“A distillate made from fermented cereal extracts and aged in oak”
Sounds delicious, huh? The reality is the world of whiskey is fascinating, dynamic and once entered is truly a lifelong search for more information, aromas, tasting notes and great whiskies. Sifting through terms such as straight, blended, single, or barrel proof can be challenging – so lets get a little clarity.
The term whiskey encompasses the entire category. Scotch, American, Irish and so forth are all whiskies, and some regional styles are even protected by law; Scotch is only from Scotland, Irish from Ireland, Bourbon from America etc.
Whiskey starts with 3 ingredients: grain, water and yeast (which is used to make a beer). This distiller’s beer is then sent to the still for distillation, the process of separating alcohol from water. The resulting spirit is then placed in barrels, and after some years of careful aging, we have whiskey. Variables abound per the country, region, style, still type, grain bill, wood types and desired finished product for each whiskey type.
SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY
Made from malted barley and matured in oak, not less than 3 years, in Scotland and not bottled at less than 40% ABV (Alcohol by Volume). Malt whisky is produced in a copper pot still. The 5 regions of Scotland are Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown and Islay – 90% of single malts come from the Speyside region. An age statement on the bottle indicates the youngest barrels added to the bottling. For example, the bottle might say 12 years, but could include older, but not younger, barrels in the finished product.
BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY
Blended scotch is produced by “blending” 2 or more single malt whiskies (some use up to 40 or more different single malts from different distilleries) with a Scotch Grain whisky. This grain whiskey is produced in a continuous still, is generally made from corn, and adds depth and sweetness to the finished blend.
Typically, Irish whiskey is made along the same guidelines as scotch, but generally without the use of peat during malting, resulting in a lack of smoke. Irish whiskies are for the most part blends and made up varying combinations of Malt whiskey (made in copper pot still), Grain whiskey (corn, and made in a continuous still), and pot still whiskey (a combination of malted and unmalted barley in the grain bill).
Lets talk about straight whiskey. Bourbon must be made in the U.S., must be 51% corn, (although most have a much higher percentage of corn in the grain bill), and the rest of the grain bill made up of other cereal grains such as wheat, barley, or rye. It must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years and anything less than 4 years requires an age statement be printed on label. The use of artificial coloring or flavoring is prohibited. These regulations also apply to straight rye or wheat whiskies. Barrel proof means the product was bottled at the proof the barrels finished aging with no water added to lower the proof.
Generally produced in a continuous still for a lighter spirit from corn, rye, wheat, or barley and blended with neutral grain spirit. The use of new or used barrels is allowed and some common additives are sherry, molasses, or caramel. This style of whiskey became very popular during Prohibition.
Much like the craft beer revolution that started in the ‘80’s, craft whiskey is on the rise here in the U.S. and is not showing any signs of slowing. Distillers are using their imagination to create whiskies copying the tried and true styles and even creating new styles of their own.