Whiskey is made from a variety of basic grains around the world.
Known as the Water of Life in Gaelic (uisge beatha), Whiskey empowers the drinker with a wealth of options — each equally hedonistic in their pursuit.
From the purest waters of Tasmania to the fertile plains of Scotland, the production of high quality whiskey is a layered proposition. Building from a basic agricultural grain — wheat, barley, rye, oats or corn — the process of malting, washing, kilning, fermenting, distilling and aging a spirit has innumerable variables. As the end consumer, we are faced with a dizzying array of questions: Blended? Single malt? Single cask? Aged? Peated? Scottish? Canadian? Japanese? An Islay or a Lowlands?
Your next dram should be a little easier if you prepare with a bit of knowledge in hand.
Grains and Malt
Whiskey is made from a variety of basic grains around the world; Rye in Canada, Barley in Scotland and Corn in the United States, to name just a few. Rye styles have an inherent spiciness. Corn styles, known as Bourbon, have a sweetness and generosity. Barley, most commonly utilised in its germinated form — malt — has a round texture that is tempered by its savoury complexity. Whiskey may be labelled as single grain or single malt when the ingredient is distilled entirely in one distillery. Alternatively they may be blended from a multitude of distilleries (blended malt) or even blended together (blended whiskey). Though blended whiskey allows for a more consistent product, single malt provides the whiskey devotee with the best opportunity to learn the nuances of regionality (see below).
From Light to Heavy
The integration and strength of the spirit is one of the first things whiskey drinkers should consider. With the passing of time, either in bottle or cask, the alcohol percentage of whiskey drops. Known as the Angel’s Share, the process of whiskey evaporation over time means that aged examples provide a softer approach and a gentler heat. In contrast, there is a raw power in the heat of young whiskey that forms part of its appeal — showing its potential for years to come.
Though the majority of whiskey is bottled from a blend of barrels, more idiosyncratic expressions can be found from single cask bottling (also known as cask strength). Often released by smaller producers, single cask whiskies are generally around 5–10% higher in alcohol by volume than the majority of standard blended whiskies. Cask strength whiskey also contains a higher proportion of aromatic oils thus providing a more viscous and densely textured palate. In contrast to commercial production that is commonly diluted prior to bottling and blended to provide a more consistent product, cask strength whiskey focuses on the personality of one particular barrel.
History, regulation and regional typicity place Scotland as the leading light in whisky production. Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years. In the case of single malt whisky (malt processed in a single distillery), there is a large diversity of regional style. From the lightest styles of scotch produced in the lowlands through to the heavy, peaty styles made in the islands such as Islay, knowing what to expect from each sub-region is vital when selecting a scotch whisky. The smokey, iodine flavour known as peat originates from a tradition of infusing malt with the smoke of combustible organic matter. The heady perfume of peat is an acquired taste that is perhaps best encountered once a drinker is familiar with the lighter, fruitier styles of scotch. As well as peat levels, the distillation technique for the spirit, the origin and type of barrels used in the maturation process and the bottling date for the whisky can each play a part in a different end product. There is beauty to be found in the subtle difference of each influence.
Leading distilleries in Australia, Japan and Canada each distil malt in the style pioneered by the Scottish. New World whiskeys tend to be lighter bodied and less peaty than those offered in the Scottish islands. The production of bourbon and rye whiskey is not restricted by any geographical limitations. Both styles can be enjoyed for their sweet fruit and spiciness respectively.
Enjoyment (Service Style)
The purity of whiskey is best enjoyed neat (stand-alone) in a tumbler at room temperature (16–18 degrees Celsius). Distilled water should be added where the alcohol is too abrasive. The addition of distilled water helps to release the oils and volatile esters emulsified in the whiskey. When nosing a whiskey, one should be careful not to swirl the liquid or over-smell the drink as either action may anaesthetise the taste buds. Ice can be used to slowly dilute whiskey but care should be taken to ensure that the temperature of the whiskey isn’t lowered too quickly — a chilled whiskey may have its aromatic profile compromised.
— Scotch whisky is traditionally spelt differently to whiskey produced in other parts of the world.
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Words by Alquimie Editor-in-Chief Josh Elias.