What is whiskey? That seems to be a question that lots of people ask. They will ask if Bourbon is whiskey or if Rye is whiskey. Lots of people refer only to Scotch whisky as whisky. In Scotland, it is spelled “whisky.” In Ireland and the United States, it is spelled “whiskey.” The difference in spelling is most likely a result in the differences in the Gaelic language in Scotland and Ireland.
Most of us use whiskey as a generic term to refer to a very particular type of spirit. Whiskey can be made from almost any type of grain or blend of grains. The most common grains used are barley, corn and rye. Oats, wheat, buckwheat, quinoa and rice have been used for whiskey. When these grains are cooked, they release their available sugars and carbohydrates, which are then fermented into alcohol. This also is the process used to make beer.
After the fermentation, the liquid is strained and then distilled. Most whiskeys are distilled up to any alcohol content of around 80 percent. That percentage is reduced to around 60 percent before aging.
When whiskey is distilled, care is taken to retain as much of the flavor from the grain as possible. This is very different from the highly rectified distillations for vodka. When whiskey is aged, it is traditionally put up in wooden barrels, stored in outbuildings, barns or caves for a lengthy amount of time. Some whiskeys, traditionally Scotch, start in one type of barrel – usually a used Bourbon barrel – and then are finished in a barrel that was used for sherry or port. Scotch is made exclusively from malted barley. Single malt means whiskey that is made in one distillery from one type of malted barley, not blended with any other type of malted grain.
Different types of barrels and wood are used for aging whiskeys. In this country, we use white American oak for most aging. In other countries, woods like cherry, mulberry or beech can be used for barrel making. The wood used affects the flavor of the final product. All the color of whiskey comes from the wood.
Most whiskey is aged in wood and has a warm caramel color, some darker than others. The type of wood, the charring and the time in the barrel will all affect the color. More and more often there is unaged, or white, whiskey coming to the market. These whiskeys can be referred to as “white dog” or “moonshine.” These whiskeys are bottled right out of the still and will tend to have a harsher, less mellow flavor than aged whiskeys.
Bourbon, Rye, Scotch, Canadian, Irish are all whiskey. The grain used varies from corn in Bourbon, barley in Scotch and Irish, and rye grain in Canadian and Rye whiskey. Bourbon is aged in new American oak with a heavy char and most other whiskeys can be aged in barrels that were previously used for other products. Some distillers are using various wine barrels, especially cabernet and dessert wines, to impart distinctive flavors into their whiskeys.
All that really matters is how it tastes to you. Belly up to the bar and try some local Arizona whiskeys. QCBN
By Dana Murdock
Dana Murdock is a distiller with a passion for local gin and president of Thumb Butte Distillery. Come into the tasting room on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Enjoy tastings, tours and live local music. To schedule tours/tasting, contact Dana at firstname.lastname@example.org.