What is Whiskey made from?
It’s Scotland's gift to the world. It’s Ireland’s pride and joy. In 1830, Americans drank a whopping 88 bottles of it. It’s the water of life, the aqua vitae which answers most - not all - of the world’s problems. What is it? You’ve guessed it, it’s whiskey. To say that the amber nectar is popular is an understatement. It’s the third most drunk spirit in the world (behind homegrown Asian spirits Jinro Soju and Ruang Khao). It has legions of fans from Winston Churchill to Hilary Clinton and according to the Guinness World of Records, the oldest bottle in existence is around 165 years old. The earliest known record of whiskey production dates back to 1494. So yes, suffice to say, we like the stuff.
But with so many different types of whiskey on the market, it’s easy to get lost in the minefield of on the rocks, with soda or neat. So, we thought a quick A-Z guide to help understand what whiskey is made from was needed. You never know, it might help you next time you’re in a sticky spiritual situation.
He who says American whiskey says bourbon, right? Well … more or less. This really is a case of the spirit that built a nation. But did you know that there are in fact six types of American whiskey? These include the aforementioned Bourbon Whiskey of course, but also Rye whiskey and Tennessee whiskey. All are single grain whiskeys and the clue is pretty much in the name with these bad boys. What you need to remember here is the 51% rule. In order for all American whiskeys to meet U.S. standards, at least 51% of the mash that makes up the liquor must come from a single grain. Rye is obviously an easy one while bourbon is a 51% corn whiskey with added malted rye to give it that special mellow vanilla taste.
O Canada, O Canada! Canadian whiskys are very much made in the image of their homeland. Beautiful, rich and very, very nice. They're inherently good. They’re from the country that gave us Ryan Gosling for God’s sake, so they’ve got to be doing something right. Indeed they are; lighter and more flexible than their American neighbours, these babies are smooth operators. They too are made with rye mash, but the distillation process involves using high alcohol base whiskeys and (usually) don’t use mash bills. Ageing is for a minimum of three years, in used barrels.
Japanese whiskeys - whiskys - are not for the faint-hearted. Not only are they incredibly difficult to come by, but they are crazy expensive when you find one. Are they worth it? Yes. Why? Well, when they took off in popularity some years ago, many distilleries were caught off guard, and stocks dwindled faster than you could say arigatou. The (43% ABV) proof is in the numbers: Japanese whisky imported 24.7 million proof litres in 2016 compared to 1.5 million five years previously - that’s a 1,300% increase. Thus, the old supply and demand chestnut comes into play. Basically, there is very little aged Japanese whisky left on the secondary market, so what is still around can fetch astronomical sums.
Second, there is the taste itself. Japanese whisky has little to do taste wise with its single malt cousin. Think fruity and floral flavours, sweeter than traditional whiskey with a longer lasting finish on the palette. But whiskey nerds beware! Japanese authorities play pretty fast and loose with what can be called whisky in their home country and rice whiskeys are incredibly popular, despite not always being clearly labelled. The other thing is that a producer can actually buy the base product from other countries and blend and bottle it in Japan, and this would still be called a Japanese whisky - despite none of the liquid actually being distilled in the country. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it's just nice to know what’s in the bottle, that’s all.
Malt whiskey is a purists’ whiskey. Single malt whisky can be made from malted barley only (unlike grain whiskeys which can be made from any grains). What’s more, while most people associate single malts with the country of Braveheart, it can actually be made anywhere in the world. The single refers to the fact that it has been made in a single distillery regardless of country. The age on the label refers to the youngest whiskey in the blend, but can contain varietals that are much older (ergo, if you are drinking an 18-year old bottle of whiskey, the youngest whiskey in the blend is 18 years old, but it could contain liquids that are much older). Single malt whiskey is not the same as single barrel whiskey; the latter term means that all the liquid has come from (you’ve guessed it) the same barrel or cask. Note that a single cask can yield between 200-600 bottles, so a bottle of this is both rare and expensive (not to mention delicious).
Or should we say, whisky (no e). Rather like a fjord is a Fjord in Norway, a fjord in Chile but a fiord in New Zealand, Scotch whisky (like Canadian or Japanese) takes a different spelling. But when your product is as sterling as scotch, etymology isn’t an issue - a rose by any other name etc… It’s the eponymous country’s most exported product, accounting for a whopping £4.36bn annually - that’s 1.23bn bottles exported globally. But, what makes Scotch Scotch?
First, the whisky production has to be in the country. Next, it has to be aged for three years in oak barrels, and third, it has to be a malt or grain whisky. Beyond that, anything goes. Savvy drinkers should know that single malt Scotch is incredibly valuable as a passion asset and is fast proving to be an alternative investor’s favourite. Invest in a few bottles today and you could be literally drinking your profits in a few years. Just saying.
The love hate relationship between Irish and Scotch whiskeys is the stuff of legends. Gaellic neighbours that hate to love each other. Just like Ireland vs. Scotland in the six nations, both these proud countries have a lot to offer behind the bar. But let’s be honest. Irish whisky has the edge. It’s the Burgundy to France’s Bordeaux, poetry to Scotland’s prose. It’s the thinking person’s whiskey; a mellow mixture made by careful distillation and patience.
Irish whiskey is made from a blend of unmalted and malted barley which have been kiln-dried to give it its distinctive nutty taste. The Emerald Isle’s (second-most) famous alcohol is distilled three times in copper pot stills before maturing in wooden casks for at least three years. This method results in a smooth, light yet highly alcoholic tipple. Ironically, this thrice distillation process was introduced into Ireland by none other than a Scot, in 1780. Glad that’s out of the way, then. But really, do you want to know the best thing about Irish whiskey? It goes lovely in your evening coffee. We suggest investing in some today.
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