Spirits
Whiskey 101

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WHISK(E)Y 101

NOTE: Throughout this piece we will refer alternately to whisky, whiskey and whisk(e)y. Scotch and Japanese whisky tend to get no “e.” Everything else gets an e.

Whisk(e)y begins with Arabs introducing distillation (used for making perfumes and medicines) to the Europeans, who took about five minutes to figure out you could throw beer or wine into that weird distilly machine. What came out the other end got people very excited. So excited, in fact, they named the stuff aqua vitae, which translated from Latin means “the water of life.”

When people think about the origins of whisk(e)y, they tend to think of Scotland, but Ireland gives the Scots a run for their money. In fact, the Gaelic version of aqua vitae, uisge beatha, soon became “usquebaugh,” which, if you play with phonemes as easily as the Irish do after a few drams, soon morphed into “whiskey.” Timeline-wise, there are reliable records that show drinkable alcohol was being manufactured in both Ireland and Scotland in the 1400s. Many consider Bushmills in Northern Ireland the oldest and longest-running whiskey distillery in the world. (It was founded in 1784 and its heritage goes back to 1608.)

Whisk(e)y was a near-instant hit for the same reasons it remains popular today, which meant there was money in it. And anything with money in it inevitably catches the attention of the government. From the 1600s through the early 1800s, Scotland and Britain imposed a variety of different taxation schemes on Irish and Scottish spirits. This generated some small amount of revenue, but mostly served to foster resentment, along with a massive bootlegging network in both countries. By the 1820s, as many as 14,000 stills were being seized each year for illegal operation.

In 1823, the Excise Act cut taxes on distilling, making it profitable to make whisk(e)y legally again. This is as good a point as any to mark the origin point for whisk(e)y’s rise to global domination.

American colonists — particularly those of Irish origin — brought whiskey to the new world (hence our “e”). However, they found that barley, which makes up the backbone of both Scotch and Irish spirits, wasn’t as prolific in the colonies. Thus began the traditions of distilling whiskey from corn (in Kentucky and Tennessee) and rye (in the Northeast).

Over the next several decades, a distinctly American whiskey culture developed. It began inland with farmers putting their excess grain to work, and it got a boost from the British blockade of colony ports. The blockade stopped the flow of molasses into the many rum distilleries that dotted port towns. Once the colonists realized the molasses wasn’t coming back, they switched over to making whiskey and never looked back.

Before Prohibition began in 1920, Irish whiskey was the most popular hard alcohol in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. However, two world wars, a global depression, Ireland’s battles for independence, and revived oppressive distillation taxes from the U.K. all resulted in a significant decline in production of Irish whiskey. The number of distilleries dropped from 1,000 in the 19th century to just three by the 1960s. (There are currently nine, with more coming online soon.)

Canadian whisky came on strong due to the void left by U.S. Prohibition, as it was both legal to produce and easy to sneak across the border. It remained popular after our “national experiment” ended in 1933. Indeed, whisk(e)y was the world’s most popular distilled spirit until vodka usurped the crown in the late 1960s.

Though it had existed for centuries, single malt Scotch — defined as whisky produced from 100 percent malted barley at a single distillery — first appeared as a marketing term in the mid-1960s, but it didn’t fully take off until the 1980s and 1990s, when major brands began producing their own versions. At the time, Americans were drinking significantly more beer than hard spirits. That tide began to shift, however, and the rising popularity of whisky helped revive the flagging Scottish distilling industry. Still, many of the major distilleries closed in the 1980s.

With the rise of craft cocktails and craft/micro distilleries in the mid-aughts, whisk(e)y began returning to backbars and home bars. Bourbon, which had long been in decline, made a sudden resurgence, thanks in part to the 1990s debuts of premium expressions from some of Kentucky’s biggest distillers. It turned out to be a short trip from there to experimental barrel finishes and rare, limited-edition bottlings.

In the twenty-teens, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds rose in popularity to compete with Margaritas and Mojitos for most-ordered drink, and with them, rye whiskey also rose from the dead. A significant number of consumers were demanding high-quality rye for the first time in more than a century. (While rye was popular in the 1940s and 1950s, distilling finesse was generally lacking).

Meanwhile, in Japan, Scotch-style whisky had been produced for more than 90 years, starting with innovators Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru in the 1920s. Though mostly disregarded by the rest of the world until the past decade, Japanese whisky is quickly becoming a driving category globally. These days it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on well-aged expressions in the States. Japanese companies have responded by creating blended expressions featuring younger malted and/or grain spirits to create more supply at a lower price.

Today we are on the cusp of a golden age for whisk(e)y, as age-old artisanal distilling meets high-end scientific techniques to create high-quality products at a wide range of price points. Because whisk(e)y can be made anywhere, countries such as India, France and Australia are now producing excellent spirits that will only grow deeper and more complex as their inventory continues to age. Distillers are playing with unique grains such as triticale, red winter wheat and quinoa, as well as innovative barrel finishes from ex-sherry casks to re-toasted hogsheads that once housed Sauternes wines. It all adds up to more selections from more places, with no signs of slowing down. In short, it’s a good time to be a whisk(e)y lover.

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