USKE BEATHE (pronounced oo-skee-bee). No that’s not the name for a Nordic Band, although it might be… you check. No, it is in fact the first recorded name for whisky. Long ago, before modern whisky with its caramel hue, we had Aqua Vitae, the water of life. It was a colourless distilled concoction sold by mountebanks and priests as a cure for everything. As far as the Greek civilisation under Alexander the Great, one can find mentions of a beverage made by distilling fermented barley and water (primitive Beer). From there on, over the centuries, we can find Catholic Monks used it to treat Colic and smallpox… Unfortunately if you tried to administer it to children today, you should be prepared to have a visit from your local Justice system.
The first mention of the word in text was by the Guild of Surgeon Barbers (no not those barbers, but rather surgeons of the church) in Ireland in 1406. That’s right, the birth of modern whisky was not in Scotland but in Ireland. It wasn’t however until the late 1500’s that the colourless liquid from distillation (which tasted more like modern vodka) was put inside barrels and aged (probably an accidental discovery from leaving it in the barrels for too long). It wasn’t till 1608 however, that the guild of surgeon barbers abandoned its monopoly on the trade and opened the first commercial distillery, i.e. Bush mills Distillery, in Northern Ireland. But it wouldn’t be until the Union Jack taxed whisky so high in 1707, that Scottish whisky stills would pop up all over the country, Illicit Stills that is.So once the taxes were abolished Scotland had a ripe history and mastery over modern Whisky making.
But today, Scotland is but one of the many countries where world class whisky is made. From Canada to Japan and America to even India fine whisky is no longer defined by the word Scotch. BUT,
Q.) HOW IS WHISKY MADE ?
Whisky as it stands is traditionally made from grains, usually Malted Barley. Barley when sprouted (malted), releases sugar and when mashed and boiled with water, is left to ferment with some yeast producing alcohol (aprox 10% ABV), before being strained. This alcoholic sugar water is then distilled producing a more concentrated and chemically pure liquid (40-50% ABV). The colourless liquid which does have a malt like quality, is then aged in oak casks (In Scotland these are almost exclusively reused casks – which previously housed sherry, port, other wine & most popularly Bourbon). The Ageing mellows the flavour while giving the whisky its caramel colour.
*ABV – Alcohol By Volume, a percentage of total alcohol in the drink. The american equivalent is “Proof”, which is double the ABV in numericals. Meaning 40% alcohol by volume = 80 US Proof.
** Keep in mind INDIAN WHISKY BRAND – ROYAL CHALLENGER for instance are NOT WHISKY, they are made from MOLASSES. Whisky by definition is an aged grain based spirit.
*** IMFL (Indian Manufactured Foreign Liquor) and IBBI (International Brands Bottled in India) are a somewhat absurd concept that most countries wouldn’t accept. This being when non domestic types of alcohol (fenni, tody) is produced in the country [IMFL]. Or worse still when foreign companies produce their liquor here [IBBI]. Either way much like the previous point, one can see from research that IMFL is more often than not completely molasses based and IBBI having some part of molasses. Eg: IMFL – Royal Challenger, IBBI – 100 Pipers
Q.) IS WHISKY ONLY MADE FROM BARLEY ?
No, Whisky ideally should be made from barley, although corn, rye, wheat etc. can be used. The ultimate aim is to make a sugar water to distil into alcohol so any grain can be used for the same.
Q.) WHY MALT ?
Well whisky can be made from pressure cooking cereals to release the sugar (grain whisky). But to get a true taste of tradition along with a slight unique maltiness, one can traditionally malt the cereals which also produces sugar.
Q.) WHAT IS SINGLE MALT WHISKY AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM BLENDED WHISKY ?
Contrary to popular perception, single malt does not mean that the whisky belongs to one cask in which it is aged. In fact single malt bottles are a blend of various casks, years and batches of whisky from the SAME DISTILLERY.
Blended whisky is a mixture of different whisky’s from different distilleries. Many single malt distilleries such as Cardhu have been supplying Johnie Walker with their whisky’s that are turned into their blends. There lies the second difference, Blended whisky are made by Bottlers, meaning they don’t have their own distillery but blend the various whisky’s supplied to them.
Finally Single malt whisky’s as the name suggest have to use malt barley. Blended Whisky however almost surely has some amount of grain whisky as well (the pressure cooked stuff I talked about before).
*SINGLE CASK is what most people confuse for single malts, they are whisky’s from one distillery and specifically one barrel.
** SCOTCH refers any whisky from Scotland single malt as well as blended.
Q.) IS ONE MORE SUPERIOR THAN THE OTHER (SINGLE MALT Vs. BLENDED) ?
Honestly this falls to perception, But as many Whisky tasters around the globe would agree, single malts are far easier to have faults in. Consider the fact that all the whisky belongs to one distillery. It is also far harder to blend fewer whisky’s to obtain a consistent product. Again it falls to preference but I, and for that matter many professionals would agree, that even a relatively young single malt fairs much better on the palate when compared to even the bluest of blended whisky (and yes that was a shot at a famous bottling company, which due to legal ramifications I don’t want to name).
Q.) WHAT IS PEAT and PEATING ?
Some distilleries smoke their malt while drying it using peat. Peat is a sort of ground moss that produces a beautiful smoky quality to whisky. In areas such as Islay (Scotland) it is almost a norm in whisky making.
Q.) WHY IS WHISKY SPELT AS WHISKEY SOMETIMES ?
The Americans use the spelling Whiskey for their products. Whisky is the traditional spelling. But why they would do this is a matter of debate.(Maybe cause Murica *ShrugsShoulders*)
Q.) BOURBON, WHAT IS IT ?
This is American whisky traditionally made in Kentucky and Tennesee using a 51%-79% Corn:Rye ratio. Additionally it is Coloured artificially in the end and carries a much sweeter almost chocolaty flavour. It also uses Sour mash -the old mixture of boiled mashed cereal and water from a prior batch – giving it a sour tinge.
Q.) SO, NEAT, ON THE ROCKS OR WITH SODA ?
Before answering this question, consider first the Scottish weather. It is cold and damp, now this ambient temperature would keep the whisky cool but not cold. Most professionals would hence recommend having your whisky NEAT, but praising most tropical countries smouldering weather, one should consider ice if the environment is too hot to bring it to the ideal temperature. Classically however ON THE ROCKS actually used COLD STONES to prevent dilution. That being said, to truly RELEASE the SPIRIT, I recommend adding a FEW DROPS of water, and this is a practice most professionals feel is appropriate. Soda should only be used in cases of extremely peated whisky, that too if the individual can’t handle the whisky neat.
**And please NO COKE AND WHISKY that is SACRILEGE.
So you can see how something that was considered Medicine has now emerged into something far greater today, a pastime, a way of living, and a piece of history.Over the coming Weeks we shall discover the length and breadth of whisky;
We tour its many regions – from Speyside, the birthplace of modern Scotch, to the Highlands and its Rich Single malts that are a testament to its landscape to the Smoke of the Islays and the Islands where whisky for ages has battled the seas.
The land of Gentleman Jack and his brigade of Kentucky and Tennessee “Whiskey’s”. Sweet Mint Juleps and The Kentucky Derby. Rolling Plains and Autumn Trees. Where History moves from Django Unchained (I must profess my fondness for this masterpiece as it defines in my experience the era in which Bourbon was born, plus Jamie Fox as a cowboy … come on) to James Brown. Bourbon County as I would call it supplies perhaps one of the most easily recognisable drink’s in the world, Jack Daniels No.7.
Only one line needed…. The only race to replicate Scotch, Grain for Grain and make it something uniquely their’s.
India, Canada, England,Scandinavia, France, Taiwan and even South Africa. It goes on and on, so my dear reader.