Earlier we wrote that the word "whiskey" is derived from the Gaelic term "uisce beatha", which means "water of life." But the term "whiskey", as it's spelled both in Ireland and the U.S. ("whisky', if you're in Scotland, Canada or Japan - although it's worth noting that this convention is recent and completely arbitrary) connotes that a grain spirit has been aged in oak long enough to take on new aromas and flavors, most of which come from the barrel itself. These smoky, spicy notes define the taste of whiskey (the generic spelling we'll use for convenience) for most people.
As so often with rules, the time required in barrel for a grain spirit to earn the title of "whiskey" varies from country to country. While differences other than barrel aging requirements exist among the world's many whiskeys, it is a whiskey's time in barrel that does the most to define it. Most whiskey distillers postulate that up to 70 percent of the flavor of their whiskey comes from the barrel in which it is matured.
We'll also address the issue of where the barrel has been aged, but for the moment, it's enough to state upfront that every whiskey in the world is made from only three easily obtained ingredients: grain, water and yeast.
Whiskey is a grain spirit that has been distilled in continuous and/or pot stills and that is aged in barrels for some specified period of time. In its essence, whiskey is a beer that has been distilled to high proof and then has been aged in oak. A recent trend in the U.S. involves small, artisanal (as they identify themselves, often accurately) distilleries marketing white or unaged whiskey. To date, there has been no breakthrough product of this description, but it bears observing.
Whiskey is made all over the world. One way to think of whiskey production holds that anywhere that beer is made, whiskey can be made.
In the U.S., North American blended whiskey (see below) is the number one category of whisky in sales volume; Canadian whisky is close behind. However, in the U.S., the fastest growing spirit category of all since 2000 has been Irish whiskey. In 2009, Irish whiskey again enjoyed double-digit growth, from San Francisco to Boston. In Scotch whisky, single malt whisky sales remain strong while blended whisky sales (see below for definitions) are stable. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales are robust, though bourbon is only now gaining the dominance and reputation it so surely deserves.
In Great Britain, Scotch whisky dominates the market, as it does in much of the world. In Ireland, though, it is of course Irish whiskey that rules as this dynamic industry expands. The addition of a fourth whiskey distillery, Kilbeggan, brings new hope and inspiration to Irish whiskey's international audience.
Other, non-English speaking countries also produce whiskey; none are more deserving of our attention than Japan, though Japanese whisky (as they spell it) will remain little known for the foreseeable future. There are also quality whiskeys from Brittany in France (a Celtic area), Germany, Sweden, Austria, Australia and India.
Of the major whiskey-making countries, only Scotland makes a big noise about the particular district or area where a distillery sits. Why? Because with all but a handful of other spirits (cognac, armagnac, tequila and mezcal), where a spirit is distilled doesn't have a profound impact upon the flavors in that spirit. Indeed, with Tequila and mezcal the region where the agaves are grown is far more important than the particular location of the distillery.
In Scotland, though, the distillery's address has something to do with the flavors in the whisky. We can argue as to why. Is it the water they use? Is it the temperature of the water they use? Is it the proximity to the ocean and the preponderance of the salty, briny sea air on some islands? These are no small details because they impact the character of many blended and single malt Scotch whiskies. In other words, the whiskies from The Glenlivet Distillery in Speyside are unique and emblematic of that particular place in the Scottish Highlands.
Some outdated books divide Scotland's distillery regions into groups such as Speyside (a classic area around the Spey River in east-central Scotland), the Lowlands (where all those grain whiskies are made), the Western Highlands (some of them are fairly fruity, but isn't that from the old wine barrels they use?), the Islands (with their briny, salty, sea air derived intensity), and Campbeltown (with a touch of everything to it).
SCOTCH AND IRISH WHISK(€)Y WHEN
If Scotch whisky is viewed as a benchmark of whiskey making, it's worth noting that a century ago, Irish whiskey was king. That's not to say that whiskey in Ireland necessarily preceded whisky in Scotland since the actual history of each is sketchy. There are lots of hints at spirit production in Ireland possibly as early as the twelfth century A.D. and in Scotland by the thirteenth century, but the first irrefutable proof is a Scottish tax record from 1494 A.D.: "To Friar John Cor, by the order of the King, to make aqua vitae, eight bolls of malt". The good friar wasn't cooking up a little medicine for scrapes and cuts; eight bolls is the equivalent of over 1,100 pounds of malted barley. Somebody was thirsty.
Consequently, bits of circumstantial evidence point to the leap of faith that there must have been substantial distillation happening prior to that record, albeit smaller, less commercial endeavors. Some historians believe that Irish Celtic monks visited the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) some years before Friar John was filling his still and brought back with them the secrets of boiling fermented liquids. The Muslim rulers of Spain and Portugal were well versed in the distilling arts, and their alchemists made medicines and perfumes in their stills.
It stands to reason with current knowledge that Irish travelers, perhaps clergy, brought the concept back to Eire where monasteries were the sites of large-scale beer brewing (as well as cheese making and other necessities of life). At some point, monks began distilling their beers. Many historians, believe that the Irish brought the concept of distillation to the Scots, possibly in either the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
In any case, by the middle of the 1500s, when it was still something of a rarity in Scotland, whiskey was so well established as the drink of the Irish people that the English occupying authorities felt the need to pass regulations against its excessive use. Eventually, the English wised up to the revenue potential of this new industry. That fact goes a long way toward explaining how until recently distillation was a cottage industry in both Ireland and Scotland. The health and vigor of both countries' spirits industries were purposefully hampered by British tax laws. As little more than colonies of England, the two were not supposed to offer any competition to England's wares. Taxes and tariffs saw to that.
One notable Scottish exception is Ferintosh, a distillery along the Scotland's eastern coast. During one of Scotland's many brief and bloody rebellions, the owners of Ferintosh threw their lot in with the English Crown. From 1690 to 1784, when the excise law was changed, Ferintosh was alone in being allowed to export its Scotch whisky to England. The rest were forbidden to export. They were welcome to consume their whisky and to trade it with their neighbors, so long as they paid an onerous tax upon every drop they distilled. But they were never to sell it the outside world, unless they first paid taxes and then sold it to an English middleman who would earn all the profits.
In the years before the laws were changed in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, thousands of Scots were imprisoned for producing and/or smuggling spirit to England and Europe by land or sea. By 1824, much of the illegal activity was quelled by changes in Parliamentary legislation that made it easier and cheaper to become fully licensed. Unsurprisingly, smuggling convictions plummeted by the 1840s.
Not everyone was happy with the new rules. In order to produce whisky, a distillery had to purchase a license and the license came with some strings. For one, you had to house and feed an exciseman (tax collector) on your premises so that the Crown could be assured that you weren't playing any games with those rules. That was bad enough. But housing a government man on your property meant that all your neighbors had to either go legal and buy a permit (and house a revenue man of their very own) or give up distilling illegally, as some had been doing for centuries.
George Smith, proprietor of The Glenlivet Distillery, so angered his fellow Speyside distillers that he traveled (and even slept) with a pair of pistols at his side. It wasn't bluster; some of his neighbors swore bloody revenge for bringing the government into their midst along the river Livet. The pistols came in handy; there are two well-known episodes during which they saved his life.
But Parliament had finally ended most illegal distillation in Scotland, and planted the seeds of a mighty, global industry. Still, Scotch whisky was more or less a small cottage industry until the development of continuous stills. Those stills were fired up and cranking out neutral grain spirit in the Lowlands and it only took a few enterprising individuals to utilize the cheaper, neutral spirit in the pursuit of a cheaper, easier to sell spirit.
Their names are still common today: Andrew Usher, Chivas, Johnnie Walker, Ballantine, Dewar, Buchanan and a number of other grocer/ merchants who simply wanted to blend their purchased single malt whisky barrels into something very consistent, affordable, large scale and, well, brand-able. In other words, they could create a whisky, put their names on it, and never have to do anything other than go shopping.
Clearly, it worked. In 1901 a British court decided that any whisky created in Scotland could theoretically be called Scotch whisky, regardless of whether it was made in a pot still (like single malt) or a continuous still (like grain whisky). Since then blended Scotch whisky sales have crushed the sales of single malts, and today dwarf the whisky sales of any other country's output.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, things developed rather differently, to the point that, thirty years ago, the industry was dying. After a wildly prosperous nineteenth century, when the distilleries of Dublin, Belfast and Cork turned out vast quantities of high-quality pure pot still whiskey, both to supply a massive domestic market for export to America and all corners of the British Empire, the twentieth century hit the Irish distillers like a sock full of shillings - the Irish rebellion of 1916, Prohibition in America, two World Wars, a worldwide Depression, the Troubles in the North, heavy emigration from the Republic, and a domestic shift away from whiskey to the cheaper beer. The list of commercial disasters and misfortunes is a long one.
By 1980, the 30 working distilleries that the island had supported in 1900 had been culled to just two, both of them owned by the same company: Bushmills in Northern Ireland, which made Old Bushmills, and the Midleton distillery in County Cork in the Irish Republic, which made everything else, from Jameson's to Power's to Paddy to Redbreast. Long- established distilleries such as Locke in Kilbeggan, which had been in operation since the mid-eighteenth century, were closed and silent.
Neither of the working distilleries was much interested in the kinds of well-aged top-shelf bottlings that appeal to whiskey connoisseurs. They focused instead on lighter, younger blended whiskeys that were priced to compete with Johnnie Walker Red Label, White Horse, Dewars and all the other Scotch blends that had dominated the world market for Celtic whiskey since the turn of the century. Now, there's nothing wrong with blended whiskeys, per se. But there is an irony here: the whole reason the Scots turned to making them in the first place, back in the mid-nineteenth century, was to have something more like what their cousins across the Irish Sea were selling.
Traditional Scotch whisky, as we've seen, was the sort of thing that those who loved it loved well, but it definitely wasn't for everybody. The solution Scotland's whisky-merchants hit upon was blending. The Irish, on the other hand, had no need to monkey around with blending and column stills (while column stills were in operation, particularly in Ulster, their product was marked for export and didn't find its way into Irish whiskey until the mid-twentieth century).
Irish distilling boasted a number of differences in they way they did things from the Scots, such as much larger pot stills, which yield a lighter spirit; triple distillation (likewise) and the use of hot air rather than peat smoke to dry their malt made for a whiskey that was smoother and cleaner-tasting (and cheaper to make) than Scottish pot-still whisky. Yet, Irish whiskeys had far more body and flavor than the insipid grain whiskey - particularly since Irish distillers generally mixed their malted barley with raw barley, oats and rye, which gave it a pleasing, spicy graininess. On the strength of this, Irish distillers were able to resist the economic advantages of blending until the late 1930s, when they were finally forced to install continuous stills.
Rules and traditions vary from country to country so it's best to take whiskey data one country at a time in this order: Scotland, Ireland, United States, and Canada.
Scotland is justly viewed as the epicenter of whisky making in the world. Walk into a bar anywhere (outside of the U.S. and Ireland) and if you ask for a whisky, the bartender will point at a wall of Scotch bottles. What precisely are they showing you?
Scotch is a distilled and aged in wood grain spirit: distilled either from relatively inexpensive grains (such as corn or wheat) or from malted barley. If you've double- (or occasionally triple-) distilled the barley beer in pot stills at a single distillery, the whisky you make from that malted barley beer is called a single malt whisky.
If you're using corn or wheat, you're probably using continuous stills and distilling to neutral grain spirit levels (say 190-proof or so). In other words, you're starting to close in on vodka territory. But regardless, if you aged that spirit into a whisky, you would call that whisky a grain whisky because you made it from a grain, and not from malted barley or "malt".
Back in the production module we discussed how beer was made: grains were allowed to become warm and wet and they would sprout, believing spring to be at hand. As they prepared to sprout, latent starches would be converted into sugars. The brewmaster would roast those grains at that very moment, in order to halt the sprouting process and capture those sugars. The grains would then be ground up, boiling water added, and the sugary cereal/soup would be ready for yeasts to convert those sugars into alcohol.
In beer production, the amount of time the grains are roasted helps determine the style of beer. Dark beers such as Guinness have been roasted until they are dark and chocolaty. In Scotch production, the roasting can be equally as influential. Here's why: for much of Scotland's history, the only fuel they had available was peat; coal was too expensive and forests were cleared for farming by the time the Romans invaded Britain in the first century B.C. Peat is compressed vegetation that's halfway to becoming coal. Damp, it's cut from the ground and allowed to dry. When you burn it, it's intensely smoky.
So malted barley used for Scotch has traditionally been roasted over smoky fires and the resultant whisky smells smoky. There's no other word for it, though we spirits writers like to talk about the brine and the salt and the earth and the leather and the smell of the sea. But we're mostly just talking about the smokiness imparted to the grain during the roasting. It's important to bear in mind, however, that not all Scotch whisky is made from peat-smoked barley.
Scotch production regulations are particular about the grains you use. When the semi-sprouted and roasted grain is barley, it's referred to as malted barley; in Scotland, a "malt whisky" can be made only from malted barley. If any other grains are used, it must be called "grain whisky". If the malt whisky comes from a single distillery (as opposed to blends from several distilleries), it's called a "single malt whisky".
The vast majority of Scotch whiskies (95 percent) sold in the U.S. and the rest of the world are not single malt whiskies. They are "blended Scotch whiskies". A blended Scotch whisky is comprised of at least one single malt whisky and a large dose of grain whisky.
This may seem confusing, so hang on. You already know what a single malt whisky is. Great blended Scotch whiskies have many single malt whiskies blended into them; the idea is to capture as much complexity as possible by adding a bit from some of the best distilleries around Scotland, from legendary places such as Speyside, Campbeltown and the islands. But almost all of the blended Scotch whiskies have far more grain whisky than single malt whisky in them. So a very serious blended whisky may be comprised of 40 percent single malts (from a bunch of places, to gain complexity) and 60 percent grain whisky. A blended Scotch whisky intended for the well in someone's bar probably has only ten or twenty percent single malt whisky in it.
So the grain whisky is a huge factor in blended Scotch whisky. And most grain whiskies are distilled to the sort of proof that we associate with vodka. In other words, most grain whiskies don't have a lot of flavors and aromas, at least not compared to single malt whiskies. That said, without the filtration and multiple distillations that vodka undergoes, they still manage to retain some grain flavor.
But here's the kicker, single malt whiskies have too much flavor for a lot of people. One hundred and fifty years ago, there were few blended Scotch whiskies and few people outside of Great Britain drank Scotch. Once distillers began dumping grain whisky into those powerful and flavorful single malt whiskies, well, then sales started to really take o. Blended Scotch, it can be stated, turned Scotch whisky into a national industry with global implications.
And if single malt whiskies are much sought after for their often intense personalities, it's worth remembering that a great blended whisky contains a lot of those personalities, softened with a dose of grain whisky. Sure, the single malt might be more singular, but the community of personalities contained in a great blended whisky is likely to be far more complex than a single malt. Don't be a whisky snob!
So the categories of Scotch whisky are:
Single Malt Whisky: a whisky made of malted barley, double distilled in pot stills (only one malt distillery, Auchentoshan in the Scottish Lowlands, triple distills) at one distillery, distilled no higher than 70 % abv, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years. At present there are about 100 malt distilleries operating around Scotland.
Blended Scotch Whisky: a whisky made of malt whisky (double distilled in pot stills) and grain whisky (probably distilled in continuous stills to a very high proof) and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years.
Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as Vatted Malt Whisky): a blend comprised only of at least two single malt whiskies, instead of products of only one (single) distillery, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years.
Grain Whisky: a whisky distilled from any grain (typically either wheat or corn), usually distilled in continuous stills, and aged in oak barrels for a legal minimum of three years. There are around eight grain distilleries in Scotland.
Barrel usage and selection are crucial. You will most frequently see used bourbon barrels, but there are many producers who love to add the dried fruit characteristics that can be leached out of used sherry barrels. In truth, sherry barrels were adopted a century ago because all sherry was once shipped to England in barrels (not in bottles as is legally required today) and the empty barrels were cheap and plentiful. While used bourbon barrels are still relatively cheap, used sherry barrels are not. Sherry producers no longer ship their product in barrels, and typically don't want new barrel aromas and flavors; they're perfectly content to keep using the old barrels until they break.
By law, all whiskies made in Scotland must be aged in wood barrels for a minimum of three years, though most are aged for much longer. So Scotch producers have to buy the barrels new and loan them to the sherry makers, who will hand them over after a decade or two of use. Just for the record, they make the Scotch producers pay for shipping too. Not a bad deal.
Also, two other salient points regarding Scotch whisky. One, the age statement on the bottle (18 Years Old, 21Years Old, for example) is the age of the youngest whisky used in that particular bottling, no matter the type of Scotch whisky. Two, in addition to the normal bottling of single malts issued directly by distilleries, there is, of late, another type of single malt offering, called merchant bottling. These are whiskies that have been purchased by the barrel from brokers or malt distilleries and then aged and bottled by independent merchants/agents, such as Gordon & MacPhail, Duncan Taylor, Scott's Selections, Cadenhead's, Compass Box, Murray McDavid and many others. What makes these offerings intriguing is whether or not they mirror the established style of the distillery. Anyway, be aware of them for your customers' education.
Whiskey has been produced in Ireland perhaps since the twelfth century A.D., and certainly since the fifteenth. Speculation espouses the concept of Christian monks trained either in Salerno, Italy or in Spain as the prime movers of distillation in Ireland. English invading forces are said to have reported back to King Henry II in the 1170s about how the Scots- Gaels produced a potent liquid made from "boiling", which carries the clear implication of distillation. Whether or not it was beer or wine that they were boiling will never be known. That said, it appears likely that in twelfth century A.D. Ireland the distillation of liquids occurred. After great success and then a great crash, detailed above, the Irish whiskey industry is showing great signs of resurgence.
Before World War One there were hundreds of whiskey distilleries dotted across Ireland. Two world wars, the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression and the U.S. Prohibition drastically changed forever the landscape of Irish distilling. Right now, there are only four distilleries running in Ireland, Jameson-Midleton in County Cork (Republic of Ireland), Old Bushmills in County Antrim (Northern Ireland), Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath (Republic of Ireland), and Cooley Distillery in County Louth (Republic of Ireland).
But that's double the number there were twenty years ago, and Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in U.S. and several other global markets, more than doubling in the past five years. Irish whiskey's natural mixability accounts for much of this dramatic growth. What's more, many new bottling of fine, well-aged whiskey are available, and whiskey connoisseurs are rapidly coming to understand and acknowledge that some of the finest whiskeys made in the British Isles and indeed the world hail from the Emerald Isle.
Some whiskey books foolishly claim that all Irish whiskey is triple distilled with unmalted and malted barley in pot stills. That's false. Midleton, Bushmills and Cooleyâ€”the three main distilleries operating in Ireland, the newly-reopened Kilbeggan being the fourthâ€”all make whiskeys that are triple distilled from 100 percent malted barley while Jameson, the leading Irish whiskey in the world and unquestionably a more representative Irish whiskey than any other, is based not only upon pot still barley whiskey, but also upon corn or wheat "grain whiskeys" that have been distilled to a higher proof in continuous stills. Again, as with blended Scotch whisky, adding some grain whiskey to the blend makes for a milder, easier-to-drink spirit. Less aggressive flavor and easy drinkability aren't negatives, especially when you're trying to compete with the vodka monster.
If the Scots, to some cynical observers, have been annoyingly specific about which grain you can use and which kind of still is to be used, the Irish have been less vocal about their industry's standards. They allow both pot stills and continuous stills into their production methods and they allow malted barley and unmalted barley, as well as any other grain you like (they used to use a lot of oats and rye but now they use wheat and corn almost exclusively), and you can use any sort of barrel you like. Occasionally, the malt used is peated as with many Scotch whiskies, but in general it is not.
Like whiskey producers the world over, used bourbon barrels are the most common aging vessels in Ireland. Bourbon producers are required by law to use brand new white oak barrels for all new spirits, so there are a lot of used barrels hanging around the yard. And much as their Scottish neighbors across the Irish sea are, the Irish are now playing with not only used sherry barrels, but also used port and Madeira barrels, used wine barrels, and anything else that sounds interesting and can be bought reasonably. The Scots too have expanded their barrel palate to these and other kinds of oaks. Like Scotch, Irish whiskeys must be matured in barrels for a three-year minimum.
Also, small pot stills in Ireland are usually larger than the biggest pot still in Scotland. Why is that important? Because big pot stills, like those at Midleton Distillery that produces Redbreast, allow for the distillation process to happen many times inside the large pot; it's a little like a continuous still, in which a series of chambers allows a succession of individual pot distillations to happen. Instead, the massive Irish pot stills allow the vaporized spirit to knock about inside the pot, often re-condensing on the still's sides and sliding back down to be vaporized yet again.
That means the spirit that comes out of a big still tends to be cleaner, lighter and less heavily aromatic than the spirit that comes out of a small still. Between the lack of smoke and the bigger stills, Irish whiskey justifiably has a reputation for being softer and milder than most single malt Scotch whiskies.
There are four fundamental kinds of Irish whiskey:
Single malt whiskey: made from 100 percent malted barley in a pot still in a single distillery. Bushmills leads the way in this category, but Midleton and Cooley also make some.
Grain whiskey: continuous stills make this light whiskey of wheat or corn.
Pure Pot Still whiskey: made from malted and unmalted barley in a pot still. Redbreast is the classic.
Blended Whiskey: a marriage of single malt and/or single pot-still and grain whiskeys. Jameson and John Powers are examples of single pot-still and grain whiskey blends, while Bushmills' blends are single malt and grain whiskey. Paddy and Tullamore Dew are blends of single pot still, single malt and grain whiskeys.
Makers of Irish whiskey, unlike Scotch whisky, typically do not use peat to roast their grains. As a result, the smoky/ ash-like note so evident in Scotch is rarely present in Irish whiskeys, though there are a couple of exceptions from Cooley Distillery.
BOURBON AND TENNESSEE
Some people might complain that we've lumped these two great whiskeys together, but only a few details separate one from the other and it makes complete sense to address both varieties simultaneously. Both bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, the greatest whiskeys made in America, require that the producer use only brand new charred oak barrels for aging (customarily, these are made from American white oak). Both utilize corn as the dominant grain in the mashbill (the recipe that contains the grain ratios), along with a little bit of barley and either wheat or rye in similarly small amounts. Both whiskey types carry the sweet character of corn, along with the burnt and smoky wood-like notes of charred barrels. Both demand a legal minimum of two years in those barrels, but anything less than four years in barrel must be spelled out on the label. And, both are distilled to no higher than 160-proof (80 percent alcohol) and bottled at no less than 80-proof (40 percent alcohol).
While Kentucky is the state most identified with bourbon, bourbon can legally come from any state in America. Virginia has long been a whiskey distilling stronghold. Ironically, Bourbon County, Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon two centuries ago, has no working distilleries at this time. The majority of bourbons are products of continuous distillation first and then a second distillation in a kettle-like still called a "doubler" or "thumper".
Tennessee sour mash whiskey is made only in Tennessee. And Tennessee whiskey production has one more little wrinkle. In the mid- 1800s, the founder of Jack Daniel distillery, Alfred Eaton, introduced a filtration step, utilizing little cubes of charcoal from the local sugar maple trees. The "Lincoln County Process" requires only that the spirit be filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to aging, though the two Tennessee distilleries ( Jack Daniel's and George Dickel) each employ huge round vats through which the unaged spirit is gently dripped, or in which the spirit soaks. The idea is to remove a few more congeners and render the spirit smoother, but some people think the Lincoln County Process adds a charcoal note to Tennessee whiskey as well.
Otherwise, bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys have much the same flavors and aromas. Another small detail: bourbon requires at least 51 percent corn in the mashbill, though there may be as much as 80 percent; Tennessee has the same minimum of corn but demands that corn fill no more than 79 percent, perhaps in hopes that the small grains (as they call wheat and rye) will produce a slightly lighter, gentler whiskey.
Last, both of these varieties of American whiskey are considered "sour mash" whiskeys, or whiskeys in which a small portion of each fermentation (the "backset") is held back and then added to the next mash. This innovation was created and promoted by Dr. James Crow in the 1830s and remains a staple production step to this day. The sour mash concept ensures a large measure of character, continuity and consistency from batch to batch.
Rye whiskey was the favored spirit of colonial America since rye was the grain of choice in the eighteenth century. Just a few years ago, mainstream rye brands were hard to find, but cheap if you found them. Rye whiskey is the hottest thing flowing across American whiskey bars right now, fueled by cocktail geeks who have noted that the classic Manhattan recipe (among others) calls for rye whiskey, not bourbon. Today, rye is hard to find because of demand and thus is ever more expensive. Whiskey producers aren't stupid, but the process of making whiskey is slow, so until there are more rye whiskeys on the market, the prices for those that are available will keep going up.
The rules for rye whiskey are exactly the same as for bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, except that the mashbill now requires a minimum of 51 percent rye (though it's usually more), while corn and barley make up the remainder.
Bartenders are learning that rye offers another desirable weapon behind bars; instead of the sweet ponderousness of corn, there is a lighter, spicier character to rye. Cocktails made with rye can seem crisper and more peppery than those made with corn. Rye whiskey sales are growing at nearly 50 percent annually over the last two years, making it one of the hottest spirits categories in North America.
The old-timers still buy these, but Bonded Whiskeys are fewer in number and farther between sightings. Not long ago, producers created whiskeys bottled in bond; the tax on the whiskey wouldn't be paid until the whiskey was sold and "released from bond". It would (and still must) come from a single distillery and needs at least four years barrel aging. But all that is less important than the tradition of selling that bonded whiskey at 100-proof. So when you see a whiskey bottle that says "Bottled in Bond" or "Bonded Whiskey", you're looking at a 100-proof (50 percent alcohol) whiskey, which is a couple more gears on the crankshaft than the usual 80-proof that fills most whiskey bottles. Use with respect, but expect a gutsier, more intense whiskey.
Not to confuse the issue, but the term "Straight Whiskey" applies to any whiskey that has been distilled to no higher than 160-proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof and contains at least 51 percent of one type of grain in the mashbill. So straight whiskeys include bourbon, Tennessee, corn and rye. It's similar to what we will cover in the Brandy module: Brandy is a kind of distillate made from wine and a spirit category. Cognac and armagnac are types of brandies.
You don't see much of this category anymore. A corn whiskey follows all the same production rules as Tennessee, bourbon and rye except that, if aged in wood at all, it must be placed in previously used charred oak barrels or uncharred new ones, and a mashbill with a minimum of 80 percent corn is necessary.
Grain distilling in Canada is almost as old as grain distilling in the United States, dating to the late 1700s. At first, the whiskey being made in England's Canadian colonies was indistinguishable from what was being made in Pennsylvania or Maryland or any of the other colonies that would become the United States. Pot stilled, rye-heavy, rough and unaged. In the early and mid nineteenth century, however, under the impetus of pioneers such as Thomas Molson, William Gooderham, James Worts, Henry Corby and Joseph Seagram, Canadian whisky (note the preferred spelling) began taking on an identity of its own. It's worth noting that all of those men were all Englishmen, as opposed to the Germans, Scotsmen and Irishmen who dominated the industry south of the border, and they set up their distilleries in an English way - they tended to be large, technically advanced and with a preference for clean, pure spirits to rough, funky ones (the majority of England's distillers were actually rectifiers, who took raw spirits from elsewhere and redistilled them into things like gin and "British brandy," a rectified grain spirit flavored to resemble brandy).
In any case, in the early nineteenth century Canadian distillers such as Molson and Gooderham & Worts were making two main types of whiskey, a pure barley-malt whiskey for export to Britain and American-style rye and corn (and also wheat) whiskeys for local consumption. As yet, there was little market for either of these products in the United States. That changed with the American Civil War, when Canadian whiskies flooded in to make up for the shortfalls the war caused in domestic production. By the end of the century, the firms led by Harry Corby and Hiram Walker (an American, ironically, who for most of his life commuted every day to his Canadian distillery and offices by taking a boat across the Detroit River from his home on the American side) were exporting considerable amounts of a new kind of Canadian blended whisky to the United States and indeed to markets around the world. This new whisky, a Canadian version of the blended whiskies that were turning Scotch into a global spirit, was basically what we think of when we think of Canadian whisky today: a fairly light, mellow and well-aged product made by blending a base whisky - essentially a Canadian version of the grain whisky used in Scotland - and one or more "flavoring" whiskies. Where in Scotland the flavoring whiskies were single malts, though, in Canada they were American straight whiskeys, much like they were made south of the Canadian border. Brands such as Hiram Walker's Canadian Club, Seagram's and Gooderham & Worts' G&W Special were making inroads into the American market and widely available, at least in the northern states.
Prohibition shuttered many an American winery, brewery and distillery and created a criminal class that still bedevils American life today. But its effects upon Canada were demonstrably kinder. The second year of Prohibition saw a 400 percent increase in Canadian whisky sales, most of that delivered via the Great Lakes or a (recently discovered) pipeline across the Detroit River. In worldwide export markets, the suddenly unavailable whiskeys from the United States were soon replaced by brands such as Canadian Club, Corby's Royal Reserve and Wiser's Old Rye.
After Repeal, Canadian whisky had gained such a strong position in the United States market that to this day it remains one of the highest-selling categories of spirits in the country: in 2013, 16.5 million cases of Canadian whisky were sold, versus 18 million of bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey.
Canadian Whisky Today
The twentieth century subjected the Canadian whisky industry to the same pressures that affected American distillers. Consolidation and standardization shrank the number of distilleries, greatly expanded them in size, and limited the number and variety of products they were making. At the same time, heavy capital investment and a lack of regulations limiting distillers to traditional methods allowed the Canadians to build the most technologically advanced whisky industry in the world. Today, there are eight main distilleries making Canadian "rye" as the whisky is known in Canada (the name is traditional rather than descriptive: it's entirely possible, and indeed common, for a Canadian whisky made from 100% corn to be labeled "rye"); all are owned by large multinational corporations.
The Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario (across the river from Detroit) is owned by Pernod-Ricard Ltd and makes Wiser's and Corby whiskies, among others, for Pernod-Ricard and contract-distills Canadian Club for Beam-Suntory. It is the largest distillery in North America. Also in Ontario is Brown-Forman's Collingwood distillery, home of Canadian Mist and Collingwood and Campari's Kittling Ridge distillery, where Forty Creek is made. Diageo makes Crown Royal and several other brands at distilleries at Gimli, Winnipeg and Valleyfield, Quebec. There are three distilleries in Alberta, Beam-Suntory's Alberta Distillers in Calgary, home of Alberta Prime and a few other brands, Constellation Brands' Palliser distillery in Lethbridge, home of Black Velvet, and the small Highwood plant in High River, which makes a variety of niche brands. Beyond these, there are a number of microdistilleries making malt and other international styles of whisk(e)y.
While there are detail differences between the processes used in these eight distilleries, they agree on general principles. Most of the whiskies they make are blended from a base whisky and one or more flavoring whiskies, although occasionally they will release one of the flavoring whiskies or, rarely, the base whisky by itself. Let's look at these two styles of whisky in a little more detail.
The base whisky. This is generally made from 100% corn, with enzymes derived from the aspergillum mold used to start fermentation (instead of the small proportion of barley malt used in other countries). It is distilled in large column stills to 94.5% alcohol (the same proof used in Scotland for grain whisky). It then goes into used American oak barrels to age for a minimum of three years. The result is a light and very clean but by no means flavorless spirit. Depending on the amount of aging and the number of previous times the barrel has been refilled, this can be a surprisingly rich spirit (a fine example is Wiser's Red Letter, pure base whisky aged in a first-fill bourbon barrel for ten years).
The flavoring whiskies. If the base whisky recalls Scotland, the Flavoring whiskies are pure America. There is a great deal of variation here between distilleries, but the basic products fall into three or four general categories. There's rye whiskey, which is either made from 100% rye (some or all of which may be malted), 90% rye and 10% (roughly) barley malt (as many Pennsylvania and Maryland ryes were formerly made) or a mashbill like contemporary American ryes, with 5-15 % barley, a portion of corn and a larger portion of rye. These are distilled to around 65% alcohol, often by running them once through a column still and another time through a large pot still (that, for instance, is how the flavoring whiskies for Wiser's and Corby are made). Then there's corn whiskey, made from a similar mashbill to an American bourbon by the same process as the rye. Finally there are wheat and barley whiskies, often single-grain, also made like the rye.
These flavoring whiskies tend to be lighter and dryer than their American counterparts, where they have one. Lately, American entrepreneurs have been buying older barrels of Canadian blending rye and bottling it as rye whiskey, to mixed reviews.
Blending. Canadian distilling companies don't share blending stock. Each blends with its own products. For the cheaper blends, a large proportion of base whisky will be combined with one or more flavoring whiskies. It will be rare for anything in the blend to be older than the minimum. For the more expensive blends such as the Wiser's 18, the process can be much more complex, with multiple, well-aged flavoring whiskies blended together and then mixed with a much smaller portion of base whiskey, also well aged. While the most common blending profile is to use a large proportion of base whisky with a small amount of rye whisky for flavoring, there are many other proprietary combinations on the market, often with a high percentage of flavoring whisky (the law does not regulate base whisky-flavoring whisky ratios in any way and there is no requirement to use flavoring whisky at all).
Adjustments for the American market. Some bottom-shelf Canadian blends made for the American market have in the past been blended with up to 9.09% neutral spirits made from American oranges or wines. This gave the brands substantial tax relief in the US, enabling them to better compete against American blended whiskeys, which are made of straight whiskeys blended with (cheap) neutral spirits and not (relatively expensive) base whisky. Only a few distillers took advantage of this provision and only for their cheapest blends. It's unclear if they still do. Under the Canadian Food and Drug Act of 1993, which for the first time defined the parameters of Canadian whisky, it may unlike American bourbon or rye, may contain caramel and flavoring, although that flavoring has to be either a wine or a distilled spirit aged at least two years in small wood. This means that things such as prune juice, formerly added, are now forbidden. The regulation does allow blenders to add things like sherry and brandy to their blends, although they are rarely used and never in large quantity.
The state of the industry. After years of basically ignoring it, Canadian distillers are beginning to pay attention to the premiumization trend that has brought forth so many great bottlings in Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Japan. Canadian distilleries, however, are vast and industrial and difficult to visit and Canadian distillers can be reticent about their products and secretive about their processes. All of that hinders the flow of information that drives premiumization. Fortunately, with figures such as Don Livermore, master blender at the Hiram Walker distillery for Wiser's and Corby's and Crown Royal's master blender Andy Mackay, who are willing to speak out with pride about their products and reach out to educate journalists, consumers and spirits industry people, we can expect more light cast on this fascinating, little-known corner of the whisk(e)y world.
BLENDED N. AMERICA
You might wonder why we left this category for the end. For this reason: while there are good American Blended whiskeys, most are intended to imitate Canadian whisky's blended smoothness, and most are far less successful at it than Canada. While North American blended whiskey (Seagram's V.O. and Seagram's 7 Crown) remains the largest single category of whiskey sales in the U.S., those numbers have been falling for years, in favor of whiskeys with more individual character.
The rules are pretty loose: additives are allowed (see Canadian whisky above), and there must be at least 50 percent neutral grain spirit in the blend. There is always more than that. Trust us.
As usual, the best way to find flavor and identify differences is to put several whiskeys next to each other. If you taste a Scotch next to a bourbon, or a bourbon next to a Canadian, or an Irish next to a Scotch, it's a heck of a lot easier to figure out how they differ than if you just drink one at a time and wonder.
So we'll try it in our instructive flight. And once you've settled on those differences, put a few island whiskies next to some inland whiskies. Or place a higher-proof single barrel bourbon up against a more common whiskey and see what makes each one tick. Again, it's a lot easier to spot flavors when there are identifiable differences between each whisky or whiskey in front of you.
All the while you'll test them to see if they are:
Clean, dirty or hot
Dry, salty, tangy or slightly sweet
Smooth, spicy or aggressive
Gentle, powerful, briny or earthy
Fruity, floral, vegetal and/or herbal
Rich or thin
Soft, sharp or burning
It should be clean and dry and not bitter and not sweet.
PRINCIPLE WHISKEY COCKTAILS