Musings by the Snifter: An Autumn Whiskey Primer

Autumn has arrived. Welcomed brisk morning air, fall colors, flavors and smells. Unwelcomed pumpkin spice lattes, leaf peepers and premature Christmas paraphernalia at Costco. But the best of all: whiskey, the illustrious beverage of my noble Scotch-Irish heritage. Smoky, caramel, dried fruit flavors and alcohol that warms the palate encapsulates the quintessential autumn beverage. As autumn descends, this post ensures that you are primed and ready for whiskey season.

Whiskey is more than just a tasty inebriating beverage; it is an elicitation of time, place and people. Place evidenced by terroir, climate and agriculture. Distillers use and adapt to what is around them. People influence the final product through economic considerations, cultural traditions, and distilling practices that impart exclusive flavors. This autumn whiskey primer presents a narrative of whiskey and its famous regions in this context. Hopefully, it has you reaching for a glass …

An Abridged Whiskey Summation

First, some basics. “Whiskey” (in Ireland and the United States and “whisky” in Scotland, Canada and Japan; the difference in spelling derived from the linguistic translations of the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a fermented grain mash. It is often aged in wooden casks to round out the flavor profile. Depending on location, there can be precise requirements and legal regulations that govern ingredients, distillation, labeling and other components.

Whiskey production has a few essential stages: Malt, Mash, Fermentation, Distillation, and Maturation. In the interest of time, I solicited YouTube’s assistance for a [moderately wonkish] visual expedition through whiskey production.

Although not often considered to the same extent as wine, terroir has tremendous effect on whiskey's final product. Terroir relates to the total natural environment and encompasses soil composition, geography, microbiology and climate, among other things. For whiskey, terroir determines what types of grains are ideally suited for a particular environment, and governs their growth and other agricultural components. It can also lend unique local flavors through water, bacteria, yeast and other constituents utilized in the distillation process.

The variation in taste and characteristics between different types of whiskeys are also influenced by people through numerous variables, such as: (1) the types and amounts of grains utilized in blended whiskey; (2) the distillation process; (3) aging duration; and (4) the type of barrel used for aging. It is also affected by economic and cultural factors.

What’s in Your Snifter? General Categories of Whiskey

Adopting a broad approach for this primer, there are three main categories of whiskey: malt, grain and blended.

1. Malt Whiskey

Malt whiskey is the most traditional form of whiskey, and may only be made from malted barley grain. The process of malting can be elaborate, time-consuming and physically demanding. Read: expensive. However, it produces the finest, purest expressions of whiskey in the world.

If the whiskey is made from one batch of grain mash at one distillery, it is labeled as a single malt. If it is produced from single malt grain mash from multiple distilleries, it is referred to as a blended malt.

2. Grain Whiskey

Grain whiskeys may be single grain, but are frequently a blend of different grains (e.g., corn, rye, wheat, etc.) with one majority grain and one balancing grain. Grain whiskey can be distilled more inexpensively and easily than malt whiskey, but is aged for shorter periods and contains less flavors.

3. Blended Whiskey

Blended whiskey can contain any mixture of different grains and malt. The character and quality of a blended whiskey is determined by the malt-to-grain ratio. More malt = better blend. Prestigious brands utilize the same ratio to ensure consistency in flavor profile.

Blends have been extraordinarily successful for several reasons. First, it is the best of both worlds. Blending affords the whiskey maker the ability to make whiskey with a precise flavor profile. Second, blended whiskies are not as intensely focused as single malts, and reach a broader palate. Third, they are often less expensive.

Single Cask and Cask Strength

A few more common distinctions. Cask strength (or “barrel proof”) refers to an undiluted whiskey straight from the cask that has no water added before bottling. Caution, this whiskey packs some extra punch. Single cask (or "single barrel") refers to whiskey bottled from a single cask, with the bottle label noting the specific barrel.

The Wonderful World of Whiskey

With place so significant, it is prudent to briefly explore the history, culture and terroir of whiskey’s most distinguished regions.

Scotland: The Malted Barley Awakening

Scotland is to whiskey what France is to wine. Yes, it is found elsewhere, but any whiskey primer must begin roaming the Highlands. And so I shall.

In the fifteenth century, Scotland was predominantly an agrarian society, and barley was a Scottish farmer’s best friend. It was a hearty ingredient for soups and porridge on the dinner table, and remnants could be used as animal feed. Best of all, it was brilliant in the production of beer and whiskey.  

Scotland was ideally suited for barley cultivation. It’s mild, maritime climate is temperate, but rarely extreme, avoiding droughts and floods. Its soils are diverse, well draining and fertile, resulting in some of the most productive areas for wheat and barley in the world. Finally, its long daylight hours in the summer months afford a longer growing season. For some coastal regions battered by strong winds that limit tree growth, residents creatively turned to peat as a cheap and abundant fuel source for cooking and drying barley. This practice translated into one of the most defining characteristics of certain Scotch whiskies: its smoky flavor.

Until the early nineteenth century, Scotch whiskey was defined by single malts in pot stills. A pot still, the conventional method for whiskey production, consists of a large kettle or pot which is heated from the bottom, boiling off the alcohol and allowing the vapors to be condensed and separated. Although this extracted the finest flavors, it operated on a batch-by-batch basis and was correspondingly burdensome and expensive.

In 1831, that changed with the invention of the column still by Aeneas Coffey, allowing for continuous distillation, and the rise in production of grain whiskey. Softer and less intense than its malty brethren, grain whiskey appealed to a larger audience, and could be blended with malts to produce different flavors and structure.

Scotland goes to great length to ensure the quality of its whiskey and to preserve its authenticity. The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 provide a legal framework for a whiskey to be labeled “Scotch,” including ingredients, alcohol strength, maturation time and conditions, geographical requirements, packaging, and advertising. Legal requirements, based on the historical needs of the region, are intended to guarantee a certain level of quality for the consumer.

Today, Scotch dwarfs most other whiskey regions. Scotland contains approximately 100 distilleries, most of which barter spirit in cashless transactions for blending purposes. I’ll trade this fine smoky concoction for one of your light, fruity varieties. This is a luxury of Scotch whiskey uncommon in other regions, such as Ireland and Japan.

Ireland: Whiskey’s Ecclesiastical Heritage

Although Scotland is the unequivocal champion of whiskey, Ireland’s consolation prize is that it was first to develop the idea. Located on the western fringes of Christendom, scholars across Europe were attracted to Ireland’s strong monastic culture of intellectualism and enlightenment. Amongst the traveling scholars were wayfarers from the Middle East that brought the process of distillation as early as the twelfth century. The technology was first implemented in the production of perfumes and medicines, but it didn’t take long that put that technology to a new and better use. It was here, in the Irish monasteries, that whiskey finds its rudimentary beginnings. By the early fifteenth century, whiskey had gained a foothold in communities across Ireland.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a steep rise in taxes targeted toward distilleries in Ireland (and Scotland). A popular product is the perfect opportunity for tax revenue. One problem: whiskey distillers were rather disinclined to pay higher taxes. Insert conflict here. Distillers would operate their stills at night in a clandestine manner to avoid detection from tax collectors, earning the nickname “moonrakers” or “moonshiners” (a term that was adopted during the American Whiskey Rebellion). Post-production, the whiskey was stored in barrels hidden away in dark, dewy cellars, out-of-sight of pesky inquiring inspectors. This tax evasion maneuver led to the more commonplace practice of cask aging, even after tax inspector intrusions had ceased.

In 1792, the British government steeply raised tax on malted barley in an attempt to extract even greater taxes on the Irish whiskey industry. Distillers countered with the inclusion of a substantial proportion of unmalted raw barley in the mash bill of their whiskey, thereby falling outside of the definition of “malted barley” and circumventing taxation. Tax evasion: part two. Well played. Mash bill mischief kept the Crown’s coffers vacant. The unanticipated result was a pleasant whiskey with a distinct weight and mouthfeel, and fruity aromas of apple, peach and pear. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was the most widely-consumed whiskey in the United States. These tricky tax-dodging tactics eventually produced a hallmark flavor component of Irish whiskey.

Despite its storied tradition, the Irish whiskey industry struggled through American Prohibition and the Irish War of Independence, which cut off Ireland’s two largest whiskey markets. Although the last few decades have experienced a reversal of fortune, there are still only a handful of Irish distilleries in operation. Lacking the panoply of distilleries that clutter the Scottish countryside, Irish distillers did not have the luxury of trading with their neighbors to manufacture blends. Instead, distillers decided to create a variety of blending stock on their own, with a diversity of ingredients, stills and barrels. If you don’t have any playmates in town, play by yourself. This strategy, combined with Ireland’s unique triple distillation techniques, created a smooth, lighter-bodied whiskey that has gained international popularity.

The American Whiskey Expansion

Whiskey’s expansion outside of Europe first began in the United States in the mid-eighteenth century. European immigrants (many from Ireland and Scotland) settling in Maryland and Pennsylvania yearned to imbibe their preferred native elixir, and possessed the requisite expertise to replicate it in the New World. The Scottish and Irish diaspora is always accompanied by whiskey.

Distillers use what is available; in the Mid-Atlantic, it was rye. With a dense root structure that holds loose soil and prevents erosion, rye thrived in the rocky soils of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains and imparted an excellent and unique array of spicy flavors to the spirit. With such characteristics, it is not surprising that rye was the basis for America’s first indigenous whiskey.

In 1776, the new frontier county of Kentucky was carved out of the western portion of Virginia. In an attempt to encourage settlement in the new territory, a law, known colloquially as “corn patch and cabin rights,” was promulgated that allowed settlers to claim up to 400 acres of land on the condition that they build a cabin and cultivate corn prior to 1778. Government corn subsidies? That concept won’t last...

There was merit to the government’s promotion of corn. The southern climate and terroir was amenable to bountiful corn production, it is easily stored for long periods, and the stalks make excellent cattle feed. It was also an inexpensive nourishment for a growing southern population. With corn in abundance, Kentucky farmers naturally experimented with methods to distill it into a delicious besotting beverage. When the government gives you subsidies, make whiskey.

Although bourbon can legally be produced anywhere in the United States, its homeland of Kentucky was (and is) unparalleled. This dominance can in part be explained by its unique terroir. The rocky soil and natural limestone deposits in the water impart a viscous consistency and often require sour-mashing, which creates a distinct flavor. In the summer months, warehouse temperatures fluctuate dramatically, causing higher evaporation rates and corresponding cask strengths. Airborne yeast enables the development of proprietary yeast starters particular to a certain location and distillery, thereby affording a truly unique flavor profile that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. All of this translates to a flavor profile consisting of a caramel, maple sweetness, followed by toffee, vanilla, and leather with strong tannins.

By the turn of the century, whiskey barrels were being floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans and sold to merchants and bars on Bourbon Street. Prodigal insobriety ensued. Perhaps, in this case, not much has changed.

Japan: The Whiskey Frontier

Japanese whiskey is the newest upstart region with tremendous potential. For most of Japan’s isolated history, sake, with its proud history and fascinating traditions, was the unrivaled beverage of choice. [For a riveting discusison on sake, check out my recent sake trilogy here, here and here]. Japan’s opening to the west in the late nineteenth century, however, afforded whiskey its chance to shine. In the early 1900s, a young chemist, Masataka Taketsuru, journeyed to Scotland in an endeavor to learn the whiskey trade. As a student and apprentice, he gained experience in distilleries and meticulously recorded every aspect of the distilling process. Taketsuru returned to Japan and was hired as a distillery executive for Yamazaki, Japan’s first commercial whiskey distillery. The Japanese whiskey revolution began in haste.  

Japanese whiskey is characteristically well-balanced, mild, and sophisticated, possessing a concentration of flavor and heightened clarity of aroma. While single malts are produced, Japanese distilleries focus on the harmonization of flavor achieved by blended whiskeys. One problem: as a new fledgling industry, there are not many distilleries in operation. Japan has thus adopted an Irish philosophy of creating variations of whiskey in-house for the specific purpose of blended whiskeys. In this vertical blending strategy, the Japanese whiskey industry has been successful in crafting a variety of whiskey types from a small number of distilleries.

Parting Whiskey Wisdom

New to the world of whiskey? I'd suggest commencing with a variety of blended whiskeys to develop a sense for regional style and flavors. This also carries the additional benefit of a less expensive entry that won't [immediately] devastate the bank account. Once you have a general impression for palatal preferences, branch out into single malts to experience the distillery’s more distinct character. It is here that the adventure truly begins.

Want to hear more about whiskey or other non-vinous beverages? Let me know in the comments what might interest you for future posts!