Whisky (Scottish English) or whiskey (Hiberno-English) is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used for different varieties, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and maize (corn). Whisky is aged in wooden casks, made generally of white oak, except that in the United States corn whiskey need not be aged.
Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many competing denominations of origin and many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wood. Indian whisky is an exception, where grain fermentation is not a requirement and the most common basis is fermented molasses. The requirement for aging in wood is also not entirely universal.
The art of distillation began with the Babylonians in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq) from at least the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled long before potable spirits. Distillation was brought from Africa to Europe by the Moors, and its use spread through the monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic, palsy, and smallpox.
Between 1100 and 1300, distillation spread in Ireland and Scotland, with monastic distilleries existing in Ireland in the 12th century. Since the islands had few grapes with which to make wine, barley beer was used instead, resulting in the development of whisky. In 1494, as noted above, Scotland’s Exchequer granted the malt to Friar John Cor; this was enough malt to make about 1500 bottles, so the business was apparently thriving by that time.
King James IV of Scotland (r. 1488-1513) reportedly had a great liking for Scotch whisky, and in 1506 the town of Dundee purchased a large amount of Scotch from the Guild of Surgeon Barbers, which held the monopoly on production at the time. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, sending their monks out into the general public. Whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money for themselves.
The distillation process at the time was still in its infancy; whisky itself was imbibed at a very young age, and as a result tasted very raw and brutal compared to today’s versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted, and could even be dangerous at times. Over time, and with the happy accident of someone daring to drink from a cask which had been forgotten for several years, whisky evolved into a much smoother drink.
In 1707, the Acts of Union merged England and Scotland, and thereafter taxes on it rose dramatically.
After the English Malt Tax of 1725, most of Scotland’s distillation was either shut down or forced underground. Scotch whisky was hidden under altars, in coffins, and in any available space to avoid the governmental Excisemen. Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, took to distilling their whisky at night, where the darkness would hide the smoke rising from the stills. For this reason, the drink was known as moonshine. At one point, it was estimated that over half of Scotland’s whisky output was illegal.
In America, whisky was used as currency during the American Revolution. It also was a highly coveted sundry and when an additional excise tax was levied against it, the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in 1791.
In 1823, the UK passed the Excise Act, legalizing the distillation (for a fee), and this put a practical end to the large-scale production of Scottish moonshine.
In 1826 Robert Stein invented an effective continuous still, and in 1831, Aeneas Coffey refined it to create the Coffey still, allowing for cheaper and more efficient distillation of whisky. In 1850, Andrew Usher began producing a blended whisky that mixed traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still. The new distillation method was scoffed at by some Irish distillers, who clung to their traditional pot stills. Many Irish contended that the new product was, in fact, not whisky at all.
By the 1880s, the French brandy industry was devastated by the phylloxera pest that ruined much of the grape crop; as a result, whisky became the primary liquor in many markets.
During the Prohibition era lasting from 1920 to 1933 in the United States, all alcohol sales were banned in the country. However, the federal government made an exemption for whisky that was prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. During this time, the Walgreens pharmacy chain grew from 20 retail stores to almost 400.
Whisky or whisky-like products are produced in most grain-growing areas. They differ in base product, alcoholic content, and quality.
- Malt (whiskey) is made primarily from malted barley.
- Grain (whiskey) is made from any type of grains.
Malts and grains are combined in various ways
- Vatted malt is blended from malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled "pure malt" or just "malt" it is almost certain to be a vatted whisky. This is also sometimes labelled as "blended malt" whisky.
- Single malt whisky is malt whisky from a single distillery. However, unless the whisky is described as "single-cask" it will contain whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Nikka), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
- Blended whiskies are typically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often along with neutral spirits, caramel and flavouring. A whisky simply described as Scotch, Irish, or Canadian Whiskey is most likely to be a blend. A blend is usually from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. Jameson Irish Whiskey is an example of an exception, as it comes from only one distillery. A mixture of malts (with no grain) from different distilleries (more usually called a vatted malt) may sometimes be referred to as a "blended malt", and a mixture of grain whiskies with no malts will sometimes carry the designation "blended grain".
- Cask strength (also known as Barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Rather than diluting, the distiller is inviting the drinker to dilute to the level of potency most palatable (often no dilution is necessary, such is the quality of single cask whiskies).
- Single cask (also known as Single barrel) whiskies are usually bottled by specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, amongst others. Each bottle of a single-barrel whisky is from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labeled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of such whiskies may substantially vary from cask to cask within a brand.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the "age" of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been in bottle for many years may have a rarity value, but are not "older" and will not necessarily be "better" than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time. Beyond an age of a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel will also not necessarily make a whisky "better".
Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries – although the strength can vary, and cask strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.
Most Irish whiskeys are normally distilled three times, Cooley Distillery being the exception as they also double distil. Though traditionally distilled using pot stills, column still are now used to produce grain whiskey for blends. By law, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for a period of no less than three years, although in practice it is usually three or four times that period. Unpeated malt is almost always used, the main exception being Connemara Peated Malt whiskey.
There are several types of whiskey common to Ireland: single malt, single grain, blended whiskey and pure pot still whiskey. The designation "pure pot still" as used in Ireland generally refers to whiskey made of 100% barley, mixed malted and unmalted, and distilled in a pot still made of copper. The "green" unmalted barley gives the traditional pure pot still whiskey a spicy, uniquely Irish quality. Like single malt, pure pot still is sold as such or blended with grain whiskey. Usually no real distinction is made between whether a blended whiskey was made from single malt or pure pot still.
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Irish whiskey, en.wikipedia.org
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