Whisky is a spirit distilled from grain. Depending on the area of origin, the grain used may be BARLEY (the most popular base for Scotch and Irish whiskies), CORN (the traditional chief flavouring in Bourbon) and RYE (one of the most common bases for Canadian whisky).
The origins of whisky are lost in history but a similar spirit is thought to have been ‘invented’ by a tribe of Irish pilgrims who emigrated to what is now Scotland in the fifth or sixth century AD. It was considered, early on, to be a form of acquavitac – and in fact the word whisky is a corruption of the Gaelic uisgebeatha which means, literally, water of life.
There are two main methods of distilling whisky – the pot-still method and the patent- (or Coffey) still method. The latter is by far the older of the two, and is still the one used most frequently in the Highlands of Scotland and in rural
Ireland. Pot-still whisky requires certain physical conditions: the still, for example, must have access to clear, running water. To this day, it is claimed that much of the unique flavour of Scotch whisky is obtained from the clear, peat- flavoured Highland water used in its distillation and from the peat-fired kilns where the barley is dried. Patent-stills, on the other hand, are capable of constant distillation and other, often cheaper grains may also be used in addition to barley – with a resultant milder brew.
The basic process of whisky-making does not vary very much. The barley and/ or other grains are first washed in large vats called ‘steeps’ to get rid of impurities, then germinated on special ‘malting’ floors for several days. At the end of this stage, the grain is known as green malt. A drying stage in a kiln follows, then grinding into a meal. The ground grain is combined with hot water in large ‘mash’ tubs, then fermented and, finally, distilled in either pot- or patent-stills. When distillation is finished the resulting liquid is stored in wooden casks, legally for a minimum of three years, more often for five or even longer (a really fine Scotch or Irish whisky is not considered to reach its prime until it is around 12 or 15 years old).
Most whisky now produced is blended – that is either whiskies of different years or types are mixed to a preordained strength and taste. Scotch whiskies, for example, are a blend of Highland malt, pot-still whisky (which is generally considered to be too strong on its own for the modern palate) and milder, lighter Lowland patent-still grain whisky.
Whisky is usually drunk on its own although, increasingly, it is now served ‘on the rocks’, that is, with one or two ice cubes, or even with soda. There are also some delicious cocktails with a whisky base – see SCOTCH MIST, WHISKEY SOUR, PRESBYTERIAN or MANHATTAN. For further information on specific types of whisky, sec the information entries for BOURBON, , .