Hailed as one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe, the first record of whiskey distillation dates all the way back to the 15th century Ireland. The word whiskey itself originates from the Gaelic term uisce beatha, meaning “water of life”. Although it’s exact origins are shrouded in mystery, some argue that the principles of distilling were picked up by Irish monks while traveling through the Mediterranean somewhere around the 11th century. Even today, Irish whiskey remains one of the most sought-after types of whiskey with over 7 million cases exported in 2015 alone.
I was blessed with an amazing opportunity to travel to Ireland and visit three different distilleries in the past year alone, which is where I learned all about the fascinating history of one of my favourite drinks. For those who didn’t know, whiskey refers to any type of alcoholic beverage distilled using a fermented grain mash, with the only exception being Bourbon as it is made using corn, which may or may not be aged. The most popular types of whiskey are Bourbon, Irish whiskey and Scotch, however, there are some new rising stars in the industry of whiskey such as Japanese and peated whiskey and they are gaining quite a lot of popularity as of late.
Irish whiskey is basically any whiskey that has been made using yeast-fermented grain mash and aged in the Republic of Ireland. The mash is distilled in such a way to produce an aroma corresponding to the materials used in the distillation. Irish whiskey is predominantly made using barley and the distillation process is repeated three times and that is what makes it different from others, it develops a much smoother taste. After distillation, the whiskey is then stored in oak casks that were previously used to store bourbon and aged for no less than three years. Other barrels can be used too, mostly sherry and wine, and that’s where the majority of flavour and aromas come from. Irish whiskey is definitely my type of whiskey. Besides getting it directly from Ireland, I often find exactly what I need in well – supplied bottle shops in Sydney CBD.
Just like Irish whiskey, Scotch is also made using a fermented grain mash, but the only difference is that a drink can be called Scotch only if it was made Scotland, using Scottish materials. Usually distilled in something called column still, it’s much more rugged in flavour than Irish. The material of choice used in the fermentation process is malted Barley and the majority of Scotches are made only using barley, yeast, and water. Caramel flavouring, other cereals, and whole grains can be included, but fermentation additives are strictly forbidden. Like Irish whiskey, Scotch needs to be aged in previously used oak casks for at least three years.
Unlike Irish and Scotch whiskey, bourbon can be labeled as such only if it was made in the US, using a grain mixture of at least 51% corn. Another significant difference lies in the fermentation process, which is usually started by mixing in a small percentage of an already fermenting with the rest of the mash, a technique called sour mash. Finally, bourbon is only aged in brand new barrels made out of charred oak. There’s no minimum waiting period when it comes to aging, but in order to be called a “Straight Bourbon”, it needs to be aged for at least two years.
Peat refers to the deposit of dead plant material such as moss. Peat bogs grow at a rate of 1mm per year, meaning that a meter-thick peat bog can be up to a thousand years old. Peat is used to smoke barley grain and infuse it with phenols, which give peated whiskey it’s specific, very intense smoky flavour.
Japan is more than a land of sake and sushi. Japanese whiskey may have gotten its start in 1929, but it is widely renowned for its sublime complexity and careful balance of flavours. It tastes completely different when compared to Irish whiskey, or even Bourbon, yet still retains that wonderful earthy undertone that only complements the exquisite choice of grains, barrels, and pot still styles.
As you can see, there’s a type of whiskey for everyone. Or should I say whisky? Depends on where you ask: In Ireland, it has always been “whiskey”, while the US has predominantly used “whisky”, but you can see both words being used, depending on the manufacturer. The whiskey revolution is taking over the world and in Ireland alone there have been at least four different distilleries opened in the last couple of years. It’s hardly surprising, once you consider that whiskey is more than a simple drink. Rather a piece of history, part of our collective heritage and a genuine passion for both the people who make it and for those who would rather enjoy a glass or two of the finished product.