Do you consider yourself relatively well-versed in the exclusive language of fine whisky? Even if you pride yourself on knowing the difference between a single malt and a blended malt, read on to discover five things you probably didn’t know about whisky.
Yes, There’s a Difference Between Whisky and Whiskey…
… and this seemingly minor distinction goes beyond the unending lexical battle between British and American English. Whenever you find yourself pausing for an internal debate on whether to include that “e” in your spelling, you can thank Ireland and Scotland, whose variations of Gaelic lead to a minor albeit confusing discrepancy in their respective translations of uisge beatha (Scotland) and uisce beatha (Ireland) to whisky and whiskey respectively. So, when large numbers of Irish immigrants sailed across the Atlantic for a better future in the “land of opportunity,” they took with them their centuries-old methods of distilling spirits from fermented grains – as well as their way of spelling.
The broad range of American spirits that evolved over the next several centuries – rye, Tennessee, bourbon – were partially the result of settlers in different pockets of the States using whatever grains were agriculturally available to produce their whiskeys.
The kilted distillers of Scotland, meanwhile, continued to enjoy their own brand of whisky made from malted barley. The Scots’ omission of the letter “e” gradually spread to the rest of the world, prompting modern brands from Canada, Japan, Australia and India to naturally print their labels with “whisky” instead of Ireland’s “whiskey.”
There’s No Such Thing as American Scotch
Scotch is by definition malt or grain whisky “made [and] matured in Scotland,” according to UK Legislation, so any assertion of a brand/restaurant/bar serving American Scotch or Japanese Scotch should be taken with a metric ton of salt. Granted, the market has seen a recent rise of US-based distilleries releasing their own brand of single malts, but they don’t adhere to the same strict distillation process of their Scottish counterparts. Scotch whisky, for example, must be made in one distillery where it is also matured for no less than three years. These rules don’t apply to American single malts, which can be produced then aged at different locations and for a shorter amount of time.
The Flavour’s in the Barrel
While a number of factors play a part in building the flavour of a whisky, experts agree that around 60%-75% comes from the barrel in which it matures. Specifically, the type of wood from which the cask is made, its size and of course, the maturation process itself.
As it ages, the amber liquid soaks up elements that reside in each stave, such as vanillin (for a hint of vanilla), wood sugars, amyl acetate (for fruitiness), oak lactones (sweet coconut-vanilla aroma) and tannins, which give spirits their colour and “dryness.”
Most whisky barrels are fashioned from three types of wood, namely American Oak, Spanish Oak and French Oak. American Oak contains higher levels of vanillin, which therefore brings a strong vanilla influence to the whiskey, along with hints of nuts, butterscotch and ginger. Barrels made from Spanish and French Oak, meanwhile, are actually formed by staves previously used to mature Sherry and Wine respectively. These infuse spirits with fruity and caramel undertones, as well as nutmeg, cinnamon and orange.
Casks are often used more than once, but their influence naturally reduces with each subsequent round of the maturation process. First-fill barrels, therefore, release more flavour than second-and third-fill barrels.
And yes, size does matter. A smaller barrel allows spirits to soak up its elements at a much faster rate than large ones, which subsequently speeds up the aging process. Most distillers, however, prefer to take the longer route of maturing spirits “slowly but surely” by using larger barrels.
So if the flavour’s in the barrel, shouldn’t most whiskies taste the same? How can the thousands of distilleries around the world boast of offering their own distinct range of tastes and aromas? Well, as we previously mentioned, some 60%-75% of a whisky’s flavour profile comes from the cask in which it matured. The nuances of individual brands are influenced by the distiller’s chosen methods of fermentation and distillation, including the shape and size of its pot stills.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Peat
This is mostly true for Scotch whisky, though many American distilleries are also known for using peat as well as other smoking techniques involving various types of wood. Firstly, what is peat? And how is it involved in making whisky?
Peat, also called turf, is essentially centuries-old compacted soil that’s made up of layers of decayed vegetation (moss, grass, tree roots) and other organic matter (waste, dead animals). It’s sourced from natural land formations such as peatlands, moors, mires, bogs and swamps, and was for thousands of years used as a source of fuel, particularly in Scotland.
Distillers once burned peat to assist in the drying of malted barley and smoke produced in the process would permeate into the kernels. These are then fermented, distilled and matured, eventually resulting in whisky that’s enhanced with a smoky flavour. Though electricity has long replaced peat in drying malted barley, a similar smoking technique is still widely used by modern distillers, who have over the years learned to use it in various ways. The smokiness of a whisky, therefore, depends on how long the malt from which it was produced was exposed to peat smoke.
We say this is mostly true for Scotch because one particular distillery from Scotland’s Islay island, Caol Ila, releases an unpeated batch of its single malt whisky each year. Somehow, this “Highland-style” variant still bears a hint of smokiness, which experts have speculated may be due to the residual effect of hundreds of thousands of litres of smokey spirits flowing through the distillery’s copper pot stills.
Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number
One of the very first things we learn about whisky is, the older the better – which is why we always look at the number emblazoned on a bottle to gauge its price and quality.
“A 25-year-old bottle of blended Scotch whisky? Of course, that’s far better than an 18-year-old bottle!”
Well, not exactly.
As Dave Broom, author of “The Complete Bartender’s Guide,” explains: “Age just tells us how long it’s been in a cask, not how good it is.”
Factors that do affect the overall quality of a whisky include the distillery itself, specifically its equipment and production process, as well as flavour profile. Whisky that’s been matured in a second-fill barrel, for example, would taste quite differently from the output of a first-fill barrel aged over the same amount of time.
So, before you completely disregard spirits packaged with a “younger” age statement, simply sample a taste before making a decision that could potentially rob you from a perfectly satisfying whisky experience.