“You’re the prowler of the night to the beds of virgins, Oh God what powers you have to gain kindnesses from girls.” (Old Gaelic toast to whisky)
If any spirit sums up what spirits are about, it’s whisky. It adapts to where it’s made, who’s drinking it and why. It can be as sophisticated as high tea and as rough as three-day stubble. Sipped or slugged, it can inspire art or arson.
In a purely anthropological sense, whisky goes hand in hand with bread-eating cultures and climates. The process goes something like this: You grow grain, which you make into bread. You mill your grain and save a bit to sow for next year’s crop, but in the good seasons what do you do with the extra? Give it to the pigs? No way. You make whisky.
What came first, the Irish predilection for drink or the drink itself? It’s a real chicken and egg scenario. Whatever the answer, the Irish did make whiskey first. Distilling had already been around in Ireland for a couple of hundred years when its first historical mention occurs. Apparently in 1276 Sir Robert Savage fortified his troops with “a mighty draught of uisce beatha (whiskey).” Irish whiskey began with the rural poor in Ireland, who probably preferred to drink than eat. These days there’s much more to the difference between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky than the letter ‘e’.
It all comes down to quirks in production that are utterly Irish and devoid of logic. Although there’s a fair bit of peat in Ireland it was rarely used to dry the malted barley. Coal was preferred. This is the defining difference. That smokiness so apparent in Scottish whisky is not there. Without the smoke screen to mask the flavors, there’s a delicate perfume and a less masculine taste. The Irish also use raw barley as well as malted barley. This evolved not from any desire to make a better tasting whiskey but because there was a tax on malt.
Oats were used occasionally for the same reason. Irish whiskey is distilled three times (as opposed to the normal two) in larger than normal pot stills. The idiosyncrasies of pot stills and the extra distillation produce a uniquely delicate drink. Whiskey made this way is known as “pot still whiskey” and like Scotch is often blended with neutral-tasting grain whiskey.
Jameson, based in Dublin, is a blend of pot still and grain whiskey and sums up what Irish whiskey is all about. The classic Tullamore Dew got its name because its founder was Daniel E. Williams, initials D.E.W. It’s renowned for its lightness. Bushmills is the oldest surviving distillery in the world and is a little more malty than most Irish whiskeys.
Whatever the Irish say, Scotland is the spiritual home of whisky. No other drink is so associated with one country. But until about 1840 ‘Scotch’ as we know it didn’t exist. In the early 19th century malt whisky production was booming. Licensed distilleries had jumped from 125 to 329. At the same time the continuous still was being developed. Invented by Aeneas Coffey (an Irishman!) and patented in 1830, it allowed for the bulk distillation of grain spirit. The blending of malt whisky and cheaper grain whisky from the Coffey stills was a logical step.
Scotch was born.
For the unadventurous it had the same appeal as McDonalds, processed cheese, fish fingers and instant coffee. Its success was guaranteed. Many malt distilleries shut down or operated only to produce blending components for Scotch. Until Glenfiddich decided to stick a toe in the export market in the 1960s, you couldn’t buy a single malt whisky outside Scotland. Thankfully malt whisky has made a comeback. If you’re into single malt you’ll want to taste everything, but here are a few suggestions: Talisker, Highland Park, Bowmore and Lagavulin.
Whether they liked it or not, whiskey followed the Puritans to America. The Scottish and Irish emigrated too and brought with them a desire to drink and the means to make good that desire.
The defining thing about American whiskey is that it isn’t made from barley. Corn was indigenous to the U.S. and it was corn and rye that were used. No one can agree on when and by whom the first drinkable corn whiskey was distilled. Some say it was the Baptist preacher Elija Craig in 1789, others John Ritchie in 1777, and some Evan Williams in 1783. No matter, Kentucky soon became the state most famous for whiskey and racehorses.
The story here goes something like this. Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia at the time, offered 60 acres to any settler who built a permanent structure and grew corn. Sixty acres produces a lot of corn and the excess was turned into whiskey which was then shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans and traded for Arab horses, which were then ridden up the Natchez trace back to Kentucky. Whiskey and racehorses often go together but rarely is the relationship so symbiotic.
To be called a bourbon, a whiskey need not be from Bourbon County but it must be at least 51 percent sour corn mash (most are about 70Ð90 percent, the balance being barley and rye) and aged for at least two years in charred, white oak barrels. Charring of the barrels is a crucial part of the process. Said to have been invented by the aforementioned Reverend Craig, the charring opens up the wood and brings out those vanilla and caramel flavors crucial to the bourbon style. Wild Turkey is a classic big bourbon available in a range of alcoholic strengths, while Woodford Reserve is a little more sophisticated and a good sipper.
Tennessee Whiskey is a corn whiskey but it differs from bourbon. It’s smoother and lighter, less sweet and heavy. The reason is charcoal filtering. Newly distilled clear spirit is dripped through a vat filled with finely ground charcoal. When people ask for Tennessee Whiskey they don’t, they ask for Jack Daniel’s.
As ever, language says more about the differences in whiskies than any amount of technical detail. In Ireland a person asks for a whiskey by brand name: “a Paddy” or “a Dunphy” or in rare cases generically as “a ball of malt.” In Scotland they’ll ask for a single malt by name as a dram, nip, tot or the affectionate “wee goldie.” Americans ask for a belt, blast or a slug. Each is a different drink drunk differently. They just happen to be all made in stills, all called whisk(e)y and all have that power to gain kindnesses from girls.
* Single Malt Whisky - A term coined in the 1970s during the malt whisky revival, used to define the whisky of one distillery made with 100 percent malted barley.
* Scotch - A blended whisky made in Scotland.
* Irish Whiskey - Whiskey made in Ireland, normally a blend of pot still whiskey with malted barley and grain whiskey.
* Bourbon - An American whiskey with 51 percent or more corn mash aged for two years in charred oak barrels.
* Tennessee Whiskey - a whiskey with no specific grain criteria but normally made with corn mash and charcoal filtering.