Wine & Spirits

Whisky, Whiskey, Scotch
and Bourbon


blending vat      Whiskey is produced around the world. There are four basic types, named for their countries of origin:

Irish whisky  -  Scotch whisky  -  American whiskey  -  Canadian whisky.

What they all have in common is that they begin with a mash of water and grain to which yeast is added to include fermentation. All whiskeys are distilled at less than 190 proof and then allowed to age in wooden barrels. Some whiskeys, most notably Scotch require an extra first step of malting before creating the mash.Malting is soaking the grain in water until it begins to germinate and then drying it in kilns.

Another important thing to remember about whiskeys is the importance of spelling. The Irish and American spell whiskey with an "e", while the Scotch and Canadians use a variant spelling - whisky. 

While these four types of whiskeys dominate the world market, we should not forget the Japanese whiskey market, which is making a strong entry into the American and European market with some excellent products. Japanese whisky is developed and produced since around the 1870's in Japan. The first commercial production was not until 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Japanese whisky is made more similar to Scotch whisky than any other style of whisky.


Irish Whiskey

By many accounts, although the Scots may dispute it, Irish was the first whiskey. According to legend, monks fleeing the barbarian onslaught on the European continent brought the alembic, a type of pot still, with them to the Emerald Isle. These monks had discovered that when a mash of barley and water was fermented with yeast and then heated in an alembic, the alcohol in it could be separated and retained. The resulting product was dubbed usge beatha, meaning "the water of life", by the Celtic population. That term eventually became whiskey in English.

    Today Irish whiskey is made from a fermented mash of malted and unmalted barley, corn, rye and lesser amounts of other cereal grains. Part of the barley used is malted, but unlike the Scots who dry their malt over an open peat fire to give it a smoky flavor, the Irish dry their malt in closed kilns, which eliminates the peaty, smoky flavor that characterized most Scotch. All Irish whiskeys are triple distilled in copper pot stills and are aged three to nine years in reused sherry,brandy, bourbon or rum oak casks. Irish whiskeys are full-bodied and possess a smooth malty flavor.

Scotch Whisky

scotland.jpg (167833 bytes) Scotland is undoubtedly one of the world's classic whisky production regions. It is blessed with a combination of natural resources and climate that has proven ideal for the production of this spirit.

    The earliest official reference to whisky-making in Scotland appears in the late 15th century, although Highlanders had been operating stills for several hundred years by then. Throughout all these years, Scotch whisky was distilled using the pot-type still, resulting in whisky in small batches.

    Making Scotland's malt whisky is an expensive, labor intensive process that involves several general steps. The grain used in the mash for making single malt whisky is specially selected barley, which has been soaked in water for sprouting. The sprouted barley is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal.This kilning process imparts a distinctive smoky character to the spirit. As is the case with other whiskeys, the malted barley is mixed with warm water to produce a mash, which is fermented with the addition of yeast and then distilled. The newly distilled spirit (about 70% alcohol) is then pumped into casks. At this point it is designated as"plain British spirits," but after three years in the barrel, it can be called whisky.

    Produced by more than 100 Scotch distilleries, each single malt has a style and flavor all its own. It is also important to note that each single malt is the product of a single distillery and comes from a single batch of whisky.

    In the 19th century the technological advancement of the continuous still led to the establishment of large Lowland grain distilleries. This new still worked continuously and could accommodate grains other than malt, allowing the production of lighter-bodied whiskies from less expensive grains. Then in the 1850s the practice of blending whiskies from a number of distilleries to produce a product of consistent quality and taste emerged. These whiskies were marketed by the blenders under proprietary labels and were in essence the first real Scotch whisky brands.

    Although single malts have attracted a great deal of interest in recent years, well over 90% of the Scotch consumption in this country (USA) can be attributed to brands of blended whisky.

    As the word implies, blends are the result of mixing different whiskies together, including both single malts and grain whiskies.Located mainly in the Lowlands, the 14 Scottish grain distilleries produce grain spirits (which are in fact whiskies, not, as is sometimes misinterpreted, neutral grain spirits),made primarily from corn. They are distilled in tall, column stills, a method that is faster and less expensive than the pot still.

    Obviously, there are a numerous variables which determine the ultimate character of a blended Scotch.  The quality of the barley, the amount of peat used in the malt kiln, the length of second distillation and the blender's judgment about when a particular cask is ready to be added to the blend.

    This last step is, according to many experts, an art as well as a science. Each Scotch house has its own closely guarded blend,and while certain whiskies are not compatible, the bringing together of the right combination of malts and grains will determine the characteristics of the brand. Usually there are 20 to 25 different single malt whiskies used in a blend, and although the exact proportions are not known, anywhere from 20% to 50% malt whisky will be used in a blend,with the rest being malt whisky.

    Scotch whiskies age at different rate depending on where they were distilled as well as the location and the conditions in which they mature. Throughout the years of maturation, the whisky, which coming out of the still is a colorless spirit, gradually becomes more complex. Its color changes to, taking on an amber tint from the wood of the cask.

    By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged at least three years, and few brands enter the U.S. without being aged at least four years.Many distillers also use barrels that once held sherry or wine. The majority of single malts spend a minimum of five years in casks, although most are aged at least eight years,and some for much longer. In blends, when a Scotch is aged 10 years or 12 years, the number refers to the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.

    As is also the case with Canadian whisky, Scotch can be bottled in the country of origin or it can be shipped in bulk to the U.S.and bottled here, which can be much more cost efficient.

American Whiskey

Although several styles of whiskey have been produced in the U.S. from colonial period until the present, only one -bourbon- has been officially identified as America's  spirit. A 1964 act of Congress made that distinction.

    According to Federal regulations, for an American whiskey to be labeled as bourbon it must be made from a mash containing between51% and 79% corn. If the corn content is higher, the product must be designated as corn whiskey. Bourbon is straight whiskey and, according to the law, must be distilled at 160proof (80% alcohol) or less and must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. As a practical matter, though, most bourbon is aged at least four years and often longer. Since it is a straight whiskey, no blending is permitted and there are no additives, with the exception of water to reduce the proof. Most bourbons are marketed as80-proof products, but some, particularly the newer boutique, small-batch, single barrel and barrel proof products are much higher in alcohol contents.

    Often associated with bourbon, the sour mash method is simply a technique of fermentation that uses part, but at least 25%, of the spent mash from a previous distillation in the new batch of fermenting mash. A sour mash must ferment between 72 and 96 hours. One of the  advantages of the sour mash method is that it provides a dimension of consistency from one batch to the next. The sweet mash yeasting method, on the other hand, uses only fresh yeast fermentation.

    By law bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the U.S., but the vast majority of it is produced in Kentucky, where it must be distilled and warehoused for at least a year in order to carry the "Kentucky Bourbon" designation on the label.

    Another whiskey designation, similar to bourbon, is Tennessee whiskey. Although its grain content need only be comprised of at least 51% of any grain, corn is usually used. Basically it is made in a similar manner to sour mash bourbon but Tennessee whiskey also includes an extra step in its production process. The distilled spirit is filtered through maple charcoal in large wooden vats before aging in order to remove impurities. The most prominent Tennessee whiskeys are Jack Daniel's and George Dickel.

    The other large category of domestically produced whiskey is American blend whiskey, which is comprised of brands, which have been created by carefully blending straight whiskey with grain spirits. When considering blending whiskeys, the important thing to remember is that they are built. The straight whiskeys that go into them are distilled and aged to take a planned part in the blend. Every blend on a store's shelf has a number of straight whiskeys in its formula. By law, a blended whiskey must contain a minimum of 20% straight whiskey. A premium brand may contain as many as 75 different straight whiskeys and grain neutral spirits. The purpose of blending is to create a balanced, light-bodied whiskey, with richness in taste and an individual character of its own. Balance is achieved because the blending art assembles a variety of elements into a unique and distinctive product. Another hallmark of blended whiskeys is their consistency of taste.

    At the George Dickel Distillery on Cascade Creek near Tullahoma, Tennessee, an additional step is taken before the charcoal mellowing--chilling the whiskey before filtering, making it even smoother. George Dickel Tennessee Whisky (spelled without an 'e' because Dickel felt that his whiskey was equal in quality to Scotch whisky) is the only Tennessee whiskey that is produced today using this chill-filtering technique.

    George A. Dickel George A. Dickel was born in Darmstadt, Germany, about 1818. Around 1853 he came to Tennessee and established a wholesale whiskey business in Nashville. In 1866, he opened a retail liquor store. In 1888 George A. Dickel and Company acquired the sole rights to bottle and distribute all of the whiskey produced by the Cascade Distillery which had been established in 1877 in Coffee County and was then two-thirds owned by Dickel's partner and brother-in-law, Victor Shwab. Also in 1888, Dickel, who was then a 70 year-old man in failing health, fell off his horse and was injured, forcing his retirement. He died six years later.

    Jim Beam, Colonel James Beauregard Beam was born in 1864. The Civil War was raging not far away. He died in 1947, the year of the first televised presidential address. His father, David M. Beam, was a 3rd generation Kentucky distiller. James B. made it 4 generations when he joined the family business in1882. A few years later, after David M. retired, Jim Beam and Albert J. Hart (his sister's husband) built a new distillery to take advantage of a new railroad line. At the same time, about 2 miles down the track, R.B.Hayden was building the original Old Grand-Dad distillery. The Beam & Hart Distillery was famous for a brand the called Old Tub whiskey. Jim Beam reopened the plant in 1933 after Prohibition with new partners. He was 70 years old. The descendants of Jim Beam and his brother Park and uncle Joe have made whiskey for dozens of different Kentucky distilleries, including the ones that carry Jim Beam's name today.

Canadian Whisky

In the making of Canadian whisky, the Canadian government does not mandate a specific grain mixture, proof level for distillation or type of barrel for storage, preferring to let each distiller make those decisions. According to U.S. federal regulations, however, Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada according to that country's law, must contain no distilled spirits less than three years of age and must be a blend. Canadian law simply states that the whisky must be produced from cereal grain.

    In compliance with that regulation, Canadian whisky may be distilled from a fermented mash of wheat, corn, rye and/or barley.A common misconception about Canadian whiskies, and American blended whiskeys for that matter, is that they are rye whiskeys. In reality, however, Canadian distillers use seven times more corn than other grains. But because Canadian distillers have been allowed to develop their own method, it is important to remember that each distiller's recipe calls for different amounts of the individual grains with the exact proportions being kept as closely guarded secrets.

    All Canadian whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, although most spend from six to eight years in the barrel. After aging, the whisky is dumped into huge blending vats. This is the stage at which the art of the blender is put to test. One of the many tricks of the blender's trade is the use of whiskeys of various ages in order to produce a consistent blend from year to year. That's why a bottle of Canadian whisky  produced today is likely to have the same taste profile as a bottle of the same brand purchased 10, 20 or more years ago. After blending, the whisky is returned to barrels to allow the newly combined whiskeys to marry.Only then is it bottled and sold.

    As a rule, Canadian whiskies are light-bodied, slightly pale and have a reputation for being mellow. What many people, even in the business, don't realize is how big the Canadian category is. Accounting for 11.5% of all distilled spirits consumption, Canadian whisky trails only vodka in terms of its share of the market.

Japanese Whiskey

    Not included in the 4 basic areas whiskeys is Japan. HOWEVER, they should be. Whisky made in Japan, in general, are a first-class product. No surprise, because the vast majorityof Scottish distilleries are either owned by Japaneese companies or at least heavily susidized, which allows for free and independed access to secret distilling, blending and aging practices.

Japanese whisky is a style of whisky developed and produced in Japan. Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky  than other major styles of whisky.

There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt  whiskies and blended malt kakubin (角瓶, square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear.


  F A C T S


Made from fermented mash of malted and unmalted barley, corn rye and lesser amounts of other cereal grains.

All Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled in pot stills and are aged three to nine years in oak casks previously used for aging sherry brandy, bourbon or rum.

Smallest distilled spirits category.


Malted barley is the primary grain used.

Drying the barley in kilns heated by peat fires gives it a smoky flavor.

A single malt Scotch is the product of a single batch, by a single distillery.

Blended Scotch accounts for well over 90% of all consumption in the U.S.

Blends can be made from dozens of single malts and grain whiskies.


Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies are straight whiskeys.

Bourbon must be made from a mash containing between 51% and 79% corn.

Bourbon must be aged in charred, new oak barrels.

Tennessee whiskeys are produced like bourbon but with an extra step of filtration through maple charcoal prior to aging.

American blended whiskeys are assembled from a number of straight whiskies and grain neutral spirits.


Largest whisky category in the U.S. with 11.5% share of all distilled spirits and second largest distilled spirits category overall.

Often thought to be straight rye whisky, Canadian is actually made mostly from corn and is a blended whisky.

Canadian whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years.

The age statement on a bottle of Canadian whiskey is that of the youngest whisky used.



February 2018