky to be « single malt« , the whisky in question must be composed only of alcohols from the same distillery and a single cereal in this case barley.
Opposed to the « Single Grain » which will consist of only one type of seed: corn, wheat or rye. Barley is normally considered higher quality and mixtures less interesting.
However, you will often find that “Single Grain Whiskies” are sweeter although not always having the level of complexity you may find in a Single Malt. They also tend to be cheaper as the most common cereal used is Wheat, much cheaper than Barley. (The Cereal used in the production of “Single Malt Scotch Whisky”).
There are some excellent Grain Blends out there, but if you don’t know much about it (like me), I would recommend going along to a Whisky Tasting session, either in person or join an online tasting from the comfort of your own home and get the samples sent out to you. You will often find an array of whiskies that you may not necessarily have come across before.
The Single Cask or the top of the whisky ! It is one barrel which are often known for their unique flavors that you tend not to find in standard distillery bottling. This is primarily because different wood is used to build every cask and they leave out the vetting process this is where the distillery will dilute the Whisky to an average of 40% ABV and often chill-filtered it too which removes a lot of the natural oils. Single casks are often left at cask strength which can sometimes be as high as 60% ABV+. This strength allows the drinker the ability to tailor the Whisky to their own palate, by adding as little or as much water as they wish. (However, it is always recommended to try the whisky neat first). As you will find not all whisky needs water added.
Scotland is made up of 5 whisky regions: Lowlands, Highlands, Islay and Speyside. Each region has a different style of Whisky and is unique to that area. The most noticeable difference being Peated and un-peated whisky. If you had a Peated Whisky, there is a high probability that it was from Islay. On the other hand, if you had a Whisky that was quite smooth and it also had a nice sweetness about it, it is most likely to have come from Speyside.
What about bourbon? As for Bourbon and Rye whiskey, they are characterized by their exclusively American production. Therefore, they are mostly derived from a « mix » of grains, especially corn and to a lesser extent rye.
The maturation time also differs: the straight bourbon must be at least two years old and if it is less than 4 years old, then its label must state that since the optimal maturity time is 5 years old. On the other hand, Scottish whiskies and Irish whiskeys must meet a minimum of 3 years. However, most distilleries prefer to mature them for a longer period of around 8 – 10 years.
Finally, bourbon is made in brand new oak barrels, while Scottish and Irish whiskies make a point of recycling the barrels of previous batches to create new taste nuances.
Bourbon barrels also get reused by the Scotch industry as it is seen as a cheaper alternative to buying the barrels from new.
The Ex-Bourbon barrels are also used in the aging process of the well known Tabasco Sauce.
Bourbon owes its name to Bourbon County in Kentucky, from where it was born in the 19th century. It can now be produced anywhere in the USA and still bear this name, unlike our Bordeaux for example, which must be specifically produced in the Bordeaux region.
American producers are reluctant to call their bourbon Whiskey « bourbon whiskey » because people think that « bourbon » tends to sound like a lower quality Whisky. In other words: « the best bourbon will not even be worth the worst Whiskey ». This is not entirely false, but not very marketing. They therefore prefer the name Tennessee Whiskey, for example. Even though Tennessee Whiskey is yet another type, between Rye and bourbon… But « agreements exist » for it to pass anyway…
What is especially relevant to remember is that these American appellations refer to older products and whose maturation conditions are less noble than those of whiskies (Scots, Japanese…) and Irish whiskeys.
Sum up ?
- The Scotts carry out a double distillation, whilst the Irish carry out triple.
- It is the Irish who are at the origin of the spelling distinction « ey » / « y », which is intended not to be confused with their Scottish neighbours.
- In other words, a Scotch cannot be a « whiskey ». Just like a bourbon can’t be a Scotch
As a conclusion : Drink what you want and with the moderation that you may allow to yourself, as long as you know what is in your glass!
Upcoming: The History of Singali; The history of Mezcal.
- Callum Simpson, sell manager at Whisky Castle of Tomintoul