A Short History of Whisky

Originally created as a way to use up rain-soaked barley, today it is generally accepted that monks from Fife brought about the distillation process of Scottish whisky during the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Originally called acqua vitae, the Latin for ‘water of life’, the first official recording dates back to 1494, when Lindores Abbey and Friar John Cor were granted the king’s commission to distil the now world-renowned Scotch whisky. It should be noted that Scotch-inspired liquors and whisky are spelt without an ‘e’, whilst Irish and American brands are generally spelt ‘whiskey’.

A Barrel of Joy

The name ‘whisky’ is of Celtic origin, and indeed its distillation originated in both Scotland and Ireland – but what makes whisky so special and adored by connoisseurs worldwide? Perhaps it’s the ingredients or the type of barrel and length of time it takes to age. Maybe it’s the distinctive flavour brought about by the fermentation process of the mashed grain, which can include wheat, corn, barley and rye. The oak barrel is perfect for the essential ageing process, as it helps to both mature and enrich the flavour. An unopened bottle of whiskey can remain good to drink for up to 100 years, although once opened, five years is the recommended use by date. However, many whisky connoisseurs say that it continues to mellow and improve the longer it’s kept.

Whisky and Smugglers

Originally, heavy taxes were added to both the whisky and the malts, leading to much underground black market selling and drinking. The British government soon got wise to this and, in 1823, they passed a special Excise Act which sanctioned the distillation of the spirit for 10 British Pounds, together with a payment for each gallon produced; this, almost immediately, finished the smuggling trade. By 1831, distillers started to use grain instead of malt, which led to a much wider appreciation of the now, more mellow, less intense flavour. Today, whisky is considered a leading drink and is enjoyed in over 200 countries.

Variations on a Theme

Whisky has advanced and improved with time and there are now three different types – malt, grain and blended; Scotch whisky continues to be considered the finest in the world. The main difference is the ingredients, with malt whiskey being made from malted barley, yeast and water. The distillation process includes the liquid being steeped in large copper pot stills, then transferred into barrels, where it is left to age for at least three years. Grain whiskey is a mix of malted and unmalted cereals, which are then combined with yeast and water. This mix is then distilled is a Coffey, (a tall patented still), which then produces spirit of a much higher strength. Blended whiskey is a complicated process involving the mixing of as many as 15 to 20 different single malts with grain whiskey, the recipes of which are kept a closely guarded secret. Well-known brands include Famous Grouse, Dewars, Bells and Johnnie Walker.

North American and Canadian Whiskey

It is no surprise that Americans also love whiskey, however, it took them until the late 18th century to produce it. Nowadays, 99 percent of all their whiskey is made at 13 distilleries, with strict production rules. It must be no more than 62.5 percent ABV, (125 proof), before being placed into the barrels for ageing. The end result must be no less than 40 percent alcohol or 80 proof, once it is ready for bottling. As with UK whisky, American and Canadian ones are classified by the type of grain, the method and the length of the ageing process. Famous types include Bourbon, Tennessee and blended – not to be confused with Moonshine, which is made from corn and sugar. Canadian whisky’s don’t have such severe regulations – hence the delicious Pike Creek Port Barrel Finish Canadian Whisky.

 

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