Bourbon To Rye, An Easy Guide To The Diverse World Of Whisky
Whisky is a spirit that holds a pride of place in almost every country in the world. Yet this amber treasure is often misunderstood because while visually most whiskies look alike, there is often a lot to explore within their flavour profiles. Whisky offers a complex array of flavours, aromas, and production techniques that make it a fascinating subject for exploration.
What Is Whisky?
Whiskey is essentially a distilled, beer-like beverage, albeit without hops made by steeping grains and introducing yeast to convert the grains' sugars into alcohol. It's important to note that different grains possess varying levels of sugar content and that determines the actual alcohol content. For instance, corn boasts a higher sugar content compared to wheat or rye, resulting in a sweeter taste in corn-based whiskeys. All whiskeys contain a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume (80 proof). Each country has its own set of regulations for producing their whiskies. These regulations combined with their local natural resources, agriculture, and traditions create the foundations for each country’s whiskey.
What Determines The Flavour Of Whisky?
So what makes a whisky unique? Good question, because while all these spirits come under the umbrella of whisky, there are different types to explore within that category. The main factor to consider when segregating them is their country of origin. The 5 main types of whisky are as follows:
Irish Whiskey – Ireland
Scotch – Scotland
Bourbon – USA
Japanese Whisky – Japan
Canadian Whiskey – Canada
The second factor is the base grains from which they have been distilled, be it wheat, rye, corn, oats or barley. The third factor that determines the flavour of a whisky is the barrel it’s aged in and for how long. Whisky that’s aged over time tends to take on the characteristics of the wood it’s aged in and therefore a more complex flavour.
What Is Scotch Whisky?
Scotch whisky, made in Scotland, encompasses various characteristics and styles. Single-malt whisky, highly regarded among connoisseurs, is crafted using 100% malted barley and distilled in small pot stills through at least two runs. It originates from a single distillery and matures in oak casks for a minimum of three years, acquiring a rich and complex character. Scotch often varies based on its region of origin; coastal areas absorb briny sea air, while inland regions like Scotland's Lowlands tend to have more floral notes.
Additionally, some regions traditionally use more peat in the distillation process, contributing to varying levels of smokiness, notably seen in Islay Scotch. The taste of Scotch varies widely among the over 100 distilleries in Scotland. Islay whiskies often exhibit a pronounced smoky peat flavour unless labelled as un-peated, while those from Speyside tend to be lighter and sweeter. Lowland Scotch is generally sweeter and lighter. The ageing duration and the type of barrels used heavily influence the flavour profile.
Scotch possesses a robust character, even in sweeter styles that lack the same sweetness as bourbon, but with experience, one can discover a range of flavours, including honey, almond, grassy, leather, nectarine, vanilla, dried fruit, and varying levels of smokiness. It is often said that initial experiences with Scotch can be challenging, but as one's palate develops, it becomes an enduring preference. Scotch is versatile, though less common in cocktails, and is best enjoyed with a splash of water or ice, a practice that enhances the appreciation of its diverse flavours. Scotland's 100+ distilleries offer a multitude of choices in this exquisite brown liquid.
What Is Irish Whisky?
In Ireland, the traditional distillation process typically involves triple distillation in pot stills, often constructed from copper. Copper plays a crucial role in reacting with vapour and liquid in the still to eliminate undesirable sulphur compounds that impart unpleasant flavours. Notably, not all Irish whiskey production involves pot stills; column stills, often referred to as "continuous stills," are commonly used in Irish grain whiskey production. However, for Irish malt-based whiskey, especially "Irish Pot Still Whiskey," pot stills are a legal requirement. Regardless of the type still used, the legal maximum alcohol content for the resulting spirit in Ireland is 94.8% alcohol by volume.
The History Of Rye Whisky
In the 17th and 18th centuries, rum held the position of the preferred spirit in the American colonies. However, after the Revolutionary War, a shift towards whiskey began to emerge. This transition was influenced by the fact that rum had British origins.
The practice of making whiskey was introduced to the Americas by early colonists who had previously been crafting whiskey in regions like Ireland and Scotland, predominantly using barley. However, barley struggled to adapt to the climate and soil conditions of the New World. Consequently, whiskey makers turned to more adaptable grains. In regions such as Pennsylvania and Maryland, rye emerged as the primary grain for early American whiskey production. Rye had been brought over by German settlers and was even used by figures like George Washington at his Mount Vernon distillery in New York. This particular rye whiskey was sometimes referred to as "Monongahela rye," named after the Pennsylvania river. Rye whisky usually contains anything between 51-100% rye grain mellow in charred oak barrels and offers sharper flavours.
As settlers ventured further south, they encountered another grain, corn, which eventually became the dominant grain for American whiskey production, particularly in what we now know as bourbon.
What is Bourbon?
Derived from the family name of French King Louis XVI, The House of Bourbon, Bourbon County became synonymous with the production of corn whiskey during the 19th century. As barrels of this whiskey travelled up and down the Mississippi River, unintentionally ageing along the way, people began to request it by its distinctive name, "old bourbon whiskey."
Mostly made in the American South, particularly Kentucky, this whisky is made from at least 51% corn. There are no additional additives or flavours used beyond water and it’s usually aged in new oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years. There’s also a specific variation called the Tennessee Sour Mash, which has a 51-79% corn content and is filtered through maple charcoal chunks prior to the barrelling process.
What is Canadian Whisky?
There are two main factors shaping Canadian Whisky, Prohibition and rye. Initially, rye was one of the few crops which could survive eastern Canada’s harsh winters. Eventually, better farmlands discovered to the west lessened rye’s importance. Still today Canadian whisky can be called “rye whisky” even though it is more likely to use corn than any other grain.
It’s typically aged in small wood for at least 3 years and there is much less rye used in most Canadian whisky than in American rye whiskies where the largest ingredient must be rye. And in regards to Prohibition, its chokehold on American production led to a boom in Canada. Canadian Whiskies became the leading supplier of speakeasies in the States. Regardless of the grain, Canadian distillers usually create two whiskies (a base whisky + a flavouring whisky) and then combine them together to create the final product.
What Is Japanese Whisky?
In a similar way to Scotland, Japanese distilleries sought out tradition. Commercially produced in Japan since the 1920s, and after nearly a century, you’ll frequently find a Japanese whisky listed on “Best of the Best” lists. Japanese distilleries will often vary from Scotch distilleries in their use of more still shapes and sizes, while Scottish distilleries will usually have just one or two house still sizes, creating a specific style. Japanese distilleries will often have an array of sizes, allowing the Japanese whisky makers to craft a range of styles and tastes according to their individual desires.
No matter which whisky strikes your fancy, each has its own identity and history to make it a worthy addition to your home bar. So play around with flavours and find the right whisky for you.