All Whiskeys produced the world over are made up of a trio of fundamental base materials: grain, yeast, and water. On the surface this sounds like the ingredients for baking bread. Or, for that matter, beer. For good reason. Grain, which is sometimes malted, yeast, and water are the constituents of both bread and beer. Maybe that’s why some whiskeys own bread-like, doughy or yeasty aromatic and taste qualities.
But with just three primary ingredients, why is whiskey such a complicated beverage category? That’s the question that can cause the most confusion. The Whiskey category’s wide latitude of types from various regions of the globe are best defined and preserved through the prism of a half-dozen pivotal factors that effect telltale characteristics:
- First, the choice of grain(s), meaning that specific kinds of grains (rye, wheat, corn aka, maize, barley, oats, spelt) create specific varieties of aromas and tastes that are considered germane to certain subcategories. To illustrate, straight Bourbon Whiskey is sweeter than, say, single malt Scotch Whisky because corn contains more sugar in its makeup than barley.
- Second, the management and selection of oak barrels, in terms of barrel variety and the duration of the maturation period. Most distillers will tell you that the period of oak barrel aging and the variety and history of the barrel influence the aroma and taste of whiskey by from 60% to 80%.
- Third, the origin, quality, and preservation of the water source. Yes, water is a key element, in that, even though Whiskeys are fermented first then distilled, water can and does effect the final outcome and is why so many distilleries fiercely protect their water source.
- Fourth, the terroir effect, if any, on the Whiskey, meaning the environmental influence of the Whiskey’s place of origin. This is a controversial point, but there can be a strong case made for certain Whiskeys being directly influenced by the location of the distillery or, more importantly, the aging warehouses.
- Fifth, the variety of distillation utilized, meaning customary, labor-intensive, batch-by-batch pot-still or efficient column still distillation or even a blend of both. This key factor is often misunderstood not only by the drinking public but by beverage tradespeople, as well. One method isn’t better than the other. They merely provide different types of unaged spirit that eventually becomes Whiskey.
- And sixth, the Whiskey production laws and standards of the originating nation op region.
These half-dozen aspects are crucial to each Whiskey type’s underlying personality and degree of quality. The best way to understand the centuries-old universe of Whiskey is to take a tour of the world’s foremost Whiskey making nations. That’s the mission of THE WHISKEY AUTHORITY.
In addition to recognizing the six factors to quality, it’s likewise good to understand a few other fundamental facts. For instance, the word Whiskey is derived from the ancient Gaelic term for “water of life”, uisge beatha (OOSH-kah bayah). Making matters somewhat confusing is how different nations prefer to spell Whiskey. Ireland and the U.S., with some exceptions like Maker’s Mark Bourbon, prefer the employment of the “e” while Canada, Japan, and Scotland drop the “e”. The plurals then become “Whiskeys” for Whiskey and “Whiskies” for Whisky. When referring to the worldwide industry, THE WHISKEY AUTHORITY chooses to use “Whiskey”.
Also, Whiskey is produced in many countries that grow grain. The “Big Five” are the Scotland, United States, Canada, Ireland, and Japan. Other Whiskey-making nations, to lesser degree, include England, France, India, Australia, Taiwan, Belgium, South Africa, and Wales. Then there are the mushrooming “craft” distillers in North America and Europe, who have Whiskey in their small portfolios.
The reality is that imbibers inhabit the best time in history to be a Whiskey lover.