Whisky 101 - Back to Basics

As part of our mission here at The Whisky List to help you find great whisky we feel it may be of some help to go right back to basics and cover off exactly what whisky/whiskey is (and even delve into why it can be spelled two different ways).

Now for the more advanced whisky aficionados we will be covering a lot of familiar territory but our eventual aim is to take a slightly different spin on things and maybe unearth some information or resources that you may not have seen before.

Enough talking from me - let's get into it.

What is Whisky?

The classic and most widely recognised definition of a whisky is a spirit that has been made from grain/s using water, yeast and a boiler of some type (called a 'still') then aged ('matured') in a barrel of oak for at least a certain amount of time.

Like most definitions there are definitely exceptions to these rules. Most differences stem from the fact that countries have varying levels of government or self imposed regulations around what can or cannot be classified, marketed or sold as whisky.  We'll get stuck in to these in more detail later.

How is Whisky made?

At the most basic level whisky is made using the following processes.

1) Grain (typically Malted Barley, Barley, Rye, Wheat, Corn but other grains like Millet, Quinoa etc are becoming more common) is crushed - this is called gristing.

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2) The grist (crushed grain) is then moved to a container called a 'mash tun'. Warm water is added - typically in stages, getting warmer and warmer each time and the mixture is stirred - either by machine or hand. This process is used to 'free' the sugars from the crushed grain solids (grist) - this is called 'mashing'. The solids are removed once as much sugar as possible is extracted and the sugary liquid left behind is called the 'wort'

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3) Yeast is the added to the sugary liquid (wort) and fermentation occurs. Fermentation is the process where the yeast 'eat' the sugar in the wort and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide which they excrete. Fermentation is normally carried out in special fermenting containers. ABV is typically between 5% and 9% at this stage.

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4) Once the desired level of fermentation has occurred the mixture (called 'the wash' at this stage) is moved to a specialised boiler, called a still, and heated - this is called a 'wash run'. This allows the concentration of alcohol to rise as the alcohol and various other compounds in the wash 'boil' off at lower temperatures than the water thanks to their more volatile (unstable) nature. The still design allows the boiled off components to be captured and converted back in to liquid and collected in another container for further processing. The leftovers in the still once this stage is completed are mostly solids and water and this normally discarded or processed into livestock feed. ABV reaches approx 20% at this stage.

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5) The liquid captured and retained from the wash run - which is called the 'low wines' is then run through a still again - this time the process is called a 'spirit run'. This can be done in the same still or a different one (some distilleries have stills dedicated to processing 'wash' and some dedicated to processing 'low wines'). During the spirit run distillers typically capture three distinct stages of distillate, called the 'cuts'.

a) The most volatile compounds in the low wine boil off first. These make up what are called the 'heads' or 'foreshots'. These compounds captured during the early stage of the low wines run have a very undesirable flavour profile (nail varnish and worse) and can be poisonous so these are captured and either discarded or more commonly reprocessed in the next low wines run.

b) Once the heads or foreshots have finished coming through the spirit run we move into the 'hearts'. The heart cut of the spirit contains the majority of the ethanol (pure alcohol) and other compounds whose flavours and aromas are considered desirable. This is the 'spirit' that will be transferred to an oak barrel to become whisky. The spirit from the heart cut is often called 'new make' or 'new make spirit'.

c) The last stage of the spirit run produces more heavy, oily compounds which while not toxic, are not desirable (some taste like mouldy damp cardboard or worse). These are called the 'feints' or 'tails'. The feints are almost always captured and added to the next low wines run to ensure any desirable compounds not extracted the first time, are captured the next time around.

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6) Just to make life more interesting some distilleries do a third distillation run.  Whiskies made using three vs two distillation runs typically present as a much 'lighter' style.  Common examples include most Irish Whiskey, Auchentoshan and Hazelburn (triple distilled, unpeated, Springbank).

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What kinds of Whisky are there?

The most common and bandied about terms when referring to types of whisky are the following; - like everything else in life there are exceptions out there, but these apply in most cases. This is the tl:dr version, we'll go into full nerd mode later.

Single Malt - Whisky made purely from Malted Barley and all from a single distillery (can be from many casks/vintages).

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Scotch - Whisky made, aged for at least 3 years and bottled in Scotland at bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

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Irish Whiskey - Whiskey that has been distilled in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, aged for a minimum of 3 years and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV (plus a bunch of technical requirements we will layout later on) Often triple distilled, but not mandatory (funnily enough the 'e' in 'whiskey' is also NOT mandatory!).

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Bourbon - Whiskey made in America from at least 51% corn, aged in brand new oak barrels. (There are other requirements but we'll cover those later)

Blended Whisky - Whisky made from a combination of one or more grains and malted barley.

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Sherried Whisky - Whisky aged in or sometimes just finished in a barrel previously used to hold a fortified wine of some sort - typically Oloroso or Pedro Ximenez.

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Japanese Whisky - Pretty much anything goes...Does not necessarily have to be distilled or made in Japan... or made from the 'normal' grains, and ageing is not regulated...

In future revisions of this article we will cover the less common types, the exceptions, and make each of the 'types' a link which can be clicked on to show more in depth information, and show the most popular examples listed in The Whisky List search engine.

Common Terms Used in Whisky Circles

Like most things people get passionate about, whisky has its fair share of concepts that might be confusing or not widely known in general circles - here we will look at some of the more common terms you might hear your whisky drinking friends bring up casually in conversation so you can keep up or make them feel special by stepping into their (our) crazy little world.

Proof / ABV - These are both measures of the amount of ethanol present in the bottle. Alcohol By Volume (ABV) is the most straightforward being a straight percentage of the total liquid in the bottle. Proof is a little more complicated as it differs (for historical reasons) in the UK vs the USA. 100 Proof in the USA = 50% ABV while 100 Proof in the UK = 57.1% ABV

Single Cask - pretty easy to work out - means the whisky is all from a single barrel.

Cask Strength - Most whisky is watered down before bottling and distribution. This can be for many reasons, typically to make bottles more affordable (lower strength = lower excise, more bottles of whisky from a barrel), make a whisky more approachable (non-whisky drinkers may find high proof whiskies challenging) or because the distiller or blender have determined the whisky is best presented at a certain ABV.
Cask strength whiskies are (in most cases) bottled at the strength that the whisky ended up the end of its maturation, without the addition of water (no dilution). Some producers define cask strength as the strength the whisky was filled into the barrel, so reduce the ABV when necessary back down to the original strength. Others choose an arbitrary number and label that as cask strength.

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Non-chill filtered (NCF) - common in larger distilleries/bottlers, and normally carried out on whiskies being bottled at less than 46% ABV, chill filtration is a the process of dropping whisky to very low temperatures - typically between 4 and -4 degrees Celsius and passing it through a series of metal mesh and/or paper filters under pressure. This removes certain compounds - mostly fatty acids, some esters and proteins, which can cause a whisky to go 'cloudy' which is perceived as a cosmetic flaw or imperfection. Whiskies bottled at over 46% ABV generally avoid clouding as the higher concentration of alcohol in the bottle allows the compounds that cause clouding to remain dissolved and not solidify.

Some purists suspect that the process of chill filtration alters the fundamental texture and flavours of the whisky for no discernible benefit, leading to a perceived preference for non-chill filtration among certain whisky drinkers.

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Non-coloured - some whiskies have colouring added to 'enhance' and/or maintain consistency of colour across batches. Typically a type of food grade caramel is employed. This is becoming less popular among more informed drinkers as it is felt that caramel can affect the flavour, and the 'enhancement' of the colour is disingenuous.

Mash bill - most commonly brought up in American Whiskey drinking circles, mash bill refers to the recipe/proportions of particular grains in a whiskey. Corn/wheat/rye/barley are the most commonly used grains in American whiskies and mash bills help create differing flavours and characteristics across releases/brands/distilleries.

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How do I find great Whisky?

Well, us of course! The Whisky List is here to help, and if you ever just need a good personal recommendation, drop us a line at cheers@thewhiskylist.com.au or hit us up on social @thewhiskylist!

to be continued (a lot)...