Whiskey (also called whisky) is a generic term for a large family of distilled spirits that derive from cereal grains. Whiskey was a natural outgrowth of the introduction of distilling technology into places that were too cold to ripen grapes. Using what was commonly available, fermented barley (beer) was distilled into aqua vitae -- the water of life. The first references to whiskey appear in writing in the early part of the 15th century.
Whiskey has been the source of excise taxes and resistance to those taxes for centuries. For example, the 1725 English Malt Tax drove more than half of Scotland's distilleries underground, and the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania stemmed from a tax on whiskey production, and led to armed rebellion that ultimately was put down by federal military force.
Today, whiskey production has spread around the world. While its traditional home is Scotland, whiskey is also made in Ireland, Wales, England, Japan, the United States, Australia, Canada, and France. Whiskey can be categorized either by the primary grain in the mash bill, or by where it is produced, though some generic terms such as "Blended Whiskey" are used to denote blends of grain and malt whiskies. Some common types of place-named whiskey include:
Some common types of grain-named whiskey include:
- Rye Whiskey
- Corn Whiskey (aka Moonshine)
- Neutral Grain Spirits (Everclear)
All whiskey is aged in barrels, though corn whiskey only in neutral barrel and only for a short period of time, if at all. Traditionally, this was because distillers had little other choice -- a barrel was for storage purposes, and it took time for drinkers of whiskey to realize the positive influence the wood had on the spirit. Barrels, typically French of American oak, soften the whiskey, add and concentrate sweet sugar flavors from the wood, and allow for slow oxidation of the whiskey over a period of years. Some types of whiskey must be aged in new oak barrels (Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey), but others typically use "refill" barrels, that previously have held Sherry or other wines. Port, Madeira, Burgundy, and Sauternes barrels have been used to "finish" Scotch whiskey.
A new trend is for distillers to produce "new make" or "white dog" -- unaged whiskey that is simply cut down with water to bottling proof. These are clear and can be quite interesting.
There are only a handful of grains that are used to make whiskey, of which the most common are barley, rye, wheat, and corn, though there are some whiskies made primarily from oats, such as High West Silver Whiskey. Different proportions of these grains give different flavor profiles to the whiskey: Bourbon is typically 70% corn, 15% rye, and 15% barley, though some producers sub out wheat for rye. Rye whiskey flips this around, and is typically 65% rye and 20% corn, with the remainder being barley. Single Malt Scotch must be made from 100% malted barley.
Many whiskey producers place an age description on their label. In Scotland and America, this number must be the youngest spirit in the blend, and must be at least three years old.
In America, the term "Straight" denotes a whiskey produced in the United States, of between 51 and 80% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, put into new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof, and bottled after a minimum of two years at no less than 80 proof. "Bonded" or "Bottled in Bond" refers to an American whiskey made during one season by one distiller at one distillery, aged in a federally approved warehouse for four years or more, and bottled at 100 proof, as required by the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. "Blended" American whiskey must be at least 51% straight whiskey, with the remainder typically being neutral grain spirits.
While it is illegal to color or flavor most American whiskey (except for Blended whiskey), it is legal to color and flavor Canadian whisky, and it is legal to use caramel coloring in Scotch whiskey.