A LITTLE WHISKEY 101 –
and I do mean a little
Here’s just a few basic pieces of the puzzle when talking about whiskey. There is a ton of knowledge out there, I picked up most of what I know from the distillers’ websites, review sites (like this one), Google, YouTube and most importantly, trying different whiskeys and seeing what I enjoy most. Next to tasting it, YouTube is one of the best resources to learn about whiskey. So let’s get rollin’… here are a few things to know to get started learning about and appreciating whiskey.
WHAT IS WHISKEY?
Simply put, whiskey is spirit distilled from grain and aged in a wood cask. With Irish whiskey and Scotch it has to be aged for 3 years and 1 day and bottled in it's respective country to be called Irish whiskey or Scotch whisky. Depending on the region or country where a given whiskey comes from they may have different standards and laws (of varying strictness) regulating how it’s made, aged, bottled and labeled.
There seems to be an extra "E" that comes and goes – Let's get that little oddity out of the way. The Irish added the extra "E" to the word whisky and spell it whiskey. Whisky in Scotland, England, Canada, Japan and a few others use the original spelling. Irish and American distillers go with the "whiskey" spelling... but it's all the same essentially, spirit distilled from grain aged in a wooden cask.
Distilled from grain – there are whiskeys made from a variety of grains but when it comes to Irish and Scotch, we’re talking about corn, rye, wheat and barley. Grains are soaked, allowed to germinate to a certain degree, yeast is added for fermentation (so up to this point we essentially have beer) then distilled. The distilled spirit comes out clear, then…
Aged in a wood cask – once the clear distillate is produced, it's put into wooden cask for aging – 3 years plus 1 day and you have whiskey. The variety of flavors come from a multitude of factors, but the wood cask is the primary source of flavor. Interestingly enough, today’s Scotch is made using American Bourbon casks. The whiskey sitting in the cask, touching the wood is what imparts all the amazing flavors. The length of time in the cask, or age, is a big factor (but not the only as we’ll look at “no age statement” whiskeys).
Malt vs. Grain – Malt is barley, grain is all the rest, it’s that simple. But with Irish whiskey you can have malted and unmalted barley. Malted barley is what you get when the grain soaks and begins to germinate (sprout) a bit.
Single malt – single malt whiskey refers to malted barely that is not mixed with any other grains and is from the same distillery. A blend of single malts from the same distillery can still be bottled and labeled as a single malt. They just have to use the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix for labeling, or they can do a no age statement single malt.
Blended malt – blended malt is the blending of single malts. There are some really good blended malts out there, and with some you can get a real value given the quality of single malts being blended.
Single grain – with grains, the standards are different. My understanding is a whiskey can be labeled “single grain” is it is 51% or more of the same grain. The rules differ and to be blunt, at this point I don’t care to learn more since there was so much to learn to get to this point. Less learning, more sipping.
Blended grain – blend grain whiskeys and you have blended grain whiskey.
Just plain blended whiskey – kinda like it sounds, take a few different Irish whiskeys above and blend them, or do the same with Scotch… you’ll have a blend of malt and grain whiskeys. Johnny Walker is the number one selling Scotch in the world and is a blended Scotch whisky (malt and grain).
Irish Pot Still Whiskey – Irish Pot Still Whiskey is the mixture of malted and unmalted barley. It’s still triple distilled, but with the mixture of the two types of barely, pot still whiskey draws a unique character. The story goes back in the day the English put a tax on malted barley in Ireland. The Irish, exercising their god-given right to say "f*ck you!" to the English, started using unmalted barely to avoid the tax... take that England. And so with the use of malted and unmalted barely, the tradition of Irish Pot Still Whiskey came into being.