The world of Whiskey or Whisky
The two spellings of whisky are like most words today, one is based from the Scotts and the other comes from the Gaelic word uisge which in short means “Water of Life, as the Irish/Scottish immigrated to the US they influenced the spelling of Whiskey.
So let’s get into the history of whisky.
Whisky is a dark distilled spirit that is made from a variety of grains, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. It is distilled throughout the world, most popularly in Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Australia, and Japan. There are various styles of whisky and some countries have regulations that stipulate how it is produced. Whether it’s Irish whiskey, scotch, bourbon, or Canadian whisky, it’s the most popular liquor in the world and it’s used in numerous cocktail and shot recipes.
“The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, in the tax records of the day,” notes the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). By the early 1700s, increasing taxes on Whisky were ruffling the kilts of Scottish distillers, who outwardly rebelled or went underground – literally.
The American Whiskey industry was founded in the 18th century by Scottish immigrants to Bourbon County, Kentucky, who brought their centuries-old knowledge of distillation to the New World.
The World Of Whisky
Greatness doesn’t come easy. That’s why Scottish Whisky makers have to adhere to strict guidelines for their product to be classed as Scotch. It has to be produced entirely in Scotland, contains no added substances (except for water and caramel), be aged at least three years and bottled with an ABV of at least 40%
It’s not surprising the Scots place such standards on how modern Scotch is made – they have quite a reputation to uphold. The drink’s origins lie back in the fourth or fifth century when Christian monks introduced distillation to the Scottish Isles. Originally, the practice was used for making perfume and wine but was adapted for grain and cereal mashes – paving the way for the first Whiskies. Early on, these spirits were used for medicinal purposes (some even claimed to cure smallpox!) and given the Gaelic term uisce breatha (or ‘water of life’)
Scottish Whisky production slowly grew through the centuries, until it was harshly taxed in 1644. Not surprisingly, the feisty Scots didn’t take well to this. Whisky production went underground, and in 1780, it was estimated that the nation was home to eight legal distilleries and over 400 illegal ones! Luckily, in the 19th century, the taxman finally relaxed a little, allowing Scotch to (legally) grow into the world’s favourite Whisky
Back in the 18th century, Ireland’s uniquely smooth, triple-distilled Whiskies were the toast of the world. Even Scotland couldn’t match their might. So how did it go from being the Whiskey king to barely existing in the 20th century? Just some good old fashioned Irish bad luck.
It started in 1823 when Scotland embraced the newly invented column still, which produced a mild and smooth spirit in just one week. The Irish felt this compromised too much on flavour and preferred to continue their traditional three-distillation, pot-still method, which took nine months. While their dedication was admirable, it meant it took the Irish much longer to craft a quality Whiskey.
From there, things just got worse. First, Ireland’s 1919 War For Independence with Great Britain bought Whiskey manufacturing to a halt. When it did resume, a harsh trade embargo meant Ireland was banned from exporting to any Commonwealth country.
The next year, the United States declared Prohibition, and international demand for Irish Whiskey dropped to almost nothing. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Ireland’s commitment to triple distillation came back to bite them. While Ireland was distilling Whiskey, Scotland was selling it, eager to fill the U.S. market with their quickly made Whiskies.
By 1945 only seven distilleries remained in Ireland, down from over 160 in 1880.
In the US, Whiskey production is subject to the same geographical requirements (ie, must be exclusively made in the US) but the spirit is made from corn or rye, rather than barley, and flavour additives are allowed. Of the three main types of American Whiskey – Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and Rye Whiskey – Bourbon is the most popular, however, flavoured Whiskey is attracting a following, particularly among women.
Given the geographical expanse of the United States, it’s no surprise that it produces a large range of diverse and premium and whiskeys.
Arguably the most iconic American whiskey style is bourbon. Under American law, bourbon is considered “a distinctive product of the United States”, giving the name geographical protection. It can be produced anywhere in the USA, provided it meets a few important rules, starting with its distillation from a grain mixture that is at least 51 per cent corn.
The most famous hail from the state of Kentucky, which likely gave the spirit its name – Bourbon County was once home to hundreds of distillers, though none survived Prohibition.
Maturation must occur in new, charred American white oak barrels, and the process of caramelising the sugars in the wood gives whiskey its colour and flavour. Each distiller takes a different approach to charring their barrels and seasoning their spirit to create a signature product.
Around The World
Australian whisky production dates back to the days of 19th-century emigration, but it hasn’t been until relatively recently that the country has really started to compete on the world stage.
All of the country’s modern distilleries have been established since 1992, and the most prominent distillers can be found on the beautiful island of Tasmania, off the southern coast of Victoria.
Whisky critic Jim Murray awarded three Australian whiskies his coveted ‘liquid gold’ status in his 2015 Whisky Bible. He included the Tasmanian tipples Sullivans Cove and Lark, as well as Western Australia’s premier distillery Limeburners, whose unusual name comes from its use of water from underground limestone aquifers as part of the production process. Writing about Sullivans Cove’s American Oak Single Cask, he wrote that “the intensity of the barley deserves a medal alone”.
Australian whisky has a distinctive taste all its own, resulting from the flavourful quirks provided by its abundant and unusual landscape. The country is fast establishing itself as a leader for boutique whisky production, attracting adventurous palates looking for something a bit different. Considering Australia’s colourful drinking culture, as well as the country’s expertise in both the wine and beer industries, some might say it was only a matter of time before Australia turned its skills to the stills.
Japanese Whisky has been applauded by Whisky writers around the world, so it was only a matter of time before the rest of us got a chance to see what all the fuss was about. Here, we uncover the incredible art form that is Japanese Whisky.
While the Scots and the Irish both lay claim to inventing Whisky, and the Americans took the original recipe and gave it a distinctive twist, the Japanese have quietly perfected their own version of the distilled spirit.
As a testament to this, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible recently gave the highest mark to a Japanese Whisky.
So, what’s all the fuss about and where should you start on your Japanese Whisky journey? Here we give you a whirlwind tasting tour and some key facts…
High five: Japanese Whisky facts
1. Japan largely follows Scottish conventions for making Whisky. The fact that the Japanese spell the drink as ‘Whisky’ (not ‘Whiskey’, like the Americans and Irish) suggests the influence of Scottish production methods.
2. Japanese Whisky production began in about 1870 and commercial production started with the opening of Japan’s first commercial distillery in 1923.
3. The birth of Japanese Whisky is largely attributed to Shinjiro Torii, a pharmacist who studied distilling in Scotland before opening Kotobukiya, which later became Suntory (the brand synonymous with the Bill Murray movie, Lost in Translation), and Masataka Taketsuru.
4. Scotch and Japanese Whisky may share similarities in their production methods, but it’s relatively easy to tell one from the other. Many Scottish distillers, particularly those on the Isle of Islay, focus on packing in those smoky flavours, while Japanese Whiskies tend to have a lighter and sweeter profile. Also, Japanese Whiskies differ according to the locations of their distilleries.
5. Traditionally, Japanese Whiskies have been pretty hard to get hold of, but that’s starting to change.
Canada has been that distant cousin of the US who gets left out at every major family gathering. It’s hardly surprising that when it comes to whisky, Canada is often not the country that pops up in your head, not even the fourth or the fifth time. Yet, Canadian whisky exists, and to the astonishment of many, has made a guest appearance in the very popular period drama, Mad Men.
The history of whisky-making in Canada can be traced back to 1769 when the first distillery was built in the present-day Quebec. John Molson can very well be adjudged the Father of Canadian Whisky, distilling the golden tipple the way the Scots did. In fact, Scottish immigrants were the forerunners of distillers in Canada.
In less than 100 years, the country had as many as 200 whisky distilleries sprouting over its length and breadth. Rumours have it that distillers would often throw in a handful of rye into the mash that went into making whisky, imparting an earthy aftertaste to the distilled amber spirit, that would later go on to become the unique, defining feature Canadian whisky.
In 1858, Hiram Walker, an American entrepreneur purchased some land in Ontario, by the River Detroit. He began selling his signature ‘Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky’, and for the first time ever, whisky was sold in bottles in Canada. Before Hiram’s ingenious intervention, whisky was sold straight from the barrels in which it was matured, much like what the Scots and Irish were doing with their own whiskies. Walker’s Club Whisky was such a success that slowly a farm was built around the distillery, and people started trickling into the faraway ‘no man’s land’, giving birth to a township in the process.
But, all was not sunny in Canada. Beginning in 1916, Canada saw a brief period of Prohibition when the use of whisky was restricted to the only military, industrial, scientific, and medical purposes. Most American and Canadian distilleries were being put to wartime use, as army shelters, training houses, a place to store food grain etc. With the Prohibition being ousted in America in 1933, Canadian Whisky, too, came out of its seclusion.
Contrary to popular belief, Canadian whisky isn’t always light-bodied. It can be quite rich and complex, for most distillers separately distil their grans before blending them into one gorgeous bottle of whisky. Made primarily from corn, with a touch of barley, and rye, Canadian Whisky has to be aged for a minimum of three years, in charred or uncharred wooden barrels. Barrels used are distinctive, there’s a mandate that they cannot be more than 700 litres in volume. Even though there’s a myth of all Canadian whisky being rye whisky that is not the case always. The habit of distillers adding rye to their corn mash often imparts a typical flavour to the whisky, but Canadian whisky can be and is sometimes made without the addition of rye.
Yet, the recent years have seen Canadian whisky dabble in troubled waters. Rising taxes and illegal imports from America have hampered whisky sales. But, here’s hoping the shy wallflower stages a comeback and wows whisky lovers all over the world with its unique appeal.