Whisky is one of the leading spirits in the world. France, where it is clearly popular, is one of the world's largest consumers of whisky... Read more

Whisky is one of the leading spirits in the world. France, where it is clearly popular, is one of the world's largest consumers of whisky... Read more

Whisky is one of the leading spirits in the world. France, where it is clearly popular, is one of the biggest consumers in the world. However, we don't always know what exactly is behind this term. Here are some basic facts about this grain-based spirit.
Whisky: definitions and main families
Let's start with the raw material chosen. It must be cereals, but they can be various. If we often think of barley, which is still in the majority, we can also think of rye, corn or wheat.

Furthermore, in all countries defining "whisky", it must be at least 40% proof and have been matured for at least 3 years in oak casks.

If the product is younger, it is generally referred to as a new make.

Finally, let us mention the various names that the wine lover will find on the labels.

Malt whisky is produced from a single grain, malted and generally distilled in an iron still. Grain whisky is made from a mixture of cereals and is usually distilled in a column still.

Going further, we can mention the term single malt, which indicates that the whisky comes from one distillery, and blended malt (formerly pure and vatted malt), which blends malt whiskies from different distilleries. A similar terminology applies to grain whisky.

Finally, when we talk about blending, it indicates that we have blended malt and grain whiskies.
Uisge beatha, whisky & whiskey: a Scottish and Irish heritage
Before it was called whisky, its common name was uisge beatha (brandy). It was primarily used by monks for curative purposes before technical advances made it possible to produce it for taste.

Later, it was in Ireland and Scotland that the spirit developed. Thus, for centuries, these two nations have claimed its paternity.

Indeed, various war stories mention whiskey consumption by soldiers in Ireland, including Bushmills in the late 12th century.

The evidence put forward by the Scots does not come from testimony but from written proof. An accountant's note fromLindores Abbey establishes the receipt of malt to make brandy.

However, both nations have the roots of whisky and have quickly made it a national symbol, accompanying the daily life of their inhabitants, for example at deaths, births and weddings.

The term whiskey is generally used for Irish whiskies. This specificity comes from the 19th century, when the Irish wanted to differentiate themselves from their Scottish neighbours. By extension, we speak ofAmerican whiskey, whereas all other producing countries use the term whisky.
World whisky: Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Japan and many others
Nowadays, geographical barriers have been broken. Taking advantage of technological advances and the advent of malting plants that can supply many grains to the four corners of the globe, new whisky countries are emerging.

One thinks of course of the famous Scotch whisky from Scotland, of the sweetness of Irish whiskey, of American bourbons and ryes, but also of Japanese whisky, recently considered as the "best whisky in the world" and whose success continues to be confirmed.

However, many nations are starting to make their way. We can mention France of course, but also Taiwan,India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland andSouth Africa...

More than ever before, whisky has become a global industry, although the historical players are still the most represented and sought-after.
Whisky making: from malting to distillation
Although each distillery carefully guards its own particularities, from the choice of barley to the shape and size of its stills, the production process respects a few key stages.

The first of these is malting. Although it is rarely done in the distillery nowadays, it is still the most important process. When the grain (usually barley) is harvested, it is dormant and must be awakened. This is done in a steeping phase. Then the barley is spread on the soil and the germination of the grain will continue. When the sprouts reach a few millimetres, the barley is called green malt. Germination is then stopped by drying the malt. To do this, the malt is placed in a kiln before being heated.

It is at this stage that peat, an emblematic element of the whisky world, can be used. It will deliver its perfumes during the drying of the malt, via molecules called phenols. The level of peat is measured in ppm (parts per million) of phenol.

Peat comes from the partial decomposition of plants (heather, moss, etc.) and forms a blackish material which, despite its high moisture content, is used as fuel. Today, it is only used to impart specific aromas to cereals.

The malt is then ground. The malt, freed of its impurities, is then transformed into a flour called grist. A grain mill is used here to carry out this stage.

Then the brewing stage takes place. Water will play an important role in this as it is the main element (about four times more than grist). It takes place in a generally closed vessel, called a mash tun, which has rotating blades.

This process produces a wort containing soluble starch, the source of sugar needed to produce alcohol. It is collected in a tank called an underback.

Fermentation is then carried out in vats called washbacks. Although they were originally made of wood, they are now often made of stainless steel. Once the vat is partially filled, yeast is added. Once the enzymes in the malt (amylases) have transformed the starch into fermentable sugars (maltose), the yeast will allow these to be transformed into alcohol.
The result is a malt beer (6 to 8%), the wash, which is stored in wash-chargers.

Logically, we move on to the distillation phase. This is a double distillation inpot stills.

The first will take place in large stills, the wash stills, and will make it possible to obtain a liquid, thelow wines, titrating around 25/30% which will flow through a spirit safe.

The second stage takes place in smaller stills, the spirit stills. It is at this stage that the final distillate, the new make, is obtained. To do this, the master distiller will make cuts to isolate different parts of the liquid. The lightest elements will form theheads, the middle cut will be the part selected by the master distiller, while the heaviest elements will form the tails.

It should be noted that in some cases, a third (or even more) distillation can be carried out. The distillation of grain whisky is continuous and uses a column still. The latter comes from the inventions of the years 1820-1830, of new stills(patent still and coffey still) allowing to produce less expensive whiskies and which will contribute to the birth of blends.
Whisky making: maturation, bottling and blending
Once the new make has been recovered, it is put into oak casks to age. Maturation is probably the stage that has the greatest impact on the profile of the whisky and is followed with the greatest attention by the cellar master.

The casks are then stored for several years. It is during this phase that the famous "angels' share" takes place, i.e. the evaporation of the alcohol present in the cask (approximately 2% per year in Scotland, compared to 8% for rum in the tropics!)

Once maturity has been reached, the liquid is ready to be bottled. A distinction is made betweencask strength whiskies, which are bottled at their natural strength, and reduced whiskies, which have had water added.

In the latter case, another term often used isun-chillfiltered. The addition of water will make the liquid cloudy and the fatty substances, which carry the flavours, will precipitate.
So the liquid is passed through cellulose plates which will trap the fats. The fact that this is not done cold will result in less capture of fats and therefore a better preservation of the aromas.

Then there are the single casks, which are limited editions from a single cask.

The last important point concerns blending. We have already mentioned the differences between blended malt, blended grain and blend, but there is also vatting. Indeed, since 1853, it is possible to mix different casks in the same distillery. This is the case for most of the bottlings from distilleries which use the skills of their masterblender.

It should be noted that in the case of a blend of whiskies of different ages, the youngest should be mentioned.

Finally, the term small batch is sometimes used to indicate that only a few casks have been blended.
Official and independent bottlings: a wide choice
Among the many bottles that can be found, another distinction can be made.

Indeed, we speak ofofficial bottlings when they are made by the distilleries themselves. The aim is generally to create a coherent range with a rather homogeneous identity. In addition, there are the independent (or merchant) bottlings, which are casks selected for their particularity and personality.

From the 1960's onwards, the distilleries' brands took off on the world market(Glenfiddich was a pioneer).

As far as independent bottlers are concerned, although the first traders such as Berry Bros & Rudd, Cadenhead and Gordon & Macphailare very old, they really developed in the 1990s. Read less

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