Meaning “water of life” in Gaelic, whiskey is the ultimate drink for showing off a touch of class, and has been one of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages for about 500 years.
Characterised by its complex flavours and tantalising aromas, the dark distilled drink is made everywhere from Scotland and the US, to Ireland and Japan. But have you ever wondered what exactly this sumptuous spirit is made of?
Let’s take a look at the main ingredients, and if this works up a thirst, place an order with Drinks House 247 to get whiskey delivered to your doorstep within 30 minutes.
Different whiskies have different combinations of ingredients and production methods, but all types come from grain — typically barley, corn, rye or wheat — water and yeast.
Each grain produces a different tasting whiskey, depending on its sugar content. For instance, corn has more sugar than wheat or rye, so corn whiskies will taste sweeter.
It’s worth noting that a whiskey’s flavour will be affected by the specific production process as well as its ingredients. The elements are fermented to create alcohol, which is then distilled using a still, a process which heats the liquid to make a concentrated vapour, then condenses it into a clear liquid distillate.
The spirit is aged in a barrel for years before it is bottled, imbuing the liquid with oak and wood flavours, as well as darkening it and diminishing the spirit’s harshness. Some whiskies are even aged in barrels that had previously contained sherry or rum, therefore carrying notes from these drinks.
Scotch whiskey was once traditionally made from malted barley, but it’s now more common to use wheat, rye or a blend of different grains.
Scotch is aged for at least three years and tends to have an earthy, smoky flavour, though this varies from bottle to bottle.
Considered the ultimate Scotch by many connoisseurs, single malt varieties must be made from malted barley, yeast, and water, and distilled at one distillery using a pot still. Malting refers to the process of soaking the grains in water until they germinate, which develops the enzymes required by the grains to modify their starches into sugar.
Despite its name, single malt Scotch can be blended with other single grain whiskies and matured in different barrels, as long as the process is completed at the same distillery.
Malted barley tends to produce nutty, smoky and cereal-like flavours, though no two single malt Scotch whiskies taste the same. This is because much of the flavour comes from the particular oak barrel, though the local climate can also impact the taste. For instance, single malts from the Highlands are lighter than those produced closer to the sea, which tend to be made salty due to their exposure to the ocean air.
Single grain Scotch must also be distilled at one distillery, but can be made from various unmalted, non-barley grains like corn, rye or wheat. As a result, single grain whiskies tend to be lighter-bodied than other Scotches, and offer sweeter, less smoky flavours.
Blended malt whiskies are also made from malted barley, but unlike single malt Scotches, they can be produced in multiple distilleries. This can give them a richer, more varied flavour profile, from honeyed fruitiness to full-on peat smoke.
Blended Scotch whiskey is a mixture of at least one single malt Scotch and at least one single grain Scotch. This helps temper the strong flavours of a single malt to create softer whiskies that appeal to a wider market. The ratio of grain to malt in the blend will depend on the bottle, with the grain forming the body of the whiskey and the malt adding flavour. As such, more expensive whiskies often contain more malt. Notable examples of blended Scotch include Bell’s, Chivas Regal and The Famous Grouse.
Aged for at least three years, Irish whiskey has become one of the world’s most sought-after spirits in recent times, enjoying huge growth in countries like the US and the UK. It is typically lighter and smoother than Scotch, as it is made from unmalted barley, and features delicious hints of vanilla.
Unique to Ireland, this particular type of Irish whiskey is made in a single pot still, and blends both malted and unmalted barley. The unmalted component gives the drink a spicier taste and thicker texture than other single malts.
According to Irish regulations, at least 95% of the mixture must be barley, while ingredients like oats and rye can make up the remainder.
Irish single malt whiskies are extremely similar to Scotch single malt whiskies — made from malted barley and distilled in a pot still within a single distillery.
However, a closed kiln heated by coal or gas is often used to roast the malted barley, giving Irish single malts a more distinctive barley flavour that’s less smoky than single malt Scotch.
Grain Irish whiskey is distilled using a column still instead of a pot still, providing a purer distillate. Although it may contain a variety of different grains, grain Irish whiskey is generally made from no more than 30% malted barley, in combination with grains like corn and wheat, and generally has a lighter, less complex taste than other whiskies.
Blended whiskey combines any of the three types of Irish whiskey. This is the most common variety of Irish whiskey thanks to huge brands like Jameson and Bushmills, and is generally smooth, mellow and silky, though this does vary between bottles.
The Europeans found plenty of rye when they first arrived in the United States, which led to rye whiskey and its place in US culture. Americans then started growing corn in what is now Kentucky, something that gave birth to bourbon — the country’s most popular whiskey. Today, there are plenty of American whiskeys, containing a wide range of ingredients.
A whiskey can only be called a bourbon if it’s made in the US, contains at least 51% corn, and has no additives (such as artificial colouring, or caramel), though water is allowed. The rest of the whiskey can be made from different grains, but it must be aged in virgin, charred oak barrels. This helps give bourbon its distinctive vanilla, oak and caramel flavours.
As the name suggests, the main ingredient here is rye, which must make up at least 51% of the whiskey, helping to give the drink its crisp, spicy and sharp flavour. It must also be aged in virgin, charred oak barrels and have no additives other than water.
This is a specific form of whiskey made in Tennessee, which must contain between 51-79% corn, and be filtered through maple charcoal chunks before ageing. This method, called the Lincoln County Process, filters out vegetable oils and other compounds to help mellow the finished product. One notable example of Tennessee sour mash whiskey is Jack Daniels.
Other noteworthy American whiskies include corn whiskey (which must contain at least 80% corn), malt whiskey (made up of no less than 51% malted barley), and rye malt whiskey (which is made from 51% malted rye).
Corn whiskey is noted for being incredibly strong — up to 80% ABV — American malt whiskey encompasses a wide range of styles and tastes, and rye malt whiskey has a spicier, fruitier flavour than its counterparts.
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