The word whiskey comes from the Scottish Gaelic expression "uisge beatha" which means water of life. The earliest whiskey was almost exclusively distilled by monks. It was never allowed to mature, and tended to be very raw. It is perhaps not so surprising either, since it was primarily considered to be a medicine that was used against a wide range of diseases.

The first written reference to whiskey is from 1495, when the monk John Cor receives a consignment of barley for the production of whisky. Lindores Abbey, the monastery where John Cor belonged, is known to many as the birthplace of Scotch whisky. The popularity of whiskey steadily increased over time until 1541 when King Henry VIII of England closed all Scottish monasteries. This forced the unemployed monks to start private distilleries, which also spread their knowledge beyond Scotland.

In the 17th century, England and Scotland were united and a new law came into effect that imposed heavy fees on unlicensed distilleries. This led to thousands of clandestine distilleries making whiskey, often at night to mask the smoke from their cauldrons. This is why whiskey has the nickname “moonshine”, which means moonlight.

In 1823 (over 150 years later) the English government introduced a new law which legalized whiskey production. This drove a whole new wave of technological innovation, where e.g. the column still was invented by Aeneas Coffey.

The American whiskey distilleries were also hit hard at the beginning of the 20th century when the prohibition era began in the USA. Just as the Scots did for 150 years, the Americans began to produce on the sly and smuggle the alcohol around the authorities. However, the period of prohibition lasted just under 14 years for the Americans.

The production of whiskey

In the production of whisky, you typically go through 5 steps, of which fermentation and distillation are steps 3 and 4 respectively.

It all starts with malting, where barley undergoes germination. The barley is soaked in hot water for 2-3 days, after which it is spread over the floor of a painted house. Here, the barley is turned from time to time to maintain a constant temperature. When the barley begins to sprout, it is dried in an oven. It can now be called malt and is finely ground.

Step 2 then begins, the mashing, where the finely ground malt is poured into hot water to extract the sugar. The water used during mashing is typically from a local source. This is one of the reasons why many distilleries can be found near a river or lake. The water is very important for the final product as the mineral composition differs from place to place. The mixture of malt and water, which is also called mash, is poured into a vessel where it is stirred. During the process, the sugar from the malt dissolves and is drained from the bottom of the vat. The bottled liquid then undergoes a fermentation process and is distilled.

The final step of the process is where the liquid (whiskey) is poured into oak casks and aged. The oak casks are usually used and come either from American bourbon distilleries or from Spanish sherry producers. In order to legally call it a whiskey in Scotland, the liquid must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years. It is during this maturation that the flavors from the liquid and the oak combine and give the whiskey its characteristic taste and aroma.

Classifications of whiskey

Whiskey can be divided both by the area it comes from and the way it is made. Below we have made a division by country of origin, after which we delve into the different categories each country has.

American whiskey

Canadian whiskey

The requirement for Canadian whiskey is that it must be produced in Canada, the alcohol percentage must be a minimum of 40, and that it must be aged for a minimum of 3 years in wooden casks (not exclusively oak).

Regardless of the grain used, Canadian distilleries typically make two whiskies, a base and a rich flavor. The base is distilled with a high alcohol percentage and matured in casks that have been used before, which reduces the influence of the grain and the cask on the taste. The second whiskey is usually distilled at a lower alcohol percentage to highlight the flavor of the grain and poured into completely new casks. The two whiskeys are blended to achieve the desired balance.

Irish whiskey

Traditionally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times in copper pot stills, whereas e.g. Scotch whiskey is content with 2. It is a legal requirement that all Irish whiskey must mature for a minimum of 3 years.

The different types of Irish whiskey are almost identical to those that can be read under Scotch whiskey.

Scotch whisky

Besides coming from Scotland, Scotch whiskey can be further divided based on region. The regions are Campbeltown, Highlands, Islay, Islands, Lowlands, and Speyside, with each area having its own influence on the final product.
If you are a bit rough, you can actually divide the regions into two types: inland and sea. The whiskey that is produced near the sea absorbs the smell of the sea and has the temperament that comes with maturing the whiskey so close to the sea. Inland whiskey is typically more floral and reminiscent of the great plains of Scotland.

In addition to the geographical areas, there are these different types:

Reviews of whisky

Cocktails with whisky