Whiskey: To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
WHAT IS WHISKEY?
Whiskey is simply a distilled alcohol obtained from fermented grains. But an even easier explanation could be “Distilled beer minus the hops”. Like beer, malted barley and other grains are the source of the sugars necessary for fermentation. In beer, hops ( a flower) helps balance beer’s sweetness, whereas with whiskey, oak aging balances the whiskey’s flavors. Yeast is then added and converts the sugars to alcohol. The distillers use either continuously-operating column stills or copper pot stills to extract the distillate. The spirit is then aged in oak barrels for years and becomes whiskey. The types of grain used, the distillation method, and the casks chosen for aging are what make each whiskey taste different.
The stated age of a whiskey means that all the whiskey in that bottle is that old. If, for example a blend of 12, 15, and 18 year old barrels are used, the stated age can only be 12 years old.
“All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.”
Scotch is a whisky from Scotland! Single malt scotch is produced at one distillery (“single”) using only malted barley (a dried cereal) as the grain and distilled in copper pot stills. The five main single malt regions are Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Each of these regions share a common flavor profile. The smokey flavor that some people associate with Single malt scotch (although not a requirement) comes from using malted barley that is dried over a peat fire. Peat was, at one time, the only practical fuel source for distillers. Blended scotches, like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas, etc., blend several different single malts. Approximately 90% of the world’s scotch are blends.
Irish whiskeys, like Jameson and Tullamore Dew contain “pure pot still” whiskey. Pure pot still (or “Single pot still”) whiskey is unique to Ireland. Unlike single malt scotch that is made from malted barley, pure pot still whiskey comes from malted and unmalted barley. The liquid must be distilled to at least 94.8% ABV (189.6 proof) and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of three years. Some aficionados taut Irish whiskeys “smoothness” compared to Scotch because it’s traditionally triple distilled compared Scotch’s process of double distillation.
The most well-known style of whiskey in the United States is bourbon. All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.
Bourbon has to be made using 51% corn but it usually is made with 70-80% corn. It also HAS to be aged in charred new white American oak at no more than 62.5% ABV (125 proof). No amount of minimum aging is required by law
Tennessee whiskey and bourbon have almost identical requirements except it is filtered through or steeped in maple charcoal chips before going goes into barrel, which is called the Lincoln County Process. Technically, producers of Tennessee whiskey are legally allowed to call their product Bourbon.
Canadian whisky is traditionally a corn-based base whisky with a flavoring added. The flavoring whisky, often one with a high rye content, makes up the rest. Canadian distillers can add caramel coloring and flavoring to their product as long as the final product is bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.
Depending on the country of origin, “whiskey” is spelled with or without an “e.” American and Irish whiskeys usually spell their whiskey with an “e”. Scotch and Canadian whiskies are spelled without the “e.”
The origin of the two spellings dates back to the translation of the Gaelic “water of life”. But at this point the reason is pure and simple marketing.
Wine Guy Fun Fact
Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”