A brief history of whiskey

By - Nov 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Nate Norfolk

Whiskey is so important in Celtic culture that the word itself is derived from the Gaelic phrase for “water of life” – uisge beatha to the Scottish and uisce beatha to the Irish.

There are four basic types of whiskey, named for their countries of origin: Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky, American whiskey and Canadian whisky (note: the Irish and Americans spell whiskey with an “e,” while the Scotch and Canadians spell it without). Each carries many subtle variations, they all begin with a mash of water and grain to which yeast is added to induce fermentation. All whiskey is aged in wooden barrels while some, most notably Scotch, require an extra first step of malting before creating the mash.

The pride of Scotland
Using peat fires to dry the germinated (malted) barley is unique to Scotch whisky and responsible for its strong smoky, earthy flavors. A single malt Scotch is always the product of one distillery, whereas a blended Scotch is made from a variety of Scotches. Scotch whiskies are further differentiated by region: Islay, Highland, Lowland or Campbeltown.

Whisky from the island of Islay has both the strongest smell and the most heavily-peated flavor, capturing the aromas of both the ocean and the peat bogs in the region. If you’ve ever heard someone say a Scotch smells like the sea, this is what they are talking about. Two great examples of peat-influenced Islay whiskys are Lagavulin and Laphroiag. Expect to drop at least $40 a bottle for either.

The Lowland whiskies are generally lighter and more uniform in flavor. Whiskies from the Northern Highlands are sweeter and more mellow than Lowland. They possess a richer flavor and, in some cases, a peat-like dryness as well. Whisky from the Eastern Highlands possesses a fruitiness with a hint of smoke. Campbeltown malts are traditionally full-flavored and full-bodied, with a slightly salty tang in the finish, which earns them a comparison to sea mist.

Whiskey, not whisky
Though sharing a common Celtic heritage, pronounced differences in taste and style distinguish Irish Whiskeys from Scottish. We’ll never know who invented the “water of life,” but what is known is that Ireland and Scotland each developed their own interpretations of the art of distilling long before the first Roman ever trod on British soil.

Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky from the malting stage. While the barley used for Scotch whisky is dried over open peat fires, the malt in Irish whiskey is dried in sealed ovens to ensure that only the pure malt flavor exists in the final product. Irish whiskey is distilled three times (as opposed to twice for Scottish whisky), which further adds to its smoothness. To be called Irish, whiskey has to be distilled from native grains and stored in wooden casks for at least three years.

Born in the U.S.A.
America also produces its share of whiskey, notably bourbon and rye. The principal difference is that rye is made almost exclusively from rye grain, while bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn. Most U.S. bourbon is made in Kentucky.

The other major American whiskey type is the distinctive Tennessee whiskey (which must be made in Tennessee). While Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon, it must undergo the “Lincoln County Process,” which requires it to be filtered through approximately 10 feet of maple charcoal. This process takes about ten days and gives the whiskey a unique taste and aroma and mellows the overall flavor. Two major distillers represent this class: Jack Daniels and George Dickel. Both use a process called “sour mash,” where the yeast from previous batches of fermented mash is used in the new batch, similar to the way sourdough bread is made.

Oh, Canada
Canada’s whisky laws are far laxer than the rest of the world’s. Generally, Canadian whisky is distilled twice and must be aged for at least three years, but there are no set proof or barrel requirements. Furthermore, Canadian whisky may be composed of corn, barley, wheat and/or rye distillates that have been aged in either used or new oak barrels. Even the process has no set guidelines, as some Canadian producers ferment all of the grains in one vat then pre-blend and age the distillate, while others ferment each grain individually and age each distillate separately, then blend a final product from a mixture of spirits.

From smoky holes-in-the-wall serving up dollar shots of Jack to wealthy businessmen sipping tumblers of Johnny Walker Blue, whiskey and those who indulge in it are as diverse as the grains, processes and countries from which it is made. And as such, the words of Mark Twain will forever ring true. “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.” VS

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