As part of our Back to Basics series, we’ll start with the fundamental question – What is Whisky? Whisky is a big word. By just saying ‘whisky’ (or whiskey – as we’ll cover soon), there are several things that come to mind. So, what is it? What makes it whisk(e)y? How is it different?
For starters, Whisk(e)y is a distilled spirit. It’s one of the major categories of distilled spirits; the others being Vodka, Rum, Tequila, Gin and Liqueurs/Cordials. Each of those categories has a set of ideas that goes with it, sometimes having to do with where it’s made, or how it’s made, or the ingredients that are used, or the strength that it is (or may be) bottled.
Whisk(e)y has no geographic limits; it can be made anywhere in the world. It is made from cereal grains, and is almost always matured in an oak cask (which, among other things, gives the whisk(e)y its color. If we wrap that all together, we can say that Whisk(e)y is a Brown Spirit Distilled from Grains. Vodka may be made from grains, but is not matured. Rum and Tequila both are often matured, but neither are made from grain.
Another big difference in whisk(e)y is the presence of flavor. Some countries have laws for production about developing flavor, but different than vodka, whisk(e)y has flavor inherent to it. Where that flavor comes from is a question much bigger than the B2B series, but know that there is no single place that you can say ‘why a whisk(e)y tastes that way.’
Geography can play a part in whisk(e)y, and most often that will determine what type of grain is used, how it’s made, and if we have a special name for it.
Living in Seattle, there are a ton of (really good) seafood restaurants. Why? Because Seattle is on the water! There’s easy access to the water and the seafood in it. Similarly, the grain that’s chosen for whisk(e)y is usually based on what’s available local to the distillery. What’s grown in your neighborhood? Corn? Great, let’s make our whisk(e)y from corn. Wheat? We’ll make wheat whisk(e)y, and so on.
Whisky is made using one of 2 distillation systems; batch and continuous, and how they work is pretty obvious from the names. Scotland, Ireland and Japan usually use batch distillation where most of the rest of the world usually uses continuous stills. We’ll talk about stills another time.
Sometimes, when a whisky is made in a certain place using certain laws, we give it a certain name, but the people making it most often just call it whisk(e)y. For example, if you make your whisky in Scotland and mature it for no less than 3 years (along with some other rules), we call it Scotch. Scotch is whisky! Just as every poodle is a dog but not every dog is a poodle, every Scotch is a whisk(e)y but not every whisk(e)y is a Scotch – and when in Scotland, the easiest way to spot the newbie is listening for the guy that calls it ‘scotch’ – to them it’s just whisky.
So there you have it! It’s really that simple. Now, join me for a dram!
About the Author:
The Whisky Guy is an educator, host, blogger and more, having worked in the whisk(e)y industry for over 10 years. He can be reached through the Contact page and you can find out more by visiting the About page. He always supports enjoying whisk(e)y responsibly.