Whiskey Or Whisky: That is the Question
But spelling is only the first of many questions the novice whisk(e)y novice must contemplate. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Whisk(e)y is then typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak. It is this variety of grain and barrel aging that give each whisk(e)y its unique flavor.
The word "whiskey" is an Anglicisation of the first word in the Gaelic phrase, uisce beatha, meaning "water of life."
There are many types of whisk(e)y, and they vary by country and region. Here are the biggies.
- 1. Bourbon
- Must be made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey, a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. The name is derived from the French Bourbon dynasty, although it is unclear precisely what inspired the whiskey's name (contenders include Bourbon County in Kentucky and Bourbon Street in New Orleans). Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century.1
- 2. Corn
- Must be made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn and is not aged, or, if aged, is aged in uncharred or used barrels.
- 3. Malt
- Must be made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley.
- 4. Rye
- Must be made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye.
- 5. Wheat
- Must be made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat.
- 6. Tennessee
- Must be made from mash that consists of corn, rye, and malted barley.
- 7. Canadian
- By Canadian law, Canadian whiskies must be produced and aged in Canada, be distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grain, be aged in wood barrels with a capacity limit of 700 litres for not less than three years, and “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.”2
- 8. Japanese
- A newcomer to the group, Japanese whisky is quickly rising in popularity among connoisseurs. Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country’s first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than other major styles of whisky. There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin.
- 9. Irish
- Irish whiskey must be distilled on the island of Ireland (comprising the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) from a mash of malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals and which has been: saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes; fermented by the action of yeast; distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% alcohol by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the materials used; subject to the maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks, such as oak, not exceeding 700 litres capacity. The distillate, to which only water and plain caramel coloring may be added, retains its color, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to above. Irish whiskey is to have a minimum alcohol by volume content of 40%. Individual technical specifications for the three varieties of Irish whiskey, “single pot still,” “single malt,” “single grain,” and “blended” whiskey (a mix of these two or more of these varieties) are also outlined in the technical file. The use of the term “single” in the aforementioned varieties being permissible only if the whiskey is totally distilled on the site of a single distillery.3
- 10. Scotch
- And now we come to Scotch. Professor R. J. S. McDowall, the great authority on Scotch whisky, wrote that whiskies, “are almost as numerous and varied as the wines of France,” and the more one explores the truer his remark proves to be. Yet all Scotch has one thing in common--it goes badly with anything but water and more of itself, in short it is a bad mixer.4
As of 23 November 2009, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 define and regulate the production, labelling, packaging as well as the advertising of Scotch whisky in the United Kingdom. They replace previous regulations that focused solely on production. International trade agreements have the effect of making some provisions of the SWR apply in various other countries as well as in the UK. The SWR define “Scotch whisky” as whisky that is: produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been: processed at that distillery into a mash; converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems; fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast; distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8%; wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres for at least three years; retaining the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation; containing no added substances, other than water and plain caramel coloring; and comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof).
A Few Notes on Glassware
Just like the right glass will enhance a fine wine, the right whisk(e)y glass will enhance a fine spirit.
- 1. The tulip-shaped glass
- Based on the copita glass, the traditional Spanish drinking vessel used to sample sherry, this glass has become the choice of master distillers, blenders and true connoisseurs of whisky the world over. It was once named the ‘dock’ glass on account of its use by merchants who used it to nose wines and spirits at docksides. Its long stem prevents the drinker’s hand (and its polluting smells) from coming too close to the nose, while its bowl shape concentrates aromas through the slightly narrowed rim. The glass can be easily cradled so the spirit can be warmed if desired. Overall, this is a glass suited to the true appreciation of the nuances of single malt whisky.
- 2. The Glencairn
- Similar in shape to the tulip-shaped glass, the Glencairn is considered a more robust vessel, although one equally suited to appreciation. Its short, solid base makes for a stable glass popular amongst those who don’t favor stems, and it’s often made of slightly thicker glass, meaning it’s more substantial for convivial drinking. Due to its size, the Glencairn is the perfect glass for learning how to swirl whisky too, a practice commonly used to open up the aromas of whisky for full appreciation. Again, a bowl-shape channels aromas towards a narrowed rim. This one’s the modern, less ‘showy’ relative of the tulip-shaped glass, and one solely dedicated to whisky.
- 3. The tumbler (aka the rocks glass, the old fashioned glass, the lowball)
- The most common of all whisky glasses. Due to its wide rim, the tumbler isn’t ideal for nosing, but it doesn’t need to be – this one’s for filling with ice and a whisky of your choosing, or for serving up any number of classic cocktails. Its wide and robust base makes it ideal for ‘muddling’ cocktail ingredients, while its plain design lets simple drinks speak for themselves. A timeless glass, and a must have for any whisky fan open to the entire spectrum of the spirit’s enjoyment.
- 4. The highball
- The taller brother of the tumbler and the glass associated with one of the most revered but simple whisky cocktails in the world: the Scotch and soda. It allows for plenty of ice, spirit and mixer, making for a long and relaxing drink. Today the highball is equally popular amongst fans of other simple whisky serves such as whisky and ginger ale or whisky and lemonade. It’s especially favored in Japan. Shape doesn’t really matter with the highball, but it wouldn’t do to serve a Scotch and soda in a dimpled pint glass.
- 5. The snifter (aka the balloon, the brandy bowl, the cognac glass)
- A glass firmly rooted in the gentlemen’s club, this one oozes class – think whisky and cigars in the smoking room after dinner. Commonly used for brandy, it’s now very much a glass for the consumption of dark, aged spirits in general. They’re often designed so that, when held partially horizontal, the spirit doesn’t spill out. But all these opulent associations don’t necessarily make for a superior drinking vessel – the snifter’s extravagantly wide body and tight rim can encourage the release of harsh ethanol vapors, overpowering other aromas.5
If this piece has whetted your appetite to find out more about whisk(e)y, then I recommend you check out Whisky Advocate magazine. It comes out in print quarterly and is available online at whiskyadvocate.com. The magazine covers a broad range of topics and goes in depth with articles such as: “Top 10 Whiskies from the Fall 2017 Buying Guide,” “Here’s Exactly How Much Water to Put in Your Whisky,” “5 Whisky Glasses That Won’t Break,” and a searchable database of over 35,000 whisky ratings. Sláinte.
1 Kiniry, Laura. "Where Bourbon Really Got Its Name and More Tips on America's Native Spirit.”
2 Canadian Food and Drug Regulations (C.R.C., c. 870) - Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky
3 Technical file setting out the specifications with which Irish whiskey / Uisce Beatha Eireannach / Irish Whisky must comply
4 Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking, Bloomsbury USA, NY, 2008, p. 231.