What is whiskey?


whiskey glass and bottle
Photo courtesy of mgaffney

Why, a gift from the gods, of course — the water of life! In so many words, anyway.

In fact, the word whiskey comes from the old Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, which means water of life.

The same “water-of-life” meaning is used to name distilled spirits in some countries: eau de vie (France) and aqvavit (Scandinavia), for example.

But what is it, you ask?

Today, whiskey refers to liquors distilled from grain.

The modern form of whiskey is thought to have come from the Celts (Ireland/Scotland/Wales) around 800 B.C.

The rest of Europe made their alcohol from grapes and other fruits, which didn’t grow so well up north.

I mean, really, who wants to live in the rainy UK without something to drink? Not me, and luckily not the Scots or Irish. But what could our castle-dwelling forebears grow that made for good liquor? Cereal grains like wheat, rye, and barley.

So, making whiskey Bravehart-style goes something like this:

  1. Cook some grains in water.
  2. Add yeast and cook some more.
  3. ???
  4. Profit!

Ok, it’s not quite that simple, but we’ll fill in the rest as we go along. 🙂

After being distilled, most whiskey is aged in oak barrels. The kind of barrels used and the amount of aging varies, which we’ll discuss in a later article.

The most common forms of whiskey available today are:

  • Scotch Whisky (from Scotland, of course). Note that there is no ‘e‘ in whisky.
  • Bourbon Whiskey (made only in the U.S.) and its close cousin Tennessee Whiskey
  • Irish whiskey
  • Rye Whiskey (mostly made in the U.S. and sort of in Canada), and
  • Canadian Whisky, which is blended using a mix of grains. It must be made in Canada and aged at least 3 years.

Here at Bourbon Central, we are principally concerned with the American whiskeys: bourbon, rye, and Tennessee.

Now truth be told, in addition to the American whiskeys, Scotch and Irish whiskey, there are a few other things called whiskey. But to be honest, they’re a pretty small piece of the pie, all things considered.

  • Japanese whiskey is Scotch not made in Scotland, and not so easy to find outside of Japan.
  • Indian whiskey is made from molasses instead of grain, meaning it’s more like rum than what most of us know as whiskey. The Scots get really pissy that the Indians insist on calling it whiskey. I guess that’s post-colonial justice for ya.
  • Corn whiskey (“white dog”, “moonshine”) is the predecessor to bourbon and, aside from the Georgia Moon brand and a couple other micro-distillery brands, is not available to buy (legally anyway).

Generally, whiskeys are had straight (“neat”) or with a bit of ice (“on the rocks”).

However, in the U.S, bourbon and rye whiskey are integral ingredients in many cocktails and mixed drinks.

So there you have it, a quick and dirty introduction to whiskey.

Next up, we’ll talk specifically about bourbon and why it is so special.

And stay tuned to learn what the best-selling whiskey in the world is. I bet you’ll be surprised!

Questions or feedback? Ideas for future articles?
Just drop a comment below, and I’ll be sure to answer.

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