Whiskey or whisky, it's still the water of life

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky (or whiskey). Which is a prosaic way of saying every cloud has a silver lining.

What is it?

Famous as ‘the water of life’, whiskey is a distilled spirit usually made from barley (malted or unmalted) and aged in oak barrels. A single malt is best drunk neat (or with a little water or ice) while a blended whisky lends itself to mixed drinks and cocktails.

Where's it from?

Whiskey’s from Ireland, whisky’s from Scotland and who made it first is up for debate. What’s agreed is that it was first crafted in the British Isles but is now produced in many countries worldwide including America, India, Japan and Australia.

What does it taste like?

Whisky is a potent spirit with a powerful kick. As such it is best sipped and savoured, allowing the varied characters time to establish themselves. Depending on where it’s distilled it can taste smoky or peaty and of caramel, vanilla or fruit, amongst other flavours.

Never add mixers to a single malt! Blended whiskey should only ever be used for mixed drinks such as a Scotch and dry (ginger ale) or a Scotch and coke.

Whiskey History

Whisk(e)y was invented in the British Isles. Whether that isle was Ireland or Islay is still a bone of contention. Ireland claims that early Christian monks brought the recipe back from Arabia (or Europe) in 600 (or 1200) AD, although there’s no recorded evidence of this. Scotland claims that Exchequer Rolls of 1494 clearly show malt being purchased to make ‘acqua vitae’, formally highlighting the existing production of Scotch in the middle ages.

 
Let’s just be thankful that someone invented it and that many more continue to make it.
 
Whiskey (as it’s called in Ireland and North America) or whisky (as it’s known in the rest of the world) is considered The Water of Life, or “uisge beatha” in Gaelic which was corrupted to usky in the 18th Century. In order not to offend any connoisseurs, we’re going to alternate between whiskey and whisky for this article. But there’s more than an errant ‘e’ to differentiate between whisk(e)y’s traditional producers. Although every distillery has its own unique processes, in general these differences include:
 
Single Malt Irish Whiskey Scotch Whisky
Grain used Malted and unmalted barley Malted barley only
Malting (drying) process Kiln Kiln plus peat smoke
Still used Pot still Many and varied shapes
Distillation process Three times distilled Twice distilled
Resulting flavour notes Mild, smooth, soft, round Robust, smoky, fiery

 

Irish Whiskey is quite simple in its regulation, needing only to be made in Ireland (Northern or Republic of), made from yeast-fermented mash of cereal grains and aged for three years in wooden casks. Scotch Whisky is similar to Port and Champagne in its naming rights, in that only whisky meeting specific criteria can be deemed Scotch. In order to be called Single Malt Scotch Whisky, the spirit must be made from 100% malted barley from a single Scottish distillery, fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast, contain no other substances except water and be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years.

Australian Whisky Regions

Modern Australian whisky is a relatively new kid on the block: we only started production about 20 years ago. But boy what success we’ve had in that short time with Sullivan’s Cove winning the “World’s Best Single Malt” in the World Whiskies Awards of 2014, the first time it’s been awarded to a distillery outside Scotland or Japan.

 
But almost 200 years ago Tasmania was home to 16 legal distilleries (and plenty more DIY versions) with a thriving whisky industry. That is until the wife of the then-Governor John Franklin, Lady Jane Franklin, declared that “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs that it be used to turn men into swine.” Hubby quickly shut up shop, outlawing spirit distilling in Tasmania until the law was repealed in 1991.
 
Whilst Tasmania remains at the heart of Australia’s whisky industry, production has spread to Victoria, NSW, WA and even Queensland. As of 2015, we boast 31 distilleries nationwide (Australian Whisky Distilleries, 2015). Even Ireland only has 12.

Popular Whisky Brands

Most of Australia’s distilleries are small scale producers compared to some of the international behemoths, but that lets us create boutique, unique and worldwide-attention-grabbing spirits.

Some of Australia’s best reviewed whiskies include;
 
  • Limeburners (WA); Single Malt Whisky
  • Overeem (Tas); Single Malt Whisky
  • New World Whisky (VIC); Starward Single Malt
  • Trapper’s Hut (Tas); Barrel HH070
  • Nant Distillery (Tas); Homestead Reserve
  • Timboon (VIC); Single Malt Whisky
  • Lark Distillery (Tas); Single Malt Whisky
  • Hellyer’s Road (Tas); Single Malt Whisky
  • Sullivan’s Cove (Tas); Single Cask Malt Whisky
  • Bakery Hill (Vic); Single Malt Whisky

 

Whiskey Flavour

Many of the distinctive flavours of whiskey come from its finishing. But there are numerous other factors.

The grain (predominantly barley) used to craft the mash from which whiskey is distilled is the first component. Prior to being ‘mashed’ the grain is thoroughly dried, sometimes over a peat fire which imbues a distinctive, smoky taste to the dram. Water is also a key ingredient. Many of the whiskies produced in the Scottish Isles for example use water from seaside locales. Whilst the water is fresh, it is influenced by its briny surroundings and tasters have noted seaweed undertones (which tastes a lot better than it sounds). Many whiskies will cite their water source in manufacturing or marketing material to demonstrate its pure, natural and untainted heritage. Believe it or not, the shape of the still in which the liquor is distilled also influences the character of the malt.
 
And finally, the finishing. Quality single malts are often finished (matured for an extra length of time) in casks that have previously held other wines or spirits, suffusing this flavour into the final product. Sherry, port and bourbon casks are most popular, delivering caramel, vanilla and fruit flavours.
 
As a general rule of thumb, younger whisky is lighter in colour and has more distillery character whilst aged whiskies are more influenced by their cask maturation delivering a smoother, more flavoursome malt.

Whiskey Food Matching

Single malt whiskey is most often consumed as a digestif at the end of a meal. It’s served neat, ‘on the rocks’ (with ice) or with water / soda water. Blended whiskies are often served as a long mixed drink or cocktail. Whiskey is not usually served as an accompaniment to food, although that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. But whisky lends itself beautifully to actually becoming part of the meal, such as a whisky cream sauce as an accompaniment to haggis. If you’re not that brave, there are plenty of other recipes using whiskey such as cranachan, whisky cured salmon, beef in whisky sauce, Irish apple tart and caramel and whiskey sauce.

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