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Whisky is a type of distilled alcohol beverage made from any grain-based product, fermented, distilled and generally matured in oak barrels. As with all spirits, the base product varies and tends to be linked to the exact location of both where the grain is farmed and where the distillery is located.
As a spirits category whisky is incredibly diverse with several sub-divisions of style, flavour and general appeal, based on the method and country or specific region of manufacture. We take a closer look at whisky, how it's made and the essential facts...
Colour: Ranging from pale straw / light gold to rich, orange / amber – determined by the type and length of cask maturation
Region: Whisky (without an ‘e’) is only from Scotland. Whiskey (with an ‘e’) can be from USA, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Australia, central Europe and India.
ABV: Minimum 40% ABV
Maturation / Age: ‘Scotch whisky’ must be aged in oak casts for a minimum of 3 years. Typically whisky becomes more expensive with age, and can often be seen bottled at 8 years, 10 years, and various increments up to 21 years are typically widely available. Older whisky often becomes collectable so is available at substantially increased prices.
Made from: Scotch whisky must contain malted barley.
Translation: The name Whisky is believed to have originated from the Gaelic word ‘uisge beatha’ meaning ‘water of life’.
The earliest records of the distillation of alcohol date back to Italy in the 13th century where alcohol was distilled from wine. But the first records of whisky production – mentioned as ‘aquavitae’ date back to the 15th century where the art of distillation had spread to Ireland and Scotland and found favour with the king at the time, James IV of Scotland, who had a great liking for Scotch whisky.
Shortly after, during the dissolution of the monasteries under the rule of King Henry VIII, whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms. Whisky production at this time was still in its infancy and due to restrictions on ageing tasted strong and potent.
After England and Scotland merged in the early 1700s, the English Malt Tax of 1725 came into effect increasing the tax on Scotch whisky and forcing producers to hide existing stock and distillers to operate during the darkness at night to hide the smoke from the stills – for this reason the illegal drink became known as ‘moonshine’ and at one point was over half of Scotland’s whisky output. This practice eventually ceased in 1823 after the passing of the Excise Act legalising distillation for a fee.
Scotch whisky’s popularity increased, and become firmly cemented, in the late 19th century after the phylloxera epidemic decimated many of France’s vineyards and in turn its brandy production.
Method of Production
Whisky can be made from a number of different grains which, unlike grapes, are full of insoluble starch that needs to be converted to a liquid sugar solution through a process called malting.
The process begins by steeping the grains in water in a warm environment to encourage germination. Once the grains begin to grow, enzymes are released modifying the starch. The grains are then heated enough to halt germination but preserve the enzymes.
Mashing – first crushing the grain then mashing with hot water – dissolves the soluble starches allowing the enzymes in the malt to convert the starch into sugars, typically maltose, creating a sugary solution called ‘wort’ that can then be fermented.
Yeast is then added for fermentation to begin which normally takes around 48 hours or longer depending on what characteristics are desired.
The liquid produced is called ‘wash’ which must be distilled to create whisky – traditionally twice in Scotland and three times in Ireland. Alcohols from the middle or ‘heart’ of the distillation are skillfully removed by a stilllman and taken away and matured to become whisky. The best grain for this is barley as it creates more enzymes more efficiently than any other grain.
Whisky aging takes place in the cask, not in the bottle, and is defined by the time between distillation and bottling. During this time the whisky will interact with the cask, particularly American and French oak casks, changing the chemical make-up and taste of the end product.
While ageing, the whisky goes through six process that will define its eventual flavour: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration and colouration.
Some distillers like to age their whisky in barrels previously used for other spirits, including Rum, Madeira or Sherry, to add additional or specific flavour profiles.
The naturally occurring loss of alcohol volume during whisky maturation is known as the ‘angels share’ and can vary from 2% in Scotland where consistently low temperatures limit overall evaporation rates to up to 10% in hotter countries such as India and America.
Types of Whisky
All Scotch whisky must be distilled in Scotland to a strength of no less than 94.8% ABV but bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and be aged in oak casks for at least three years. Scotch whisky can be separated into two main categories – Malt Whisky which can only be made from malted barley and must be distilled in pot stills and Grain Barley which can be a combination of malted barley and other grains and distilled in column stills.
Malt whisky is made from just three ingredients – water, barley and yeast, and is probably the most widely recognised style around the world. Occasionally these will be made with barley that has first been smoked with peat (where peat is used as the fuel during the kilning process) to impart a smoky or medicinal flavour which can vary from light to pronounced depending on the amount of peat used.
Unpeated styles of single malt tend to be lighter and fruitier with a sweet malt taste.
The Scottish islands of Islay, Skye and Orkney are renowned for their peated whiskies. A large part of a malt whisky’s flavour will depend on the type of barrel used with most distillers preferring used barrels to new ones, in particular ex-bourbon ones for vanilla, coconut and spice flavours.
These whiskies tend to be lighter in colour than those aged in European oak and are more aromatic on the nose and subtle on the palate. Scotland’s cool, humid climates lends itself well to even and slow whisky maturation with few malt whiskies available younger than 10 years old.
Well-known peated whisky brands: Laphroig, Adrberg, Talisker, Highland Park
Well-known unpeated whisky brands: The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich
Grain Whisky, which is not as commonly available as malt whisky, can be made using any grain product as its base. It is never peated and is distilled to a higher degree of rectification giving a sweeter, lighter flavour than malt whisky.
Blended whisky accounts for the vast majority of worldwide sales of all Scotch whisky (roughly 92% of the worldwide Scotch market). It is made-up of whisky from two or more distilleries and comes in three permitted types: Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Blended Grain Scotch Whisky and Blended Scotch Whisky (a mixture of malt and grain whisky). Master Blenders, as they’re known, have the task of creating the same style of whisky time after time carefully balancing the intensity of the Malts with the lightness and elegance of the Grains.
Well-known blended Scotch whisky brands: Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark
Single whiskies are made by one distillery with Single Malt, as opposed to Grain, whiskies representing the majority of the premium market. Unless they are marked specifically as ‘single cask’ they are made by blending whiskies of different casks and ages and are usually released with an indication of age (if so, this will be the youngest whisky in the blend).
Well-known Single Malt Scotch brands: Macallan, Lagavulin, Glenmorangie, Bowmore, Aberlour
France is the number one whisky drinking country per capita with 2.15 litres drunk per person and is the largest consumer of Scotch whisky in particular, by both volume and value in the world.
A useful Facebook group to learn more about whisky
Whisky Collectors page to learn more about highly desirable and collectable bottles of whisky
A page for more discerning people looking to invest into whisky
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) is a private members' club based in Edinburgh, and one of the oldest of Scotland's 'modern' independent bottlers