Whiskey Tasting

What is Whiskey or is it Whisky?

The art of distillation arrived in Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century, as did the common European practice of distilling 'Aqua Vitae' or spirit alcohol primarily for medicinal purposes. The practice of medicinal distillation eventually passed from a monastic setting to the secular via professional medical practitioners of the time, The Guild of Surgeon Barbers. The first confirmed written record of whisky in Ireland comes from 1405, in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas! In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae", enough to make about 500 bottles. The king was obviously host to exceptional parties!

Pot Still

Irish Single Pot Stills

Whiskey is made from grain, and that distinguishes it from other distilled beverages such as 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.

The 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.

The final step in the production of whiskey is the distillation. Distilling captures and concentrates the more volatile components of the boiling wash, 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 the vital components that make each whiskey a unique taste.

Two Gingers

Some of the NTIF Whiskeys from the Kilbeggan Distillery

Scotland has more distilleries than any country, with close to 100 of them peppered throughout the country. The most distinctive Scotch whiskies are the single malts. In addition to being distilled and matured in Scotland for a minimum of three years in oak barrels (a requirement for all Scotch whisky), single malt scotch is produced at one distillery (“single”), using only malted barley as the grain (“malt”), and distilled in copper pot stills. It is an expensive process but produces a richly flavored whisky and, because it’s not blended with whiskies from other distilleries, very individualistic. This is why single malt scotch is generally more expensive than blended scotch and coveted by aficionados. It’s also the reason why single malts are so much fun to drink and explore. Many Scottish distilleries also produce more expensive varieties such as a single cask, which is bottled from just one cask, so the flavor is unique to the characteristics of the oak.

In contrast to Scotch whisky production, there are only a handful of working Irish distilleries. The small number of Irish distilleries explains the disparity between the amounts of Scotch whiskies on the market when compared to the number of Irish whiskeys. When comparing the differences between Irish whiskey to Scotch whisky, people will often say that the difference is that Irish whiskey is distilled three times (producing a lighter flavor), while scotch is only distilled twice. The other argument is that Irish whiskey is not smoky, and Scotch whisky is. These generalizations are accurate for many whiskeys, but not all of them. Irish whiskeys, such as Jameson, contain “single pot still” whiskey. Single pot still whiskey is unique to Ireland. Unlike single malt scotch that is made from malted barley, single pot still whiskey comes from malted and unmalted barley that gives many Irish whiskeys their distinctive flavor.

Whiskey at NTIF

Our whisky tasting area in the Automobile building has been a very popular activity for almost a decade. This year we will have a variety of products to sample including the very popular Tullamore D.E.W.