In its broadest definition, ‘whisky’ is a drink distilled from the fermentation of malt – which is barley or rye that has germinated before drying. But what truly goes into creating the whiskies you know and love? It depends on four major factors, which create the different variations of whisky: the grain used, the production process, where the whisky was made and how long it was matured for.
In Scotland, Canada, Japan and other parts of the world, whisky is spelled without the ‘E’, while in the U.S. and Ireland it is more commonly spelled with the ‘E’.
History of Whisky
Traditionally, the custom of making a distilled beverage from grain was limited to those of Gaelic ancestry – first the Irish in the 13th century, followed by the Scottish in the 15th century. But when Irish and Scottish settlers came to North America, they brought along their rich distilling traditions and adapted their recipes to the crops and conditions of the New World.
Using corn and rye, American distillers in the 18th century created the world’s third whisky: bourbon. But when the United States broke ties with Britain in 1776, many loyalists fled to Canada – becoming gristmill operators and bring their unique distilling customs to the north.
These American influences, combined with those of Irish and Scottish settlers who came directly to Canada, resulted in the development of the world’s fourth great whisky: Canadian whisky.
Types of Whisky
Canadian whisky combines a light-bodied base whisky with heavier flavouring elements, like rye. This creates a blend that is often lighter in flavour and character than other whiskies, due to different techniques of distilling, maturing and blending. Both the flavouring and the base whisky must age at least three years, but are often aged even longer.
American whiskey is a blend of bourbon and small-grain straight whiskey, along with aged light whiskey or un-aged grain neutral spirits. The whiskies in the blend must be aged at least two years and if the blend is less than four years old, the label must explicitly say so.
Bourbon is an unblended whiskey, similar to single-malt Scotch. Originating from Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1780, bourbon’s main ingredient is corn. In fact, the law states that corn must make up 51-80% of the mash bill, with other grains rounding out the blend. All bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years, while Tennessee Whiskey (a bourbon variant) must also seep slowly through charcoal vats to mellow.
Irish whiskey is a blend of roughly 40% malted barley and 60% unmalted barley, aged in casks for at least three years. Peat fires aren’t used to dry the malt, so Irish whiskey has a clear, malty flavour without the smokiness of Scotch. And since it’s triple distilled, Irish whiskey also has a higher proof – which gives it a milder taste than single-malt Scotch.
Scotch whisky is divided into two camps: blended and single-malt. Single-malt Scotch is an unblended whisky made from malted barley in pot stills, while blended Scotch whisky combines aged single-malt whiskies with aged grain whiskies made in column stills. Though produced differently, both are aged in casks for at least three years and share the same smoky flavour - thanks to the Scottish custom of drying malt over a smoky peat fire.