While the production of whiskey is quite complex, it is also a very individual process, with each distillery using their own special techniques. From the exact temperatures used to the shape of the still and casks, each decision imparts on the spirit and how it forms into whiskey. Every country will have their own style of whiskey and their own guidelines and restrictions as to what can be called a whiskey, or whisky, depending on your location.
In terms of the spelling, whiskey and whisky are both correct to use. Originating from uisge-beatha (Scottish) or uisce beatha (Irish), literally translated these mean “water of life”, like the Latin ‘aqua vitae’. In Ireland, and most American distilleries, the word is written as “whiskey”, while Scots drop the ‘e’ and use “whisky”. This was mostly used for marketing purposes, as a point of differentiation, but has no real correlation with taste or method.
Because of the huge variety, it is hard to talk about every type of whiskey in depth, so here were will look at three whiskeys by geographical location: American, Scottish and Irish.
First of all, there are two main types of whiskey, malt and grain whiskey. To label a whiskey “Malt Whiskey” its mash has to consist, depending on the country, primarily or completely of malted barley. If there’s another type of grain added, this is specified most of the time, for instance, rye malt whiskey. If the main ingredient isn’t malted barley, then it’s a “Grain whiskey”. Grain whiskey has a few subcategories, depending on the grain that is mainly used. As with malt whiskey, the regulations of what can and can’t be labelled grain whiskey change depending on the country. Scottish regulations dictate that any whiskey made with grain other than 100% malted barley is a grain whiskey, while according to Irish law it’s whiskey with less than 30% malted barley.
The reason for the Irish percentage is down to the existence of the Irish Pot Still Whiskey, a whiskey made with unmalted grains. This variation came about due to a 1785 tax imposed on malted barley which Irish distillers managed to partially avoid by adding unmalted grains. They didn’t have to pay as much tax and this in turn led to the creation of a new type of whiskey. Pot Still generally has a spicy tang, a style of whiskey unique to Ireland and regarded as the truest expression of Irish whiskey.
While Pot Still can only be produced in Ireland, bourbon must be produced in the USA according to several guidelines. The primary ingredient of bourbon is corn, although the ideas and legal requirements of the exact percentage differ from state to state. Bourbon sold in the USA must be made from at least 51% corn and has to be aged in new oak barrels but there are no regulations as to how long. Bourbon sold in the EU for example must be produced in the USA but can’t be named whiskey if it aged less than three years. Bourbon whiskey was most likely created in Kentucky in the 18th century, which is why many people still think that it can only be produced there.
There are a lot of stories around bourbon and when it was first produced, which makes pinpointing difficult. One suggestion credits the first bourbon to two Kentuckians, Elijah Craig and Jacob Spears, while another theory suggests it is down to a street name, Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Generally, bourbon is a little bit sweeter, although the aging in charred oak barrels gives it a little smokiness too. While bourbon and pot still are both separate types of whiskey, Scotch is, quite simply, whisky produced in Scotland.
So far, we’ve talked about the naming guidelines according to the ingredients, but there is another factor involved – the distillery. When looking at other descriptors on whiskeys, you will most likely have seen the words “single” or “blended”. A Single Malt or Grain Whiskey must have been produced by just one distillery. These whiskeys may be blended from different years and different casks, but the important part is that the whiskey was entirely produced in the same distillery.
If that isn’t the case and if there is a mix of different distilleries, then it is a blended whiskey. The skill to blend different whiskeys so that the taste harmonises is one that is highly regarded, takes years to accomplish and is very hard to learn. A blender has to taste all the hidden notes and know about the best ways to pair them so that the finished product doesn’t lose any aroma.
Single whiskey can have a clearer taste than blended, but apart from whether they came from one or a number of distilleries, there isn’t really any other way to generalise when it comes to taste.
Now that we’ve established the general types of whiskey, we can go a little deeper into understanding whiskey using Grace O’Malley Whiskeys as an example. Our Captain’s Range is divided into three main sections: Irish Grain Whiskey, Irish Single Malt Whiskey and Irish Dark Cask Whiskey.
The Dark Cask Whiskey is a blended whiskey that has been matured in dark oak casks. These have been charred before, giving the whiskey a certain smokiness in taste as the alcohol releases a bit of the taste from the wood and absorbs it. This can also be observed in bourbon.
Our Single Malt Irish Whiskey is made from 100% malted barley – as it should be. We aged the whiskey in different casks that held other spirits such as French Cognac or Italian Amarone which add a special finish. Aging deepens the aroma of whiskey and aging in used casks allows the whiskey to develop a more complex palette, enriching the experience.
Whiskey can also be labelled ‘Cask Strength’. These are whiskeys that have a higher alcohol by volume content as they are less diluted. Generally, cask strength whiskey has about 58-66% alcohol, while whiskey not labelled cask strength is generally has around 40%.
The last type of whiskey in the Grace O’Malley Captains Range is the Grain Whiskey, of which there’s a Cask Strength version and one with an Amarone finish. The finish simply means that the whiskey has been aged in one type of barrel first and gets its finishing touch in different cask. Most often, the first cask was used to mature bourbon (American oak casks) and the second is of different origin, in this instance an Amarone cask.
In terms of the age statement, the minimum age for whiskey in the EU is at least three years, but whiskey can be left to age for longer. The longer a whiskey matures in the wood, the more aromatic notes it takes from that wood. Older whiskeys tend to have a more intense and deeper flavour so the choice then comes down to personal preference on taste.