Facts about Whisky

Darcy O'Neil

Darcy O'Neil is a bartender with a formal education in chemistry. He currently works as a bartender in London, Ontario and spends his time writing about his mixology and bartending experiences.

When discussing whisky the first thing that needs to be know is that there are two legitimate spellings. The Scots and Canadians spell whisky without the “e”, while the Irish and Americans spell it with an “e” as in whiskey. This should be the first indication that the world of whisky is a very complicated one and has many regional differences in taste and production. This is part of what makes whisky such an interesting and enjoyable spirit.

Historically it is believed that the Irish were the first to make whiskey, however the Scotts have also laid claim to being the first whisky producers. The Irish used the term “uisce beatha” ("Water of Life" in Gaelic) to describe whiskey, so it must have been important.

Both the Scottish and Irish make whiskey the same way, except for the malting and distillation process. In Scotland the malted barley is roasted over open peat fires to dry, this results in the grain picking up the peat flavour. In Ireland, the malted barely is dried in closed ovens, and is never exposed to the smoke. The process of mashing and fermentation is much the same for both countries. In the distillation step, the Irish, most of the time, distill their product three times, which results in a very pure distillate which makes Irish whiskey exceptionally smooth. The Scottish distill their product twice and this results in more flavour in the spirit.

In North America there is Canadian whisky and American whiskey, which has a number of regional classifications including Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Each product in North America is unique and is regulated by the government. Canadian whisky is the number one imported spirit into the United States and is second in consumption only to vodka.

American whiskey has a number of regulation depending on the definition of the product. Bourbon must be made from fermented mash of not less than 51% corn, rye, wheat, malted barely or malted rye grain. It cannot be distilled at a proof higher than 160 and must be stored in new oak barrels at a proof of 125 or less. Blended American whiskey must be made from at least 20% whiskey aged two or more years with the remainder made from unaged neutral grain spirit. American corn whiskey must be made from a minimum mash of 80% corn. Tennessee whiskey follows the same regulations as Bourbon, but is charcoal filtered (Lincoln County Process), so it does not qualify as a bourbon.

Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years, but for the most part the Canadian government allows the expertise of the distiller to define the characteristics of the final product so there are no limits on distillation proof or barrel requirements. Any Canadian whisky that is aged for less than four years must have the age listed on the bottle. Most Canadian whisky is aged for six or more years. Canadian whisky is generally a blended spirit. The term “blended” means that the final product is made from a number different types of distilled product. For example, a Canadian whisky may be composed of corn, barely, wheat and rye distillates that have been aged in selected used or new oak barrels. Some Canadian producers put all of the grains in one vat and ferment them as a whole and pre-blend and age the distillate. Other producers ferment each grain individually and age each distillate separately and then blend a final product from a mixture of spirits. Most Canadian whisky is distilled twice.

This article has only scratched the surface of the whisk(e)y world. There are many regional characteristics of whisky and many other counties are producing this fine spirit. It would take a lifetime to explore the complete world of whisky, but it would be a worthy attempt.

You can read more about Darcy on his bartending, spirits and mixology site.

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  • Jessica says
    That is interesting both the Irish and the Scots claim to be the first to have invented whiskey :)
  • m says
    Both the Scots and the Irish are interesting, after having drunk enough whiskey.
  • Steven says
    Interesting fact - A drunk old man walking home once had trouble getting back into his own house after he spent a long night out drinking heavily at his local pub. When he couldn't find a way to get in to his house he started to shout out loudly in a frustrated manner - "Whis.....Key?" (Where's Key?)

    True story....... Hahahaha
  • New Member says
    Sheepdip Whiskey is a blend of over 10 single malts
  • It only takes 3 glasses of whiskey to get me dancing!!
  • anna says
    i was told something interesting about spirits. apparently you are not to try and connect or do tarot card readings when you are under the influence. it could attract bad spirits...
  • New Member says
    Proof" on a bottle of liquor represents half the percent of alcohol contained in the bottle. Proof equals twice the percent of alcohol. For example, 90 proof whiskey is 45% alcohol.

  • nickpow says
    World's Most Expensive Whiskies

    Most Expensive Whisky Ever

    The Macallan Fine and Rare Collection, 1926, 60 Years Old

    Price: $38,000

    The oldest and most sought-after of Macallan's revolutionary Fine & Rare Collection is now sold out. It is still possible to taste this totally unique Scotch whisky at the Old Homestead Steakhouse in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J. However, it sells for a nosebleed-inducing $3,300 per dram, so you had better have had a good run at the craps table.

  • Richard says
    Loved the article, Darcy.

    I've been a whisky fan for about fifteen years now and some time ago enrolled in a tasting course to try to refine my whisky palate. Even did a pilgrimage to Scottish Highlands and visited as many of the distilleries that I could! Anyway my favourite part, apart from drinking it of course, is learning more about historical figures that are associated with whisky. Winston Churchill, as a lot of people know was an avid (some may excessive) drinker and he was well known to drink before writing or delivering speeches. The best quote I ever heard from him was "Haven't you learned yet that I put something more than whisky into my speeches."

    The other great 'fact' I recently learnt about him was on his last flight as Prime Minister in 1954, he 'amended' the BOAC in-flight menu to include "2nd Tray. Grapefruit, Sugar Bowl, Glass orange squash (ice), Whisky soda." He then adds: "Wash hands, cigar."!

    The re-written menu can be found on-line as the steward of the flight had the foresight to keep it all these years.

    Thanks again for the article and look forward to learning more about Whisky.
  • Owen says
    Penderyn Distillery is situated in Brecon Beacons National Park and first produced whisky in 2000. It is considered the smallest distillery in the world.

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