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 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 11, September 2003   
WhiskyWhisky Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 10, Summer 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 12, October 2003


One of the most famous spirits of the world, exclusively produced by the fermentation of cereals, is a liquor rich in traditions and history


The Origins

 The origins of whisky are not clear and they get lost in time. Going back to traditions, every information lead to the regions of Scotland and Ireland. It is plausible to believe that in those regions, where the cultivation of cereals is very common, someone thought of distilling the liquid where fermented barley boiled. Moreover, it is natural to think the discovering of a new beverage, inebriant, agreeable and pleasing in the cold winter nights, was shared with friends and originating an evolution process which will pass the beverage up to now. R.J. Fobes, a German expert of the history of distillation, said once it was believed that near Cashel, among the rests of Celtic-Irish buildings, there were parts of an ancient bronze made still. It is said that when Henry II of England invaded Ireland, he found out in those places was practiced the technique of distillation already.

Two ways of drinking whisky: ''On the Rocks''
and plain
Two ways of drinking whisky: ”On the Rocks” and plain

 It is more likely that the art of distillation was introduced in Ireland from Scotland during the middle age, however there is not any evident fact that can support this hypothesis. It can be however said, with no doubt, that both Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky share centuries of traditions. The first document where a spirit distilled from barley in Scotland is first mentioned is a register found in 1494, where it is mentioned the shipping of “eight boll of malt to monk John Corr to make brandy” name corresponding to the Gaelic “Uisge beatha”, that in Irish Gaelic becomes “uisce beathadh”. The most ancient term is the one used by Celts: “Usquebaugh”.

 It should be noticed this first citation is referred to a religious, this should make understand the importance of abbeys and monasteries that with their agricultural activity, were of fundamental importance to the development of distillation techniques, the production of beer and wine. These activities were practiced in the abbeys and monasteries of England, whereas the production of beer was practiced everywhere, distillation of cereals was only practiced in the northern area.

 During the sixteenth century in Scotland and in England were abolished monasteries and monks were forced, in order to make a living, to get the best benefits out from their monastical life: distillation techniques slowly spread everywhere in the country. The spreading was so vast that Scottish Parliament, in 1579, set specific laws that prohibited the distillation of brandy, with the exception of noblemen that could distill liquors for personal use. This norm was needed, not because the sobriety of the people was in danger, but because the activity of distillation subtracted cereals destined for nutrition. Charles I, in 1644, introduced new taxes, and this inspired the Scottish Parliament to do the same and therefore introduced new taxes on aqua vitae.


 In the 1600s and 1700s, usque baugh was both connected to Ireland and Scotland. Another witness dated back to the end of seventeenth century is offered by Martin Martin who, during its journeys in the Hebrides, wrote in his diary: “there are many type of liquors, usually called Usquebaugh, and also known as Trestarig, that is aquavitae, distilled three times, which are strong and hot” and ”a third type of liquor is distilled four times, and this is called Usquebaugh baul by locals: the first sip shakes the body and two spoonfuls are just a sufficient dose; every man who exceeds this dose, his breathing can suddenly stop and put his life in danger”. After some years from the constitution of the United Kingdom, the Union Act, the Parliament tried to make Scottish laws similar to the ones of England by introducing new taxes on malt, this was cause of tumults of the people and the Parliament was forced to abrogate the norm. A second attempt to tax malt was introduced in 1725, once again this was cause of tumults. At the end the Parliament won over people and was successful in introducing a new tax on malt and it even forbade the distillation for personal use. In 1784 was promulgated the Wash Act, which distinguished Lowlands and Highlands and supported producers of Highlands who had higher difficulties in the production of whisky as opposed to the ones of Lowlands. This law generated a flow of whisky from north to south and forced the Parliament to augment the tax for the permission of distilling. Moreover, to make distillers' life more complicated, there also were prohibition times because of the low availability of cereals because of famine.

 In 1814 London decided to set a new way. After having abandoned the old system of taxing the capacity of the still, they preferred a fixed tax of 10 pounds for every still. Despite this new measure, smuggling remained common and continued to develop forcing the parliament to change, once again, the laws which did not have the effect of changing Scottish feelings who continued to consider an interference the intentions of London for the reunification of the country.



 We will consider the production method used for Scotch whisky, the other ones are basically the same. The ingredients are barley, yeast, water and peat. The distillation is usually done between October and May, byproducts of distillation are never wasted, and according to Scottish tradition, they are used for feeding animals. The process originates from barley: in the beginning only local barley was used, but now, since tens of years, also imported barley is used; this factor should be useful in understanding the quality of Scotch whisky does not depend on the barley used for production. The same thing cannot be said for the other two ingredients, water and peat, which prove to be the most important ingredients for the quality of whisky. The first phase of the process is about transforming barley into malt. Malt consists in germinated barley by using a process of maceration in water, therefore, by means of heat, it gets dried. This process begins with maceration, consisting in wetting barley in tanks called “steeps”, in order to start germination, the temperature is held at about 20° C (68° F). Maceration time varies according to the weather and to the quality of barley, usually ranging from 48 to 72 hours. When the weight of barley is raised to one time and a half, the water is drained, and it is laid on the floor, from this moment on the germination process takes place and starch get transformed into maltose. At the end of the process, barley is transformed into green malt and it is finally ready to be dried and to be transformed into sugar.

 Green malt is rich in water and it must be dried in a peat operated oven called “Kiln”, in order to lose water. Green malt is laid at a height of about 60 centimeters from the base of the oven (23 inches), and then peat it is burned under it. Peat's smoke, by raising up, passes through the base and dries the malt while impregnating it with its characteristics aromas. At the end of the drying process the malt is being cleaned, then it is milled and the resulting flour is blended with water at a temperature of about 60° C (140° F), the so called “mashing”, until it gets transformed in sweet must, called “wort”. Malt is extracted three or four times at different temperatures, from 70° to 80° C (158°-176° F).

 The next phase of the process is fermentation. The must is passed through a refrigerator and its temperature is lowered to 20° C (68° F) and subsequently passed in wash-backs, large fermentation tanks, where along with the must is also added beer yeast and soon after the fermentation starts. Yeasts allow the extraction of dextrose from maltose and therefore convert dextrose into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It is a violent and noisy process, lasting from 36 to 40 hours, and the result is a clean liquid, which is called wash, made of water, yeast and alcohol (about 5%). The wash is a fermented liquid ready to be distilled.

 The next phase is distillation: it is in this stage that whisky is obtained. Malt Scotch whisky from Highlands it is still distilled in copper made stills called “Pot still”. Every distillery must have at least two stills, one for the first distillation, having a larger neck and used for the production of the so called “low wines”, and another, the “low wines still”, also called “spirit still”, for the second distillation. As “head” and “tail” are being discarded, they contain poisonous substances, it is obtained the “heart” (middle cut) which finally is “malt whisky”. In these last phases it is fundamental the skill of the stillman, that is the one responsible for the distillation process: it is him the one who decides whether the liquid coming out from the still is quality whisky or not. Besides experience, stillman does some tests by adding water to the liquid obtained by distillation: in case it gets turbid it means quality is still low, only when the liquid stays limpid is considered whisky. Making whisky is certainly an art: even the least error during the distillation process could compromise the whole quality of the beverage.

 Distilled whisky has an alcohol by volume ranging from 57% and 60%, moreover, it is highly burning in the mouth and has a sour taste, it practically is undrinkable. Water is then added in order to low the alcohol by volume down to 40%-43%. Water is fundamental, it is what will make whisky inimitable. After this phase the whisky is transferred in casks, usually having a capacity not greater than 185 gallons and they are kept in rooms controlled by officers of her Majesty. At this point begins the aging process. Scotch whisky, by law, must be aged for at least 3 years. At the end of this period whisky is still immature and at least 6 years must be waited before tasting a decent product. Optimal aging is obtained after ten years. Despite aging depends on the size of cask, not all whisky age at the same way: the ones from Highlands age slowly and are more longeval when compared to the ones of Lowlands and Campbeltown. During aging part of the volume and strength is lost according to the humidity of the aging rooms: the higher the humidity, the more the whisky will lose strength; the lower the humidity, the higher will be the loss of volume. Usually casks used for the aging of Sherry, when used for the aging of whisky, are capable of giving roundness and personality, as well as a splendid golden color.

 Sherry gives whisky roundness and sometimes part of its aromas as well. Casks used for sherry are not the only ones used for aging whisky, some distilleries use cask of Bourbon, Port and Amontillado. At the end of the aging period, before proceeding to bottling, a further reduction of the alcohol by volume is usually done and this will obtain a whisky with 40%-45% of alcohol by volume. Special whisky called “cask proof” are also sold, this whisky is not diluted and has the same alcohol by volume of the cask, about 57%. 95% of the commercialized whisky is a blend, that is a blending of more whiskys, and it is the blender the one who creates blends by selecting strong young whiskys and older complex whiskys, creating a new product with a specific personality.


Types of Whisky

 There are five big families of whisky: Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Rye and Canadian. Whisky is also classified as:


  • Blended - obtained by a blend of single malt whiskys with one or more whisky produced with cereals and it is the most common Scotch whisky. A well made blend never contains less than 25 different types and the average is made with 30, even though there are some blends containing more than 40. In case blending contains a malt whisky for more than 40%, the product is classified as super premium; in case malt whisky is from 30% and 40%, it is called premium. There also are whiskys classified as special and contain a dose of malt which is not greater than 30%. There are other whiskys classified as “first category” and “second category” whose percentage of malt if never greater than, respectively, 20% and 10%
  • Single malt - produced by a single distillery and uses a blend of single malts only
  • Single grain - produced with both malt and other light cereals such as non malted barley and corn. Used as a component for blends, has a higher alcohol by volume and ages faster as opposed to malt whiskys

 Single malts are classified as:


  • Lowlands' single malt - produced in an area going from Sundee and Greenock
  • Highlands' single malt - produced in an area north from Lowlands
  • Speyside malt - produced in Spey Valley whose microclimate gives whisky a particular character
  • Islay malt - produced in the homonymous island

 Among the many types of whisky should also be mentioned:


  • Bourbon - whisky produced in the United States of America. American agriculturists, having huge quantities of cereals, including corn, barley and rye, they had the idea of trying to distill them: the Bourbon straight whisky was born. It is a distilled beverage produced by a blend of many cereals of which 51% is corn. It is not blended and therefore cannot be considered “blend”, it is distilled two times, aged for at least 2 years in oak casks toasted on the inside in order to lower the tannic effects of wood. Bourbon straight whisky has an elegant bouquet, round and slightly sour, excellent as aperitif, with ice or natural or tonic water
  • Canadian Whisky - in Canada, at the end of the 1700s, because of the huge quantity of cereals available, a group of agriculturists started the activity of distillation. The raw material is a blend of cereals, mainly corn, previously fermented, blended after distillation. Canadian whiskys are aged in casks used for the aging of American whisky for a period from five to ten years. Canadian whisky has a round taste, typical of blends, to which belong to. Excellent “on the rocks” and plain as digestive
  • Irish Whiskey - the definition “Irish” tells the place of production: Ireland. Distilled with barley, oat and rye, Irish whiskeys are aged for a minimum of five years, show a blond color with green nuances, dry flavor with hints of sweet-bitter tastes, certainly different from any other type of whisky. Excellent at the end of a meal as digestive
  • Scotch Whisky - excellent as an aperitif, “on the rocks”, as digestive, also used for cooking
  • Tennessee Whiskey - is distilled from a fermented blend made of corn, at least 51%, and rye, barley and oat. After distillation is filtered by using white maple charcoal from Tennessee. Aged for at least 5 years in toasted oak casks, has a full taste and flower aromas. Excellent as aperitif, with ice or natural or tonic water

 Whisky or whiskey? The difference between whisky and whiskey is fundamental: whisky is the one traditionally produced in Scotland whereas whiskey is the one produced in Ireland. There are other differences as well. In Scotland barley is dried with peat's smoke, which also gives malt smoky aromas and will be found in the final product. In Ireland malt is being dried in closed ovens, therefore its taste is not contaminated and keeps the typical aromas of malt and honey. Another difference is that in Ireland whiskey is distilled three times in order to have a more pure and round beverage, in Scotland whisky is usually distilled two times.


How to Drink Whisky

 Whisky is very versatile and can be drunk the way one likes the most. Drunk plain or with a glass of water, or with ice (on the rocks) but also by adding soda, mineral water, lemonade, ginger ale or other nonalcoholic beverages. Because of the versatility of whisky, it is a fundamental ingredient in many cocktails. In Scotland it is traditionally drunk before lunch or dinner or at late night, as an aperitif with some water. Some support the idea water must not be mineral and it must be pure spring water because mineral water has its own taste that would alter the one of whisky.

 Whereas wine tasters use bread to cleanse the mouth, whisky connoisseurs use hard cheese with a non aggressive taste, or bitter chocolate with water. Malts does not improve with the adding of ice, either “on the rocks” or plain water. A good way is to take little sips, after having smelt it, and leaving the beverage for few seconds between the tongue and the palate, alternating sips of water and lemon. This will be useful for rounding the aggressivity as well as amplifying and prolonging both the taste and flavor of whisky.


 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 11, September 2003   
WhiskyWhisky Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 10, Summer 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 12, October 2003

Wine Parade


The best 15 wines according to DiWineTaste's readers. To express your best three wines send us an E-mail or fill in the form available at our WEB site.

Rank Wine, Producer
1 Masseto 1998, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia (Italy)
2 Capo di Stato 1998, Conte Loredan Gasparin (Italy)
3 Colli Bolognesi Pignoletto Superiore “Prova d'Autore” 2001, Bonfiglio (Italy)
4 Teroldego Rotaliano Granato 1998, Foradori (Italy)
5 Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Cakebread (USA)
6 Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 1996, Ca' del Bosco (Italy)
7 Château Laroque Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classè 1998 (France)
8 Shiraz 2000, Plantaganet (Australia)
9 Fumé Blanc Napa Valley 2001, Grgich Hills (USA)
10 Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac 2000 (France)
11 Semillon Sauvignon 2001, Cape Mentelle (Australia)
12 Margaux 2000, Ségla (France)
13 Riesling Adelaide Hills 2001, Nephente (Australia)
14 Pinot Noir 1998, Mountadam (Australia)
15 Venere Maule Valley 2000, Cremaschi Furlotti (Chile)

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