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The Beginner's Guide to Whiskey/Whisky

What the hell is whiskey?

The word "whiskey" comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, which means "water of life" and dates back to 2,000 BC.

Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a fermented grain or grains. Whiskey is often aged in either new or used wooden casks to give it a smoother flavor, and must be distilled to a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Whiskey can be made from a variation of these different grains:

  • corn

  • rye

  • barley

  • wheat

  • sorghum (A cereal grain like corn)

The grain is mixed with water, heated and fermented like beer. After all the sugars have been extracted, the liquid (called "Wort") is then distilled as many times as the Master Distiller decides and stored in either new or used wooden casks for aging. It's important to point out that American Bourbon legally requires the distillate to be stored in new, american oak casks. Those casks are often sold to Tequila or Wine brands to age their spirits.

Whiskey or Whisky?

A very simple rule to go by is,

If the country of origin has an "E" in the name, so does the whiskey.

AMERICA - Bourbon Whiskey

IRELAND - Irish Whiskey

SCOTLAND - Scotch Whisky

CANADA - Canadian or "Rye" Whisky

Does older mean better or just more expensive?

The aging process is what makes whiskies "Whiskey".

The distillate pulls flavors from the wood. A general rule is the longer it sits, the better the taste. This is not necessarily true in all cases but it's a good starting point. The main factor is the juice itself and the grains used. Corn is generally sweeter than Rye or Barley. American Bourbons are almost always much sweeter than Scotch or Irish whiskies.

In scientific terms, the aging process changes the chemical composition of the alcohol. The age of the whiskey is determined by how long the alcohol was resting in the cask. (Whiskey doesn't mature or age further in a bottle, the aged time refers to years in the cask. i.e. 19 year old scotch)

The price is usually higher the longer the whiskey ages, for a couple of reasons:

  • It's more desirable. The whiskey is smoother, and more complex in flavor.

  • There's less of it. As alcohol sits in barrels and ages, a portion of it evaporates. This is called the Angel's Share, and the amount loss varies by year and other factors like temperature in the rickhouse (storage barn) contributes to both flavor and evaporation rate. This varies between 10% and 3% each year. For a barrel of 23-year Pappy Van Winkle, about 80% of the contents of the barrel will evaporate.

  • It's harder to store. The barrels have to physically sit somewhere and take up precious space for all of those years. So the longer the barrel sits, the more the company will charge. One barrel sitting for 21 years could have 3 barrels for 7 years in the same space. It's easy to see the math behind those $2,000 bottles!

Single Barrel, Single Malt or Blended?

The root of all confusion lies in the simple word "single".

A single-malt scotch whisky is nothing more than the product of a single distillery. Not the product of a single batch or a single barrel, but a single distillery.

A single-malt Scotch may contain whiskies from many barrels produced at that specific distillery.

A blend might be a blend of different types of whiskey to introduce different colors and flavors. A typical blend is taking a higher-quality single barrel whiskey and mixing it with a less expensive spirit. This helps make a cheaper alcohol.

A single barrel bottle of whisky, however, is what the name implies: whiskey bottled from a single aging barrel. Single barrel whiskey can have more nuances and have different characteristics than blended whiskey.

It gets even more confusing: because there is no standardization or regulation on the precise definition of a "single barrel whiskey", some companies pull from a blend of barrels, and age that in a single barrel in the final step of maturation.

Next; The difference between Scotch, Rye, Bourbon and Irish whiskeys.

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