Gents, I’m going to make the assumption that you are here for one of two reasons;
You’re a seasoned whisky drinker keen to lap up all there is to know about the good stuff. Or, you’re a curious newbie, just starting down the long path of whisky discovery and have a few questions that you need answering.
Either way, welcome – you’re in the right place.
Pour yourself a dram, put your feet up, and settle into Whisky + Tailor’s ultimate guide to Whisky… or Whiskey… hang-on, I’ll clear that up in a second.
The History of Whisky: Who poured the first dram?
It’s hotly contested, but the first mention of whiskey is found in Ireland in 1405 and then later in Scotland in 1494. These dates were found in the old tax records of English royalty importing their favourite whiskies – so we can assume that local small batch production actually started years before.
Knowledge of distilling alcohol likely came to the British Isles via Christian missionaries returning from Asia and the Middle East, as early as 12 Century. Originally alcohol was used by apothecaries and monks for its medicinal qualities and was referred to as aqua vitae or ‘water of life’ in historical documents.
People believed that whisky was a magical elixir, that had healing properties – it could clean wounds, numb pain, and act as liquid courage. In fact, whisky has a whole host of modern health benefits.
It’s thought that whisky was first produced by distilling barley beer – a popular drink among farmers at the time. Whisky production grew from there, dominated largely by monks until King Henry VIII of England disbanded the monasteries in the 1540’s and the monks moved to become regular members of society.
Tough Regulation, Taxation & Prohibition
As distillation methods matured and the quality of whiskies improved, so did the attention of regulators. In 1608 the first legal licence to distil whisky was handed to Old Bushmills distillery in Ireland, making them the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world.
In the years since, whisky production has had a colourful history, with the legality and taxation of alcohol changing many times. As you can imagine this lead to a huge growth in underground distilling, bootlegging and production of moonshine.
Regulation reached its peak between 1910 and 1933 during prohibition, when alcohol production was banned – save for a few strict medicinal purposes. This decimated Irish production as the United States was their primary export market and forced many distilleries to close.
Post-prohibition whisky flourished, with a rise in whisky production all around the world. However this was true for alcohol in general and in the 80’s and 90’s popularity and demand slowed, causing many major distilleries to reduce the amount of whisky they were barrelling.
A Whisky Renaissance (and shortage)
In recent years, possibly due to the rise of men’s lifestyle publications across print and online, whisky has garnered a lot of interest. Demand for whisky has skyrocketed and this has created a shortfall in stock around the world caused by the slowed production in the 90’s.
Think about it… Whiskies that would have been bottled for sale now would have been barrelled 12-18 years ago, right when whisky production was at its very lowest in decades. With demand currently at record heights, distilleries are scrambling to produce whisky.
… Their solution? Younger, ‘no age statement’ whiskies, but we will touch on that later.
What is exactly is whisky?
Simply put; Whisky is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash.
Although this is a strict rule, the loose categorisation of ‘grain’ gives distillers a lot of room to move. So when it comes to specific ingredients and production methods we get to see a lot of flavour variation develop between expressions as distillers tweak their recipes.
That being said, many distillers use common grains in their mash recipe, (wheat, barley, rye, and corn), with the other major ingredient being water. In fact the word ‘whisky’ literally comes from the Gaelic (and Latin) word for ‘water’.
That’s right back in the day some Irish monk said to his mate;
“Shit… this is bloody good…
should we share with those guys over there…
nope… we’ve only got the one barrel…
let’s just tell em’ it’s full of water.”
I can only imagine that those two guys ended up having a few too many drams and didn’t keep it to themselves for too long… I’m sure that’s how it all went down.
… & how do they make it?
Thankfully each distillery produces whisky in a slightly different way giving us a seemingly endless supply of delicious expressions to choose from.
In fact, a lot of distillers choose to use local grains and water in their whiskies – I’ll cover some of these variations in a future update to this post.
But generally speaking, whisky production follows the same base steps: (prepare for some whisky jargon)
A grain such as barley is soaked in water for up to 3 days in a large tank called a steep. The barley is then spread over a large malting floor and left to dry over the period of a week. Activating starches that are essential to creating the sugars used to create alcohol during fermentation.
These grains are turned a number of times over this period to control the temperature and speed at which the grains germinate.
The dried malt is then ground and soaked further in a mash tun are then ground into grist. The grist is then soaked in warm water in a large cylinder called a mash tun with the soluble starches being drawn out of the grains creating a sugary liquid called wort.
The wort is strained of solid material and drained into huge vessels capable of holding thousands of litres. Living yeast is added to attack the sugars over a period of 48hrs and convert them into a crude alcohol called wash.
The wash is transferred in batches to large copper pot stills for distillation.
The liquid is heated until the alcohol turns into vapour and rises into pipes above the still where it is cooled and condensed back into liquid form.
The distillation process generally happens 2 or 3 times to produce an increasingly refined spirit called new make spirit which ends up being clear in colour.
The new spirit is then aged in oak barrels which depending on the temperature in the storeroom, expand and contract seasonally – drawing the whisky into the wood in the process, giving the originally clear new spirit its colour and much of its flavour.
This process takes a minimum of 3 years before the spirit can be called whisky, however, the majority of barrels are stored far longer as the spirit becomes smoother and more palatable the longer it stays within the casks.
Even though the new spirit may be produced in exactly the same way year after year, the flavour can change drastically each year or even between individual barrels.
To produce a consistent flavour between bottles, distiller’s blend liquid from different barrels, years and even distilleries to create a consistent and reliable flavour for drinkers.
This blending process is what separates spirits and denotes their name – I’ll cover this in depth in the next update to this post.