Whisky Advocate

Whisky 101

Understanding Whiskey

by John Hansell, Publisher & Editor, Whisky Advocate magazine

Whisky GlassesWhiskey isn’t the easiest drink to embrace. Its alcohol level is much higher than beer or wine, and some of the names, like those of Gaelic-rooted Scotch whiskies, can be difficult to pronounce. Whiskeys, though, are rich and diverse in flavors—more than any other distilled spirit. At their extreme, the really smoky, peat-infused Scotch whiskies can be downright challenging.

But many of life’s great pleasures are acquired tastes and worth the pursuit. For many, whiskey is just as much an adventure as it is a drink. It invites you to explore and indulge in its diversity. Each country traditionally produces its own style of whiskey, but even within that style there is an incredible range of whiskeys to choose from.

So What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is made from grain. This is what distinguishes it from other distilled beverages like brandy, which is made from grapes, and calvados, which is made from apples.

Simply speaking, whiskey is nothing more than distilled beer. Like beer, malted barley and other grains are the source of the sugars necessary for fermentation. The sugars in the grain are released by steeping it in hot water. This sweet liquid, known as “wort”, is cooled down. Yeast is added and converts the sugars to alcohol, creating beer.

GrainThe major difference between the “beer” that whiskey-makers produce (often called “wash”) and the beer that brewers create is that the brewers also add hops to their beer. Hops, the flowering cones of a climbing plant, are bitter and help balance a beer’s sweetness. They also act as a preservative to stabilize the beer’s flavor. Distiller’s beer doesn’t need hops. Oak aging balances the whiskey’s flavors, and distilling increases the alcohol level, which preserves the whiskey.

To make whiskey from beer, it must be distilled. Distilling captures and concentrates the beer’s more volatile components, which include alcohol. The distillers use either continuously-operating column stills (as with most bourbons) or copper pot stills (as with single malt scotch), one batch at a time. This spirit is then aged in oak barrels, where it matures and becomes whiskey. The types of grain used, the distillation method, and the casks chosen for aging are what make each whiskey taste different.

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