Whisky (Scottish English and British English) or whiskey (Hiberno-English and American English) is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used for different varieties, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and maize (corn). Whisky is aged in wooden casks, made generally of white oak, except that in the United States corn whiskey need not be aged.
Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many competing denominations of origin and many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wood. Indian whisky is an exception, where grain fermentation is not a requirement and the most common basis is fermented molasses. The requirement for aging in wood is also not entirely universal.
Whisky or whisky-like products are produced in most grain-growing areas. They differ in base product, alcoholic content, and quality.
Malt (whisky) is made primarily from malted barley.
Grain (whisky) is made from any type of grains.
Malts and grains are combined in various ways
Blended malt is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled “pure malt” or just “malt” it is almost certain to be a vatted whisky. This was formerly called a “vatted malt” whisky.
Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. However, unless the whisky is described as “single-cask” it will contain whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Nikka), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
Blended whiskies are typically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often along with neutral spirits, caramel and flavouring. A whisky simply described as Scotch, Irish, or Canadian Whiskey is most likely to be a blend. A blend is usually from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. Jameson Irish Whiskey is an example of an exception, as it comes from only one distillery. A mixture of malts (with no grain) from different distilleries (more usually called a vatted malt) may sometimes be referred to as a “blended malt”, and a mixture of grain whiskies with no malts will sometimes carry the designation “blended grain”.
Cask strength (also known as Barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Rather than diluting, the distiller is inviting the drinker to dilute to the level of potency most palatable (often no dilution is necessary, such is the quality of single cask whiskies).
Single cask (also known as Single barrel) whiskies are usually bottled by specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, amongst others. Each bottle of a single-barrel whisky is from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of such whiskies may substantially vary from cask to cask within a brand.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been in bottle for many years may have a rarity value, but are not “older” and will not necessarily be “better” than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time. Beyond an age of a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel will also not necessarily make a whisky “better”.
Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries – although the strength can vary, and cask strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.
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