Whisky or Whiskey?
Scotch, whiskey, bourbon and rye, whisky goes by many names. If you're new to the drink, you may be forgiven for being a little confused! This page aims to help unravel a bit of the mystery and will prepare you for the wonderful selection you will find at our whisky bar.
Whisky and whiskey are synonyms for a distilled spirit made from fermented malted grains. Here in Scotland it is spelled 'whisky' whereas in the US the Irish spelling of 'whiskey' is commonly used. To understand the origins of the spelling, we had to dig deep into the history of whisky itself, which stretches back centuries when Irish monks brought knowledge of the distillation of 'aqua vitae' learned on their mediterranean pilgrimages back home. It is thought that descendants of those monks went on to spread their knowledge as they settled on the Scottish island of Islay. From there the knowledge of this travelled, and this 'water of life' was literally translated into the Gaelic as 'uisge beatha'. 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".
Uisge beatha (pronounced wish-ga bah-ha) became anglicised as whisky, and this was the generally accepted spelling until the 19th century, when due to the devastating effects of the English Malt laws imposed after the Acts of Union, the quality of Scotch whisky had decreased and Irish whiskey was considered superior. In order to differentiate their product, Irish distillers began to use the ‘e’ in their spelling. A lot of Irish whiskey was exported to America, who then preferred using this version to infer a higher quality. Although the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decreed the official US spelling to be 'whisky' in 1968, most distilleries kept their traditional spelling. The Scotch whisky industry thankfully recovered after the invention of the Coffey still which led to the creation of Scotch blends that went on to become household names all over the world (and took the Scottish spelling with them)!
Here at the Malt Room, we love good whisky no matter where it comes from (or how it is spelled), and are proud of our global selection. We do however have our roots in Scotland, so hopefully you'll forgive us if we stock more Scottish malts! You can learn more about what differentiates each type of whisky below.
Scotch whisky is legally defined as spirit made in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added). It must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years, cannot have any added substance (except caramel which can be used for colouring), and comprise of a minimum of 40% alcohol.
There are several different types of Scotch - the most popular being blended Scotch which is a careful marrying of malt and grain whiskies from several distilleries. Malt whiskies are distilled using the traditional pot stills whereas the lighter grain whiskies are distilled in a continuous process using the Coffey still. The blending process was originally used to provide consistency and smoothness of product. Single malts are whiskies produced from a blend of different malt whiskies from the same distillery. Single barrel whiskies are just that - the exclusive product of just one barrel.
If an age statement is provided on a bottle of Scotch, that is the minimum age of any of the whiskies used to produce it - just a fraction of a young whisky in a bottle means the bottle must carry that age.
The maturation process is a key factor in determining the character of the final product. The time spent in wood softens the alcohol and imparts additional characteristics and flavours from the barrel, and therefore the quality of the barrels themselves is extremely important.
Barrels that have previously been used to make bourbon are typically used as a foundation, although many other different types of barrel can be used either exclusively or in combination. Some Scotch whiskies are famous for combining whisky aged in many different types of barrel.
Historically, some of the malted cereals that were used in the production of Scotch would have been dried in kilns using peat fires. This peat imparted a strong smoky flavour to the whisky. Nowadays, peat has mostly been replaced by electric heating coils, however peated barley is still used in varying concentrations to impart a warmth and depth to the drink.
There are 6 recognised Scotch whisky regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Island, Islay and Campbeltown. Each region is characterised by specific techniques or characteristics of the whisky.
The Highland region (which includes Inverness) is famous for whiskies that marry fruitcake, heather, meadow flowers and peat. The most famous local distilleries include The Dalmore, Glenmorangie, and Tomatin. Being from Inverness, here at the Malt Room we carry an extensive range of these local heroes, as well as very rare bottles of the 'lost' distilleries of Inverness - Glen Mhor, Millburn, and Glen Albyn.
The famous 'golden triangle' of the Speyside region sits in a fertile valley of rivers and glens, and has the largest number of distilleries. Speysides usually carry a little peat and are characterised by fruity flavours of apple, pear, honey, nuts and spice. Signature Speyside malts include The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Macallan.
Lowland whiskies are triple-distilled (differing from the double-distillation of most other Scotch whiskies) and generally have a lighter and more citrus character than the other regions. Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch all hail from south of the Highland line which divides the Lowlands from the Highlands.
Islay whiskies are famous for their smoky, peaty whiskies, with all the distilleries (barring Bunnahabhain) using large proportions of peated barley in their malts. Being an island, the whiskies often carry a whiff of salt and brine (and sometimes even meat)! Many legendary whiskies have their roots here including Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, and Bruichladdich.
Although not an official region (strictly Island whiskies can be considered Highland whisky), Island whiskies frequently differ sufficiently in characteristics as to consider them separately. The Islands consist of:
- Abhainn Dearg, on Lewis
- Arran, on Arran
- Highland Park, on Orkney
- Jura, on Jura
- Scapa, on Orkney
- Talisker, on Skye
- Tobermory and Ledaig on Mull
Although generally smoky and salty, the Island whiskies tend to be a little lighter, more floral and sometimes sweeter than the Islays.
Campbeltown was once a thriving whisky region, with almost 30 distilleries, Campbeltown was once known as the whisky capital of the world. However, since its heyday most of the distilleries have gone out of business and now just 3 remain. However these do include the legendary Springbank distillery, famed for continuing the traditional techniques of whisky making, as well as Glengyle and Glen Scotia. Campbeltowns range from smoky, to fruit, vanilla and toffee to grassy.
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made principally from corn and aged in scorched virgin oak barrels. Unlike Scotch, it doesn't have a minimum age requirement, but if it has been aged for at least 4 years and has no additives, it can be called straight bourbon.
Although strongly associated with Kentucky, Bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States.
Tennessee is a hub for whiskey making, although most distillers based there call their product 'Tennessee whiskey' and frequently apply the Lincoln County Process of filtering or steeping the whiskey in charcoal before aging in the barrels. This strongly wooded character has made Tennessee whiskeys popular in bars around the world.
The Malt Room is heavily indebted to the Bourbon industry, as once used, the oak barrels can no longer be legally used for Bourbon making and many of them are shipped over to Scotland to be used in the long maturation of Scotch whisky!
Rye whiskey can refer to either of two different, but related, types of whiskey - American Rye which contains spirit made from at least 51% rye grain, or Canadian Rye which has no requirement for rye content, and is just termed Rye for historical reasons! Rye is considered to add a spicy notes to the whisky, which makes it fantastic in an Old Fashioned.
Irish Whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world and is currently enjoying a huge resurgence, with many new distilleries opening to compete with the 3 major distilleries of Ireland - Old Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton. Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky in that it uses a proportion of unmalted barley (a relic from British taxation laws), is triple-distilled and normally doesn't use peated barley. However, like Scotch, Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. This results in generally lighter, smooth and fruity spirits.
The history of Japanese whisky can be primarily traced back to two legendary individuals. The first is Masataka Taketsuru who carried out apprenticeships at several Scottish distilleries. The second is Shinjiro Torii, a businessman who constructed the famous Suntory distillery. Taketsuru initially worked as the distillery executive there and helped establish the Yamazaki distillery, before going on to found the Nikka distillery.
Japanese whisky has rightly won global accolades and their best whiskies can hold their own against the most famous Scotch brands.