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What is Whisky or Whiskey for that matter?

So, I have been asked to talk about whisky/ whiskey, I’ll circle back to why there are two spellings. But for now, I’ll use whisk(e)y to shorten both representations, let’s start at the beginning, for some of you whisk(e)y is a new joy of discovery. For others it’s a stalwart presence in your life, and then there are those who find the whole thing mysterious baffling.

Might be a shock for some, but people have been distilling whisk(e)y for over a thousand years. The origin of whisk(e)y was around 1000 – 1200 AD (dates may vary) when distillation made the migration from the mainland of Europe into Scotland and Ireland by Christian monks. The Scottish and Irish monasteries, not having vineyards and grapes like back home on the main continent of Europe, they turned to fermenting grain mash, resulting in the first distillations of modern whisky.

There is a real colourful history of the whisky industry, but we’ll cover that another time.

Whisk(e)y is now made all around the world, and each country brings its own special style to the amber beverage. There’s a lot to whisk(e)y and trying to work out where to start is perplexing, especially if you’re just getting into this spirit.

So, I’ll try to give you a guide on whisk(e)y basics, from how whisk(e)y is made to the different styles.

Before I do that, lets clear up the spelling of whisk(e)y. So why is there two ways of spelling whisk(e)y? Well, it all comes down to influence, whisk(e)y was originally started in Scotland and Ireland. We won’t split hairs to say which of the two was first, but in Scotland whisky is spelt without an ‘e’ and in Ireland it’s spelt with the ‘e’ whiskey. So, countries outside of Scotland and Ireland adopted the spelling from whoever had more of an influence in their country. For example, America had a very large presences of Irish immigrants and they also spell whiskey with an ‘e’. Whereas Japan was heavily influenced by Scotland, so they spell it whisky. I know, mildly anticlimactic, now Let’s look at how whisk(e)y is made.

Even though there are several styles of whisk(e)y, most of them use the same basic process. .


1. Malting

For malt whisk(e)y, the process begins with what’s called ‘malting’ of the grain. Malting involves soaking the grain in water to get it to germinate. The reason for this, when the grain begins germination, it breaks down starch into simpler fermentable sugars, for the plant to use for growth. Once the grain begins sprouting, it is then dried with heat before being ground into a powder know as ‘grist’.

Not all whiskeys are malt whisk(e)ys, a grain whisk(e)y, for example, comes from any other type of grain: rye, corn, barley, or wheat. For these types of whisk(e)ys they skip the malting processes.

2. Mashing

Now the grist is mixed with hot water and stirred to extract those sugars with induced natural enzymes (Amylase). The enzymes and sugars are washed from the grist with hot water and filtered which creates a thick sugary beige coloured liquid known as ‘wort’.

3. Fermentation

Next, yeast is added to the wort, converting all the fermentable sugars from the mashing production into alcohol. This creates a beer like substance known as the ‘wash’ or distiller’s beer. Fermentation usually last between 48 – 60 hours, and an alcohol strength around 7% to 8% alcohol/ volume. Much of the flavour in whisky is produced in fermentation, from the amount of grain and yeast used, length of time and even temperature.

4. Distillation

Distillation is a purification process that separates the alcohol from the other materials in the wash. This is done using stills (large metal containers outfitted with heating devices), which heat the wash until the alcohol evaporates. That alcohol is collected and then boiled again to reach the appropriate purity and alcohol content, which is around 70% ABV.

There are two major types of stills, a pot still and a column still. We’ll go over these in upcoming blogs, for now we’ll stick to the process.

Whisk(e)y is usually distilled twice, some countries like Ireland distil three times.

5. Aging

After distillation, the whisk(e)y is ready for maturation. Certain types of whiskey must be aged longer than others, and some country governing bodies require whiskies to be age in specific kinds of casks, which can directly affect the flavour. To be classed Scotch whisky, it needs to have been aged a minimum of three years. Whereas bourbon whiskey, is only two years. But, must be aged in charred new oak barrels.

6. Blending

Even single malt whiskies bottled with an age statement can be blended from several different casks (barrels) from the same distillery. Blending (or vatting) different casks of whisk(e)y together adds complexity and balance to the finished whisk(e)y, importantly it also helps ensure uniformity from batch to batch and year to year. It takes years to be a master blender at a distillery.

7. Bottling

Once the whisk(e)y has finished the aging process, it’s about 60% alc/vol, and is reduced with purified water down to a minimum of 40% alc/vol before bottling. Most big-name whiskey brands combine spirits from several barrels, though some (typically smaller-batch whiskies labelled as single-cask or single-barrel whiskies) come from just one barrel.

There we have the first brief introduction to whisk(e)y, stay tuned, our next blogs we’ll talk about the different styles. Then later some interviews with people from the industry to give you an insight the complex and varied world of whisk(e)y.

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