Who invented whisky?
Was it the Irish or the Scots? The debate still rages on between the two and the answer is not as straightforward as one might think.
The art of distillation was brought to Ireland by a Scottish monk, Saint Patrick, whom he himself learned it during one of his trips to the Middle East. Hence, the first distillation of “whisky” was done in Ireland but by a Scotsman.
Whisky, or 'whiskey', is an anglicization of Gaelic terminology.
Irish Gaelic: uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic: uisge beatha,literally meaning "water of life".
Earlier anglicizations include usquebaugh, usquebea (1706) and iskie bae (1583).
The term corresponds precisely to the Latin “aqua vitae”, which had been applied to distilled drinks since the early 14th century.
Then there is the other big question: How should we spell it?
The earliest examples of the spelling 'whiskey' with an 'e' can be found in Ireland. Irish distillers wanted to differentiate themselves from Scotland which had already established the conventional way of spelling it without the 'e'.
American distillers adopted the Irish spelling of the word. Hence you write 'Irish whiskey' and 'Bourbon' or 'Tennessee whiskey' but when you're talking about Scotch it is most assuredly 'whisky'. In fact, that is the standard in all other whisky producing nations, Canada included.
How are whiskies made?
The key components are: water, malted barley, yeast and the type of cask used. Other factors greatly influence the outcome as well. Example, on whether a distillery uses peat fire or not. The type of still is also important. A distillery may use a column still, continuous still, a pot still or Coffey still.
Short pot still (Lagavulin)
Pot still with a long neck(Glenfarclas)
The Coffey Still, a variety of still consisting of two columns, was an interesting development used for blended whiskies. It was invented in 1826 by a Scotsman, Robert Stein. However it was redesigned and enhanced by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey. Single malts are distilled in pot stills and grain whiskies in column stills, continuous stills or Coffey stills.
There are dozens of other factors which affect the style and quality of the distillation. Length of still neck and number of distillations are both critical to the equation. Scotland generally distills twice but Ireland three times. The more you distill a whisky, the fruitier and lighter it will be.
Two whiskies made in the same region, using the same barley and the same water source will still taste totally different from one another. Indeed, regardless of the ingredients, the type of still used will greatly affect the character of the whisky- the longer the neck of a still, the lighter and fruitier the whisky will be.
Then of course, the cask is important as well.
In Scotland, to be called a whisky, a spirit must be aged for at least 3 years in a cask. In Scotland and Ireland, contrary to the US, they very seldom use new casks; most commonly used are Bourbon casks, hogsheads(recycled casks that can be either Sherry or Bourbon) or Sherry casks. There is a new trend for wine cask finish, rum cask finish, beer cask finish. Time will tell whether these innovations become standard practice or simply passing fashions.
Bourbon casks and hogshead casks are quite neutral. Therefore; the maturation process will produce a spirit more on the distillation notes (maltiness, fruitiness, freshness). Sherry cask whiskies will be woodier, and more on maturation notes (woodiness, dried fruits, vanilla, toffee).
There is a hierarchy among whiskies. In ascending order, you have blended whiskies (whiskies made of grain and malt), vatted malt or pure malt (made of different malts blended together) and at the pinnacle, Single Malt (a pure malt from only one distillery). Single malt is considered to be the highest quality you can find in a whisky.
It is more and more common to find single malts that are also single casks (bottled from only one cask), cask proof (bottled at the natural percentage of alcohol in the cask- usually between 51% and 62%) and non-chill-filtered.
Chill filtering is a filtration process that removes sediments from the cask, helping the whisky maintain a clear aspect. Without this filtration, whiskies tend to become cloudy. However, by not removing the sediment, the whisky retains its full oiliness and flavour. Those non-chill-filtered styles are rarer boutique whiskies and a bit more expensive than the classic cuvees.
So just how strong should a whisky be?
Whisky specialists all agree that the best compromise for the alcohol content is around 46%. Any less and a whiskey starts to lose its complexity. It is a fine balance.
The Asian palate is more inclined to enjoy sherry cask whiskies. Indeed, one of the most famous Sherry Cask Single Malts in the local market is Macallan. Among aficionados, however, Macallan is seen as a reliable mass market product, but nowadays lacking the character of the more boutique styles of sherry cask whiskies.
An excellent example of such a whisky is Glenfarclas. Glenfarclas is well-known to the connoisseur. It is highly prized for the quality of its sherry maturation. Glenfarclas uses Spanish sherry casks, which have matured Oloroso or Fino sherry in Seville, Spain. With a capacity of 500 litres, sherry butts are widely used at Glenfarclas, as well as 250 litre sherry hogsheads.This distillery is one of the very few independent distilleries still operating. It has been continually owned by the Grant family since 1836.
Their regular 15-year-old is among the rare entry range to be bottled at 46% alcohol. Since 2006, the Grants have been bottling a range of whiskies called the Glenfarclas Family Casks, single casks at cask proof from 1952 to 1995. Only a few collectors in the world can pride themselves on owning the full vertical collection.
J & D Burleigh prides itself in having one set of the Glenfarclas Family Casks available for sale. This is a rare chance to own a piece of whisky history.
Click here to view our range of whiskies.