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Whisky

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Macmillan Whisky Room

Take a walk through our Whisky Room and enjoy a dram of your favorite malt or let our bartenders guide you through hundred of whiskys, specialty tastings and a full menu skillfully prepared to accommodate every palate.

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what is whisky

DEFINITION

Whisky (or whiskey) is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain and typically matured in wooden containers for some period of time.

WHERE IT COMES FROM

Whisky can be made anywhere in the world. Certain countries—like Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada—have regulations that govern its production. Get the details in our Instant Expert guides.

WHISKY VS. WHISKEY

The “e” or lack thereof in the word’s spelling is purely orthographical. Whisky is whiskey is whisky. Certain countries favor one spelling over the other—for example, Scotland and Canada always use “whisky,” while Ireland and the United States tend to favor “whiskey.”

what are the different types of whisky

1. From Scotch, Irish, Single Malt and Blend to Bourbon and Rye

We start with a description of the individual types of whisky. In the second part we describe the distinguishing features regarding origin, ingredients and production in general, in order to understand why there are so many different types of whisky.

2. Distinction of the Types of Whisky

Malt Whisky

Malt Whisky ranks among the best whiskies and is predominantly produced in Scotland. It may only be made from malted barley and has to be distilled in pot stills. The process of malting is elaborate and used to be very time-consuming and physically demanding without the modern technology. Today the process is industrially optimised.

The whisky is distilled twice (rarely three times) on pot stills. The continuous production in column stills was prohibited in 2009. Then the whisky is matured in oak casks (most often used ones) for at least three years. Due to the high demand, more and more Single Malt Whiskies are released without an age statement. The customer usually doesn't know whether the whisky has matured only for the minimum amount of time or longer.

However, the experienced connoisseur usually demands a much longer maturation. The word 'single' may be added to a whisky if all the casks used for bottling come from a single distillery and haven't been blended with whiskies from other distilleries.

Grain Whiskey

Grain whisky is whisky that is not made from malted barley, mainly from Scotland and Ireland. It can contain any type of grain, also a mixture. Today grain whiskies mostly contain wheat, since it offers a higher utilisation level than corn, which was used in earlier times for cost reasons. Grain whisky can be distilled higher than malt whisky in column stills, but it contains less flavours.

It is produced primarily for the blended whisky industry and is almost always distilled in the cheaper column stills. It's also only matured for a rather short period of time. Since 2014 there have been increased efforts to place mild grain whisky on the market, also as single grain bottlings.

Blended Whisky

Blended Whisky can contain any mixture of different whiskies (malt, grain). These whiskies differ in type, but especially in their origin, i.e. the distillery they come from.

The character of a blended whisky is determined by the ratio of whiskies from different distilleries, since each distillery produces different flavours. For the well-known brands the ratio is always the same, so the taste doesn't change. In order to be able to produce these large amounts of blended whisky, there are malt whisky distilleries that produce exclusively for the blended whisky industry and don't bottle any single malts.

Most blends contain more grain whisky than malt whisky. The higher the malt whisky ratio, the better the blend. Blended Whisky usually comes from Scotland or Irela

Single Pot Still Whiskey

This special type of whisky is from Ireland. It may contain grain, also unmalted barley, but it is exclusively distilled in pot stills.

Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey

Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States, but most bourbons are produced in Kentucky. An exception is the state of Tennessee, which could establish the category "Tennessee Whiskey". There are different types of bourbon with regard to the production process.

Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn. The rest is a mixture of some barley for the fermentation process, as well as rye and/or wheat. Today many bourbons are produced using the sour mash process. American whiskey is mainly distilled in column stills.

According to U.S. law, a no age statement bourbon must be aged for at least 4 years in fresh, toasted casks made from American white oak. A finish or extra maturation similar to Scotch whisky is not allowed. If the whiskey is not blended, it may be called 'straight bourbon'.

Tennessee Whiskey differs from bourbon in that it is additionally charcoal-filtered before it is filled into casks.

Rye Whiskey

This type of whisky used to be produced mainly in the United States, and still today in Canada. It contains at least 51% rye and must also be matured in oak casks for at least 2 years. Today there are only few rye whiskeys in the US, since its very spicy taste is not so popular anymore. Canadian rye whisky is an important ingredient of Canadian blended whiskies.

Corn Whiskey

Corn whiskey is also from the US, since corn was the predominant type of grain grown there. To be called corn whiskey, it must be produced from 100% corn. Since these whiskies taste relatively neutral they are mostly used for blends.

3. The Diversity of Taste

If you now believe, that all whiskies of one type taste the same, you are wrong. Though origin, ingredients and the production process may be the same, there are – contrary to vodka – huge differences in the taste between the distilleries. Especially the maturation in casks is significant for the later aroma of the whisky. It offers uncounted possibilities for variation. Read more about the production process and the maturation in casks.

It is up to you, which type of whisky or whiskey suit you taste. Each type is beloved by its fans. Blended whiskies and common Bourbons are sold most often, because they are easy to enjoy. Experts favor Single Malt Scotch Whisky or Small Batch Bourbons. For such bottlings the whiskies are matured longer and the casks are selected more carefully for their aroma. In any case we suggest you try the different types of whisky and whiskey to make your own judgement.

how is whisky made

Whisky production varies depending on the style being made, the country where it originates, and other factors, but the general process remains the same in most cases.

Malting at Springbank Distillery in Scotland (Photo by Martin Hunter)

MALTING

All whisky starts as raw grain—in the case of malt whisky, barley, which has to be specially treated to access its sugars. The barley is moistened and allowed to partially sprout, or germinate, a process called malting which secretes an enzyme that converts the barley’s starches to sugars. Germination is cut off when the barley is dried by heating.

Craig Beam looks into a mash tun at Heaven Hill Distillery

MASHING

The sugars contained in the grain must be extracted before fermentation, and this is done through mashing. The grains that are being used—like corn, wheat, or rye—are ground up, put in a large tank (called a mash tun or tub) with hot water, and agitated. Even if the distiller isn’t making malt whisky, some ground malted barley is typically added to help catalyze the conversion of starches to sugars. The resulting mixture resembles porridge. Once as much sugar as possible has been extracted, the mixture—now known as mash or wort (if strained of solids)—moves on to the fermentation stage.

Fermentation takes place in wooden washbacks at Ardmore Distillery. (Photo by Martin Hunter)

FERMENTATION

Fermentation occurs when the mash/wort meets yeast, which gobbles up all the sugars in the liquid and converts them to alcohol. This takes place in giant vats, often called washbacks. The process can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours, with different fermentation times and yeast strains resulting in a spectrum of diverse flavors. The resulting beer-like liquid—called distiller’s beer or wash—clocks in at around 7%-10% ABV before it goes into the still.

DISTILLATION

The process of distilling increases the alcohol content of the liquid and brings out volatile components, both good and bad. Stills are usually made of copper, which helps strip spirits of unwanted flavor and aroma compounds. The two most common types of stills—pot stills and column stills—function differently. Both are outlined below.

POT STILL DISTILLATION

Pot stills are used in the production of whiskies—usually, though not always, malt whiskies—from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere. Pot still distillation is a batch process. Some styles use double-distillation, while others are distilled three times.

The wash goes into the first still, often called the low wines still, where it’s heated up. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so the alcohol vapors rise off the liquid and into the still neck and lyne arm, eventually reaching the condenser, which turns them to liquid once again. The resulting liquid, which is about 20% ABV, goes into the second still, or spirit still, where the process is repeated. At this time, a third distillation can occur. The resulting final spirit comes off the still starting at around 60%-70% ABV. The distiller discards or reserves a certain amount of spirit from the beginning and end of the run, known as heads and tails, due to their unwanted flavors and aromas. The rest—known as the heart—goes into barrels, often by way of a spirit safe.

 

COLUMN STILL DISTILLATION

Column stills, also known as continuous or Coffey stills, are typically used to produce bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys, as well as grain whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Japan and elsewhere. The column still works continuously and efficiently, removing the need for the batch process of pot stills.

The distiller’s beer is fed into the column still at the top and begins descending, passing through a series of perforated plates. Simultaneously, hot steam rises from the bottom of the still, interacting with the beer as it flows downward, separating out the solids and unwanted substances, and pushing up the lighter alcohol vapors. When the vapors hit each plate, they condense, which helps get rid of heavy substances like congeners and increases the alcohol content. Eventually, the vapor is directed into a condenser. Column stills can produce spirit up to 95% ABV, although most whiskies are distilled to lower proofs.

Hybrid stills, which include a column on top of a pot, can be used in either manner.

Casks of Irish whiskey maturing at Bushmills Distillery

MATURATION

Nearly all whiskies are aged in wood—usually oak—containers. One notable exception is corn whiskey, which may be aged or unaged. Bourbon, rye, and other types of American whiskey must be aged in new charred oak barrels, while for other countries’ styles, the type of oak and its previous use are generally left up to the producer. Barrels are stored in warehouses, and as the whisky matures, some of the alcohol evaporates: This is known as the angels’ share, and it creates a distinct (and lovely) smell in the warehouse. Some whiskies, such as scotch, have a required minimum age.

Bottling whisky at Alberta Distillers (Photo by Chris Bolin)

BOTTLING

Once matured, whisky is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. The whisky may be chill-filtered or filtered in another way to prevent it from becoming cloudy when cold water or ice is added. For most large whisky brands, a bottling run combines a number of barrels—anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds—from the distillery’s warehouses. When only one barrel is bottled at a time, it’s labeled as single caskor single barrel.

how does one enjoy whisky

Enjoying whisky starts with tasting it. Tasting is more than drinking: it’s evaluating and understanding in order to better appreciate the whisky.

SNIFF

Some research indicates your nose can identify 1 trillion different aromas, while your taste buds can only detect a fraction of that. So, the first step in tasting whisky is to smell, or nose, it. Give your glass a little swirl. Sniff gently to avoid the singe of the alcohol and keep your mouth slightly open.

Using a flavor wheel (like this one by Woodford Reserve, one of many wheels developed by specific brands) can help you identify some of the scents commonly found in whisky, but don’t be limited by these descriptors. Your sense memory contains thousands of distinct aromas, and what smells like fresh-baked cornbread to one person may seem more like corn on the cob to another.

When nosing whisky, avoid conflicting odors like smoke or perfume. Concentrate for a few minutes on sniffing and assessing. If you feel your nose getting tired, give it a rest and then return to the whisky. Over time, the whisky will take in air and its aromas may change. Spend some time with your dram and see how it evolves.

SIP

After a few minutes of nosing, take a sip of the whisky, hold it on your tongue, and let it spread throughout your mouth. Swallow, and breathe out through your nose. Assess the whisky’s mouthfeel—is it oily, creamy, thin, rich? Does it taste hot, sweet, spicy, acidic? See if you can taste some of the aromas you detected before or if new flavors emerge.

Continue nosing your whisky as you sip it, and feel free to add some water, starting with a few drops at a time. Dilution brings out new flavors and aromas, and it can also reveal flaws. Cask strength whisky often benefits from the addition of water.

Take a few minutes between sips to assess the finish—the flavors that linger after you’ve swallowed. Is the finish long or short?

Ask yourself if the whisky is balanced overall. Do the aromas, flavors, and structure work together? A great whisky tells a story from the first sniff to the final aftertaste.

ENJOY

The point of this exercise is to get more out of your whisky by understanding its component parts. But you are the ultimate arbiter. If you like the whisky, make a note about it so you can seek out similar whiskies in the future. If you don’t like it, try to figure out why.

In the end, whisky is about enjoyment. Drink it the way you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong.