Introduction to Whisk(e)yT
he History of Whiskey
Although distillation is thousands of years old, the origination of whiskey itself is associated primarily with Ireland and Scotland. The wild tribes and later peasant farmers were responsible for learning the distillation process and using it to turn fermented corn, barley and wheat into whiskey. Rye was not a consideration for whiskey production until much later, but has since become one of the many different grains used to make this alcoholic spirit.
As the Irish and Scots migrated into America, they brought with them the knowledge of this beverage production. When distillers learned that aging the product made the burning sensation less rough and the drink smoother and easier to consume, they began storing batches in old wine barrels.
Centuries later, during the Prohibition Era, whiskey was the most easily made alcoholic beverage because small batch stills could be built from common parts and hidden from the view of law enforcement. Most “moonshiners” and “bootleggers” would work all night making batches of whiskey, moonshine and bathtub gin to sell to hidden “gin joints” and “hooch parlors.” The backwoods stills themselves were outlawed until the prohibition act was repealed, and even having a whiskey still after that meant you had to have a license to operate it.
As whiskey production became major business in the latter half of the 20th century, distilleries like Jim Bean and Wild Turkey took to making their whiskey recipes in enormous batches in vats the size of two-story houses. Along with their production houses, these whiskey producers build enormous barrel storage and aging houses. All batches of whiskey made is now stored in blanched and/or fire-roasted oak barrels to infuse the whiskey with a smoky flavor while allowing some of the fiery burn to fizzle out. This creates the very “smooth” drink that whiskey lovers imbibe and enjoy, one slow sip at a time.
The Production of Whiskey
Whiskey, when produced in large, regulated batches, consists of placing one or more types of grain in a vat of water. The water/grain mixture is heated and cooled several times to encourage the fermentation process. The vats also stir the grain and water mixture to aerate it just enough to pull in needed bacteria from the air for the fermentation.
At one point, sugar is added, which encourages fermentation but also gives the drink a light, sweet flavor. Some companies will use straight brown sugar, while others will first add white sugar, and then later add a hint of molasses to highlight the smokiness of the aged whiskey. Some whiskey companies may use more than one method of flavoring and fermenting their whiskey varieties, but the best method of all is aging.
Like fine wine, whiskey should not be rushed. You could turn out a batch of rough whiskey in under a week, but it’s closer to moonshine at this point than it is whiskey. Aging it in barrels is what gives the whiskey its more refined and much-sought-after flavor and texture (plus, you are less likely to go blind drinking strained and aged whiskey than drinking “new whiskey” or moonshine!).
Types of Whiskey Made
There are all manners of whiskey made. For anyone new to this spirit, you can get quite dizzy just trying to figure out which is which (never mind getting dizzy drinking too much of it!). The following types of whiskey, and a brief description on how they are typically made, will help.
The Scots have a long-held tradition of making their whisky (notice the spelling?) from barley and/or wheat. They often use a caramelization process somewhere in the production of their whisky that gives it a burnt, sweet flavor that makes it so popular. A well-aged bottle of Scotch whisky, say about fifty to one hundred years old, is extremely valuable to collectors and highly-prized for its well-aged flavor and smoothness.
The Irish, depending on the wealth of those involved in the whiskey-making process, used everything from potatoes (poor Irishman’s whiskey) to barley (rich Irishman’s whiskey). You will still find that true in most of the Irish whiskey produced. Regardless of the grain or vegetable used, the mashes in Irish whiskey are lighter and less heavy than Scotch whisky, giving the Irish whiskey a lighter color. You may also find that Irish whiskey is “heavier proof” giving way to a faster drunk experience. This is because it spends less time in aging and more time in fermentation and distillation.
When whiskey production began in the U.S., corn was the most available and abundant grain. For that reason, corn mash was used in place of the grains and grain mashes more commonly found in Europe. Southern whiskey developed out of the back hills stills, creating a powerful but smooth and sweet whiskey that was imbibed slowly on the porch at night. If corn was not available, the Southerners used rye, another grain commonly grown in this region of the U.S. and more frequently used in the production of beer.
Whiskey by Grain Mash Types
Whiskey can be made from all of the following grains and grain mashes. As long as it is organic and easily fermentable, you can turn it into whiskey.
- Corn and corn mash, which is the easiest and quickest to make. Most “table-quality” whiskeys are corn/corn mash, but there are some top-shelf whiskeys made with corn too.
- Rye and rye mash, which requires more patience to ferment, but is the second most common type of whiskey grain and grain mash.
- Barley and barley mash, which is less common with U.S. whiskey production and more common with foreign and imported whiskeys. If barley and barley mash are used in the U.S. production, it is often combined with rye and rye mash to give it a little extra flavor because barley tends to be a little flat.
- Wheat or potatoes and their related mashes are the least common, but they can be made into mashes that ferment nicely. Companies that use either of these have to make sure that the “eyes” of potatoes and the potential toxins found in wheat sheaves and husks do not make it into the whiskey otherwise it has to be purified.
Now that you know a little more about whiskey (or whisky), try sampling some. Come in and talk with us about whiskey (one of our favorite subjects) and we’ll walk you through an introductory tasting. Whiskey flights are one of the best ways to sample different types and the bartenders here love putting them together!