Whisky (Scottish English and British English) or whiskey (Hiberno-English and American English) is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used for different varieties, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and maize (corn). Whisky is aged in wooden casks, made generally of charred white oak, except that in the United States corn whiskey need not be aged.
Whisky is documented in Ireland and Scotland in the 15th century. Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wood. Indian whisky is an exception, where grain fermentation is not a requirement and the most common basis is fermented molasses. The requirement for aging in wood is also not entirely universal.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Types
- 4 Names and spellings
- 5 Chemistry
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Whiskey or whisky is an anglicization of a Goidelic name (Irish: uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic: uisge beatha) literally meaning "water of life". Earlier anglicizations include usquebaugh, usquebea (1706) and iskie bae (1583). It meant the same thing as the Latin aqua vītae, which had been applied to distilled drinks since the early 14th century. In the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, the first written record of whiskey appears describing the death of a chieftain at Christmas from "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae". In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae".
The art of distillation began with the Babylonians in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq) from at least the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled long before potable spirits. Distillation was brought from Africa to Europe by the Moors, and its use spread through the monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic, palsy, and smallpox.
Between 1100 and 1300, distillation spread in Ireland and Scotland, with monastic distilleries existing in Ireland in the 12th century. Since the islands had few grapes with which to make wine, barley beer was used instead, resulting in the development of whisky. In 1494, as noted above, Scotland’s Exchequer granted the malt to Friar John Cor; this was enough malt to make about 1500 bottles, so the business was apparently thriving by that time.
King James IV of Scotland (r. 1488-1513) reportedly had a great liking for Scotch whisky, and in 1506 the town of Dundee purchased a large amount of Scotch from the Guild of Surgeon Barbers, which held the monopoly on production at the time. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, sending their monks out into the general public. Whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money for themselves.
The distillation process at the time was still in its infancy; whisky itself was imbibed at a very young age, and as a result tasted very raw and brutal compared to today’s versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted, and could even be dangerous at times. Over time, and with the happy accident of someone daring to drink from a cask which had been forgotten for several years, whisky evolved into a much smoother drink. With a licence to distil Irish whiskey from 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in the north coast of Ireland is often regarded as being the oldest licenced whiskey distillery in the world.
After the English Malt Tax of 1725, most of Scotland’s distillation was either shut down or forced underground. Scotch whisky was hidden under altars, in coffins, and in any available space to avoid the governmental Excisemen. Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, took to distilling their whisky at night, when the darkness would hide the smoke rising from the stills. For this reason, the drink was known as moonshine. At one point, it was estimated that over half of Scotland’s whisky output was illegal.
In America, whisky was used as currency during the American Revolution. It also was a highly coveted sundry and when an additional excise tax was levied against it, the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in 1791.
In 1823, the UK passed the Excise Act, legalizing the distillation (for a fee), and this put a practical end to the large-scale production of Scottish moonshine.
In 1826 Robert Stein invented an effective continuous still, and in 1831, Aeneas Coffey refined it to create the Coffey still, allowing for cheaper and more efficient distillation of whisky. In 1850, Andrew Usher began producing a blended whisky that mixed traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still. The new distillation method was scoffed at by some Irish distillers, who clung to their traditional pot stills. Many Irish contended that the new product was, in fact, not whisky at all.
During the Prohibition era lasting from 1920 to 1933 in the United States, all alcohol sales were banned in the country. However, the federal government made an exemption for whisky that was prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. During this time, the Walgreens pharmacy chain grew from 20 retail stores to almost 400.
Whisky or whisky-like products are produced in most grain-growing areas. They differ in base product, alcoholic content, and quality.
Malts and grains are combined in various ways
- Blended malt is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled "pure malt" or just "malt" it is almost certain to be a vatted whisky. This was formerly called a "vatted malt" whisky.
- Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. However, unless the whisky is described as "single-cask" it will contain whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Nikka), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
- Blended whiskies are typically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often along with neutral spirits, caramel and flavouring. A whisky simply described as Scotch, Irish, or Canadian Whiskey is most likely to be a blend. A blend is usually from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. Jameson Irish Whiskey is an example of an exception, as it comes from only one distillery. A mixture of malts (with no grain) from different distilleries (more usually called a vatted malt) may sometimes be referred to as a "blended malt", and a mixture of grain whiskies with no malts will sometimes carry the designation "blended grain".
- Cask strength (also known as Barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Rather than diluting, the distiller is inviting the drinker to dilute to the level of potency most palatable (often no dilution is necessary, such is the quality of single cask whiskies).
- Single cask (also known as Single barrel) whiskies are usually bottled by specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, amongst others. Each bottle of a single-barrel whisky is from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of such whiskies may substantially vary from cask to cask within a brand.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the "age" of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been in bottle for many years may have a rarity value, but are not "older" and will not necessarily be "better" than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time. Beyond an age of a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel will also not necessarily make a whisky "better".
Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries – although the strength can vary, and cask strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.
American whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grain. It must have the taste, aroma, and other characteristics commonly attributed to whiskey.
- Rye whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye.
- Rye malt whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye.
- Malt whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley.
- Wheat whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.
- Bourbon whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize).
- Corn whiskey, which is made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn (maize).
These above-listed types of American whiskey must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume, and any addition of coloring or flavoring is prohibited. These whiskeys must then be aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey. Corn whiskey does not have to be aged but, if it is aged, it must be in un-charred oak barrels or un-charred used barrels. The ageing of corn whiskey usually is brief, e.g., six months. These restrictions do not apply to some similar products in other countries (such as Canada).
If the aging for one of these types of whiskey reaches two years or beyond, the whiskey is then additionally designated as "straight" e.g., "straight rye whiskey". A whiskey that fulfils all these above requirements except that it is derived from less than 51% of any one specific type of grain can be called simply a "straight whiskey" without naming a grain.
There are also other some categories of whiskey that are recognized in the U.S. regulations, such as:
- Blended whisky, which is a mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies and, separately or in combination, whiskey or neutral spirits, and may also contain flavorings and colorings.
- Light whisky, which is produced in the United States at more than 80% alcohol by volume and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers.
- Spirit whisky, which is a mixture of neutral spirits and at least 5% of certain stricter categories of whisky.
American blended whiskeys combine straight whiskey with grain neutral spirits (GNS), flavorings and colorings. The percentage of GNS must be disclosed on the label and may be as much at 80% on a proof gallon basis. Blended whiskey has the same alcohol content as straight whiskey but typically has a milder flavor.
Another important labelling in the marketplace is Tennessee whiskey, of which Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, Collier and McKeel, and Benjamin Prichard's are the only brands currently bottled. In practice, it is essentially identical to bourbon whiskey. Whiskey sold as Tennessee whiskey is defined as Bourbon under NAFTA and at least one other international trade agreement, and is similarly required to meet the legal definition of Bourbon under Canadian law. However, some makers of Tennessee whiskey do not label their product as Bourbon and insist that it is a different type of whiskey when marketing their product. Three of the four currently produced brands of Tennessee whiskey are filtered through sugar maple charcoal, which is claimed to remove some unpleasant flavors and odors and produce a cleaner spirit.
Australian whiskies are winning an increasing number of global whisky awards and medals, including for example the World Whiskies Awards and Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 'Liquid Gold Awards'.
- Bakery Hill;
- Booie Range Distillery - no longer operating;
- Corio Whisky Distillery - no longer operating;
- Great Southern Distilling Company (Limeburners Single Malt Whisky);
- Hellyers Road;
- Mackey's (still in maturation, no whisky released yet);
- Old Hobart Distillery (still in maturation, no whisky released yet);
- Railway Shed Timboon (John Christie's Single Malt);
- Small Concern (no longer operating);
- Samuel Smith & Son (Smith's Angaston Whisky) - no longer operating; and
- Tasmania Distillery (Sullivans Cove Single Malt Whisky).
Canadian whiskies are usually lighter and smoother than other whisky styles. By Canadian law, Canadian whiskies must be produced and aged in Canada, be distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grain, be aged in wood barrels (of a capacity not larger than 700 L) for not less than three years, and "possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky". The terms "Canadian Whisky" and "Canadian Rye Whisky" are legally indistinguishable in Canada and do not require any use of rye or other specific grain in their production. In fact, the predominant grain used in making "Canadian Rye Whiskey" is corn. Canadian whiskies may contain caramel and flavouring in addition to the distilled mash spirits, and there is no maximum limit on the alcohol level of the distillation, so the bulk of the distilled content (often more than 90 percent) may be neutral spirits rather than straight whiskies.
The first Danish single malt whisky for sale was Lille Gadegård from Bornholm. Distilled 2005  Lille Gadegård uses an old milk tank as pot still, which makes this whisky somewhat exotic. Lille Gadegård is a winery as well, and uses its own winecasks to mature whisky.
The second Danish distilled single malt whisky for sale was Edition No.1 from the Braunstein microbrewery and distillery. It was distilled in 2007, the water being applied was thawed Greenlandic ice sheet, and it was released for sale in March 2010. The distillery has since released several whiskies.
Fary Lochan is the only Danish distillery that uses traditional Scottish pot stills. Stauning uses stills similar to those used by cognac producers (alambic charentais). Ørbæk and Braunstein use Holstein stills fd
Whisky production in modern England re-started in Norfolk in late 2006, and the first resulting single malt whisky was made available to the public in November 2009. This was the first English single malt in over 100 years. It was produced at St George's Distillery by the English Whisky Company. Previously Bristol and Liverpool were centres of English whisky production.
There are two working distilleries in Finland and a third one is under construction. Whisky retail sales in Finland are controlled solely by the state alcohol monopoly Alko and advertisement of strong alcoholic beverages is banned.
The distillation of German-made whisky is a relatively recent phenomenon having only started in the last 30 years. The styles produced resemble those made in Ireland, Scotland and the United States: single malts, blends, and bourbon styles. There is no standard spelling of German whiskies with distilleries using both "whisky" and "whiskey" and one even using "Whesskey", a play on the word whisky and Hesse, the state in which it is produced. There are currently 23 distilleries in Germany producing whisky.
Indian whisky is an alcoholic beverage that is labelled as "whisky" in India. The vast majority of Indian whisky is distilled from fermented molasses, and as such would be considered a sort of rum outside the Indian subcontinent. In India, 90% of the "whisky" consumed is molasses based, although India has begun to distil whisky from malt and other grains.
Kasauli Distillery is set in the Himalaya mountains and opened in the late 1820s. The main whisky brand is a single malt named "Solan No. 1". This was named after the town nearby called Solan. It was the best selling Indian whisky till recently, but has declined since the early 1980s because of the stiff competition from the larger distilleries. Other whiskies this distillery produces are Diplomat Deluxe, Colonel's Special, Black Knight and Summer Hall.
Amrut Fusion single malt is distilled by Amrut Distilleries of Bangalore, and has been gaining popularity after winning some awards. In The Whisky Bible 2010, Whisky expert Jim Murray rated the whisky at 97 points and declared it the third best in the world. It is made from a combination of two barleys - Indian barley from the Punjab and Scottish peated barley.
Most Irish whiskeys are normally distilled three times, Cooley Distillery being the exception as they also double distill. Though traditionally distilled using pot stills, column still are now used to produce grain whiskey for blends. By law, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for a period of no less than three years, although in practice it is usually three or four times that period. Unpeated malt is almost always used, the main exception being Connemara Peated Malt whiskey.
The model for Japanese whiskies is the single malt Scotch, although there are also examples of Japanese blended whiskies. The base is a mash of malted barley, dried in kilns fired with a little peat (although considerably less than in Scotland), and distilled using the pot still method. For some time exports of Japanese whisky suffered from the belief in the West that whisky made in the Scotch style, but not produced in Scotland, was inferior, and until fairly recently, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic. In recent years, Japanese whiskies have won prestigious international awards and now enjoy a reputation as a quality product.
Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, although some are distilled a third time and others even up to twenty times. In 2009 the Bruichladdich distillery released a quadruple-distilled whisky called X4 + 3. It was the first ever official whisky of its type. Scotch Whisky Regulations require anything bearing the label "Scotch" to be distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks, among other, more specific criteria. An age statement on the bottle, in the form of a number, must reflect the age of the youngest Scotch whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed age whisky. Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.
The basic types of Scotch are malt and grain, which are combined to create blends. Many, though not all, Scotch whiskies use peat smoke to treat their malt, giving Scotch its distinctive smoky flavour. Scotch malt whiskies are divided into five main regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.
Sweden has a young, but growing whisky industry. The Mackmyra distillery started selling its products in 2006. Spirit of Hven started distilling in 2008 with products expected to go on the market circa 2012. The Smögen distillery in Hunnebostrand on the Swedish west coast started distilling in August 2010, and the Grythyttan Whisky distillery near Örebro in middle Sweden started distilling in October 2010. Additionally, another half dozen or so distilleries are in different stages of preparation. Production of whisky has however somewhat older roots in Sweden. Starting in the 1950s a whisky called Skeppets whisky was made. Production was halted in 1966.
(Welsh: Wysgi or Wisgi) In 2000, Penderyn Distillery started production of Penderyn single malt whisky, the first Welsh whisky since all production ended in 1894. (Though a distillery operated near Brecon in the 1990s, making and selling "Prince of Wales" malt whisky.) The first bottles went on sale on 1 March 2004, Saint David's Day, and the whisky is now sold throughout the world.
Manx Spirit from the Isle of Man is, like some Virginia whiskeys in the USA, distilled elsewhere and re-distilled in the country of its nominal "origin".
Recently at least two distilleries in the traditionally brandy-producing Caucasus region announced their plans to enter the Russian domestic market with whiskies. The Stavropol-based Praskoveysky distillery bases its product on Irish technology, while in Kizlyar, Dagestan's "Russian Whisky" announced a Scotch-inspired drink in single malt, blended and wheat varieties.
Names and spellings
Much is made of the word's two spellings: whisky and whiskey. There are basically two schools of thought on the issue. One is that the spelling difference is simply a matter of local language convention for the spelling of a word, indicating that the spelling will vary depending on the background or personal preferences of the writer (like the difference between color and colour; tire and tyre; or recognize and recognise), and the other is that the spelling should depend on the style or origin of the spirit that is being described. However, there is general agreement that when quoting the proper name printed on a label, the spelling that is used on the label should not be altered. Some writers will refer to "whisk(e)y" or "whisky/whiskey" to acknowledge the variation.
The spelling whisky (plural: whiskies) is generally used in Canada, Japan, Scotland, and Wales, while whiskey (plural: whiskeys) is more common in Ireland and the United States. However, the usage is not always consistent – for example, some prominent American brands, such as George Dickel, Maker's Mark, and Old Forester (which are all made by different companies), use the 'whisky' spelling on their labels, and the U.S. legal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits document also uses the 'whisky' spelling. American brands using the Scottish version of the spelling of “whisky” tend to have been founded by individuals with Scottish ancestry or to have a flavour, style or marketing strategy that is evocative of Scotch whisky.
"Scotch" is the internationally recognized term for "Scotch whisky". It is rarely used in Scotland, where the drink is called simply "whisky".
Whiskies and other distilled beverages such as cognac and rum are complex beverages containing a vast range of flavouring compounds, of which some 200 to 300 can be easily detected by chemical analysis. The flavouring chemicals include "carbonyl compounds, alcohols, carboxylic acids and their esters, nitrogen- and sulfur-containing compounds, tannins and other polyphenolic compounds, terpenes, and oxygen-containing heterocyclic compounds" and esters of fatty acids. The nitrogen compounds include pyridines, picolines and pyrazines.
Flavours from distillation
The flavouring of whisky is partially determined by the presence of congeners and fusel oils. Fusel oils are higher alcohols than ethanol, are mildly toxic, and have a strong, disagreeable smell and taste. An excess of fusel oils in whisky is considered a defect. A variety of methods are employed in the distillation process to remove unwanted fusel oils. Traditionally, American distillers focused on secondary filtration using charcoal, gravel, sand, or linen to remove undesired distillates. Canadian distillers have traditionally employed column stills which can be controlled to produce an almost pure (and less flavourful) ethanol known as neutral grain spirit or grain neutral spirit (GNS). Flavour is restored by blending the neutral grain spirits with flavouring whiskies.
Acetals are rapidly formed in distillates and a great many are found in distilled beverages, the most prominent being acetaldehyde diethyl acetal (1,1-diethoxyethane). Among whiskies the highest levels are associated with malt whisky. This acetal is a principal flavour compound in sherry, and contributes fruitiness to the aroma.
The diketone diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) has a buttery aroma and is present in almost all distilled beverages. Whiskies and cognacs typically contain more of this than vodkas, but significantly less than rums or brandies.
Flavours from oak
Whisky that has been aged in oak barrels gets a number of components from the wood. One of these is cis-3-methyl-4-octanolide, known as the "whisky lactone" or "quercus lactone", a compound with a strong coconut aroma.
Commercially charred oaks are rich in phenolic compounds. One study identified 40 different phenolic compounds. The coumarin scopoletin is present in whisky, with the highest level reported in Bourbon whiskey.
Flavours and colouring from additives
Depending on the local regulations, additional flavourings and colouring compounds may be added to the whisky. Canadian whisky may contain caramel and flavouring in addition to the distilled mash spirits. Scotch whisky may contain added (E150A) caramel, but no other additives. The addition of flavourings is not allowed in American "straight" whiskey, but is allowed in American blends.
Whisky is often "chill filtered": chilled to precipitate out fatty acid esters and then filtered to remove them. Most whiskies are bottled this way, unless specified as unchillfiltered or non chill filtered. This is done primarily for cosmetic reasons. Unchillfiltered whisky will often turn cloudy when stored at cool temperatures or when cool water is added to them, and this is perfectly normal.
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- Los Angeles Whiskey Society - The largest non-profit database of whiskey ratings and notes in the United States.
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- The World Atlas of Whisky - The World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom
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