The world of whiskey is so diverse and intoxicating that even trying to discover or explore it can seem daunting and even daunting. I will try here to cover some bases that will help you get started on the right path, or at least understand a little better this universe that seems for some to be a colossal impenetrability.
For many people, when we think of whiskey, we immediately think Jack Daniel's and cowboys, or Canadian Club and mustache provided. Although these expressions of whiskey are not bad in themselves, there is a world that is infinitely complex and attractive to discover if one only takes the trouble to go a little further.
Whiskey, what is it?
Whiskey is a spirits created mainly by distillation of cereals, as well as vodka and potatoes, as well as rum and molasses. Although different divisions and denominations apply depending on the cereal, whether barley, corn, sègle, etc ... it remains the basis of whiskey.
The Old Bushmills Distillery is estimated to be the first to obtain a distillation license, there is more than 400 years, and the distillation process has not changed much since. Still today, the only ingredients needed to make whiskey are cereals, water and yeast.
We arrive at the time of the joint course of history and etymology. Whiskey is an English word that comes from uisce in Irish Gaelic or uisge in Gaelic of Scotland, which explains that still today both countries claim the invention and the origin of which means calvados once translated.
Some experts say that historically Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey, but it is hard to dispute today that Scotland is the biggest ambassador. From one thing to another, the beverage spread to the rest of Europe, America, China, Japan and the world. Whiskey in general is currently consumed in more than 200 countries, making it the most drunk liquor in the world.
Several cereals can enter the whiskey industry. The most common, and the main one used in Scotland is malted barley. The latter is used in Ireland too, but it is often mixed with other cereals because at the dawn of whiskey Ireland was much poorer than Scotland and barley was rather expensive. As for the Americans, in an impetus of freedom, they began their exploration of whiskey in the past with corn, and although other cereals are used, we still feel the solid character in the bourbons of today. Rye whiskey is more typically Canadian. All the answers are good, there is even rice whiskey in Laos for 75 ¢ the bottle! I've never seen one before, but I would not be surprised to see a 12-grain whiskey one day, just for fulfillment.
Although there are variations from one distillery to another, the five main stages of whiskey production remain the same, to the nearest extent: malting, brewing, fermentation, distillation and ripening. Below I am going to suck you a little in each of them.
To obtain alcohol from barley, it is necessary to extract the starch to transform it into soluble sugars. To do this, the cereal is soaked in warm water for a few days and then spread on the ground of what is called a malting house, in order to germinate it.
Once germinated, the seeds must be dried to slow the germination process at the right time. This is done in an oven, and it is here that the magic begins, in the form of the type of fuel used, which alone can greatly influence the character of the final product. These fuels range from peat from Islay to Texas oak chips, lowland hot air, and more.
It is at this moment that, like the butterfly following its metamorphosis, barley is called "malt" or "malted barley". We remove all debris and bits of husk from the grain and grind the rest in a mill provided for this purpose.
We call the malt flour obtained previously the grist. It is added to water and the mixture is stirred to extract the sugars. The water usually comes from a natural spring located near the distillery, which ensures a diversity due to the geography of each of them. The resulting mixture is called the mash, or “brassin” in French. It is brewed for a few hours at increasingly hot temperatures in order to dissolve the sugars as much as possible. The liquid part is harvested for fermentation, while the remaining solid part is made into feed for cattle. We cannot say that the whiskey industry is not a green industry ...
It's starting to be interesting. The liquid portion of the brew, now called the wort, is ready to be fermented. Yeast is added to turn the sugars into alcohol. At this point, the liquid still changes name for the wash, and its alcohol level is around five to ten percent.
We could very well decide to make beer at this point, but since we like to live dangerously and we do not have the MAPAQ in the ass, instead of brewing the liquid, we will distil it.
The wash goes into a first still called the wash still, where water and alcohol are separated. The alcohol vapor is recovered and is sent in the second still, smaller in general, the spirit still, to repeat the process. When the latter is emptied, we throw the first third, the head of wine, for its destructive rate of about 80% alcohol and its impurities. The last third, called the distillation tail, is either redistilled or sold to third-party companies that make them blends.
What interests us and is recovered for the sacrosanct single malt is the middle third, the heart of heating. This spirit is called new spirit or new makeit is colorless and knocks at a level between 68% and 72% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to taste some, which they also call White Dog. The following video describes the experience well.
The last step is the one that is to the credit of its craftsmen, it is the moment where the man must be patient, aging. The different barrels used, new oak, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, etc., refine the aroma and coloring of the new make for a minimum of three years (except in the United States, where aging is obligatory, but where the duration does not does not matter) to earn the right to be called whiskeybut we do not bother to let it age ten, twelve, year old and more ...
The influence of wood should never be underestimated. Its porous properties also ensure that what is around the distillery, such as the salt air of the sea or the peaks of India for example, affect the taste and the final aroma of whiskey.
This magnificent time ballet reminds me of these sweet words of Jean-Claude Van Damme:
I love peanuts. You drink a beer and you're sick of taste. So you eat peanuts. Peanuts are sweet and salty, strong and tender, like a woman. Eat peanuts, it's a really strong feeling. And then you want to drink beer again. Peanuts is the perpetual movement within the reach of man.
Types of whiskey
By reading the bottles on the shelves, one is entitled to ask questions such as: What is the difference between a blend and a single malt? Well, that's where the answer lies ...
Single Malt Whiskey
Single malt whiskey is the most praised type of whiskey in the world. It is made exclusively of malted barley and exclusively also whiskey from the same distillery. Some will carry an age statement and some will not. If there is one, know that the rule is that only the minimum age will be indicated. If it is written 12 years, and well no whiskey younger than 12 years has entered its composition. Older ones can be there though, oh yes ...
As long as a second distillery is involved, we are talking about a blended whiskey, that is to say a mixed whiskey. This is not the result of cronyism between distilleries, but of independent bottlers who buy whiskeys here and there to create truly unique malts. Is it better than a single malt? This is of course a matter of taste. If a blend carries an age statement, the rule is the same as for single malts.
A whiskey grain means what it means, a grain whiskey. It can be a single grain, like corn or rye, or it can be an assembly of several grains as in bourbons. There is not much to add, the variety of grain whiskeys being so great. The only thing to remember is that if it is made from cereals and it has aged in casks, it is a whiskey.
Whiskey in the world
I will take another break here to quote Cardinal Léger who often asks me like many others:
But what's the difference between scotch and whiskey?
It's simple, by popularizing thoroughly I would say that the Scotch whiskey is what champagne is sparkling wine. It can be said that all Scotches are whiskeys but that not all whiskeys are necessarily Scotch whiskeys. To qualify as Scotch Whiskey, a whiskey must have been distilled and aged for at least three years in Scottish territory.
Several other countries have their own regulations for whiskey denominations. In the United States, they put an "e" in the word and write it whiskey. To be called a bourbon, an American whiskey must be composed of between 51% and 79% corn. Higher than that we must say a corn whiskey.
Although it is very close to its Scottish parent, Irish whiskey is also spelled with an "e". It was probably the Irish immigrants who brought the “e” with them to the United States at the dawn of American whiskey.
Rye grain is often used in some mash billsbut it is more often characteristic of Canadian whiskeys, also known as rye whiskeys.
Japan, fond of imitating foreign cultures, was one of the first to want to copy Scottish single malts, and although the recognition of his talent came rather late, his whiskeys now enjoy a worldwide reputation.
Other countries where whiskey is not so typical have stood out with excellent products, I think among others to Sweden and India. Not to mention the artisan distilleries such as Balcones in Texas and Glann ar Mor in Brittany.
Regions of Scotland
In my tasting notes, like many others, I divide Scottish whiskeys by region. Here is a small map to enlighten you, followed by some examples of distilleries by region.
Campbeltown Glen Scotia, Springbank.
Highlands Dalmore, Glen Garioch, Glenmorangie.
Islands: Highland Park, Jura, Talisker.
Islay: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Laphroaig.
Lowlands Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie.
Speyside Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan.
I hope that this more or less brief introduction will give you the taste to go further. Go get books, bottles, put the web to fire and blood to quench your thirst ...