Whiskey: What is it and how is it made?
Sporting a reputation as the drink of the sophisticated, whisky has a mystique unmatched by any other spirit. Even the word itself maintains that mystique with its two different spellings – the Scottish, Canadian, and Japanese spelling is whisky (or whiskies) where as the Irish and American spelling is whiskey (or whiskeys).
Considering the thousands of brands of whisky available, you might be surprised to learn that this infamous spirit is made using just three simple ingredients: water, yeast and grain. Whether Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey or one of the many other whisky-producing regions around the world (from Canada to Japan), these three ingredients define the quality of the final product.
With other spirits, the dominance of flavour comes from the combination of grapes, hops or sugars. Whisky, relies on the quality of the water used during the distillation process and the type and length of cask aging employed to determine the end result. Ideally, the producer uses perfectly clear water free of impurities that might alter the flavour.
Many American whiskeys are made using water from areas rich in limestone, which helps ensure purified water. Scottish water, meanwhile, still reigns supreme as the world’s best whisky-producing water.
Every whisky is produced using a different combination of grains, with one exception: every bottle of Scotch whisky uses at least a small amount of malted barley during fermentation. Single malt Scotch whisky is the only whisky that uses barley exclusively, while blends complement the barley with some combination of corn, wheat, rye or oats.
The alcohol in the fermented liquid is then isolated during distillation – basically, the process of vaporizing the water so the producer can find the perfect balance. After distillation, the whisky is barreled and aged for a minimum of three years (but often many, many more) to enhance the flavour.
Every step of this process can be tinkered with, which is precisely why that relentless attention to detail is what separates the world’s best whisky producers from the rest.