Beverage Expert Sean Ludford of BevX.com

Whiskey’s Essential Element – Wood

The Splendor of Irish Whiskey

Posted March 9th, 2010 by sean@bevx.com

Source:

Sean Ludford

http://www.bevx.com/spirits/irish_whiskey

In a world that is becoming increasingly smaller with each year, you are hard pressed to find yourself far away from an Irish Pub regardless of your location. Stuck in Manila? I can point you to a great Paddy bar. Ditto for Reykjavík, Rome, Bordeaux, Guadalajara, Munich, Brussels, Hong Kong, and just about anyplace that you could name.

The Irish Pub is the world’s friendliest and most covert church where the flock congregates daily. An essential element of the doctrine is Irish Whiskey. Whiskey and Ireland are inseparable and the rest of the world is catching up. Irish Whiskey is enjoying a revival worldwide and America is no exception. In fact the US may well be pulling the bandwagon. Irish Whiskey; it’s not just for St. Paddy’s Day anymore.

Why should it be saved be for St. Paddy’s Day? In the world of Whiskey, and dare I say brown Spirits, there is nothing as inviting, as silky and agreeable as Irish Whiskey. While Scotch Whisky, a great favorite indeed, asks something and occasionally much of its patrons, Irish Whiskey offers pleasure with no strings attached. This does not suggest that Irish Whiskey is not worthy of contemplation. There is much to be discovered in a glass of Irish Whiskey. Luckily more and more Spirits drinkers are discovering this fact.

Where Have All the Distilleries Gone?

With the Spirits growing in popularity, the current, huge disconnect in the world of Irish Whiskey is the fact that few distilleries remain. Worse yet, damn few rumors of new distilleries persist. Ireland is speckled with the ruins of distilleries long abandoned. The sad truth is that all of Ireland’s Whiskies of note are made at one of the country’s three active distilleries. There is Cork Midleton in County Cork, Cooley (the latest distiller – 1987) in County Louth, and The Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. That’s it.

So how did a nation of thousands of distilleries get reduced to just three? Of course many factors have contributed to our present circumstance.

Ireland fell victim to a perfect storm of local and world events that conspired to cripple the Whiskey industry. The first, and enormous factor was the Irish war of independence. Once freedom was secured the Brits were quick with an embargo on all things Irish. This of course eliminated the numerous outposts of the empire including Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the UK itself.

Of course Ireland still had the vastly growing market of the US to rely upon. Not so fast. In 1920 the US entered the dark period of Prohibition that lasted for 13 years. 1933 came just in time to save a good number of Irish distillers clinging to their last thread but in less than a decade the Second World War broke out and with it a massive grain shortage in Europe. Without grains there is no Whiskey. In a matter of three decades the once thriving Irish Whiskey industry was nearly mortally wounded. This may seem like a long, long time ago but the effects of this period in history affects the Irish Whiskey business to this day.

While that brief walk through history may leave you a bit glum the reality of Irish Whiskey in the 21st century is very positive indeed. We are now privileged to find more Irish Whiskey labels available on our store shelves and in our local pubs. It is always a remarkable exercise to sit down with a dozen, or more, labels and appreciate the common threads that unite them while savoring the unique flavors found in each bottle. Don’t settle for just the singular label that is being pushed by nearly every bar in the nation. Hint, the Whiskey that is being thrown down in shot form by newly minted drinkers is not likely to be Ireland’s top Whiskey ambassador. Whiskey is made for sipping.

If it has been some time since you last enjoyed an Irish Whiskey, get to it. An Irish pub lies within your reach and they are waiting for you.

Defining Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey follows the same aging minimum requirements. Irish Whiskey differs from its Scottish counterpart by being triple-distilled, in most cases, as opposed to the double distillation used by most of Scotland’s malt distillers. The notable distinction is the independent Cooley Distillery that double-distills its malt Whiskey.

Much of Ireland’s Whiskey is of the blended variety meaning that it is a blend of malt and grain whiskey. In Ireland grain whiskey is almost always made exclusively with maize and made in column stills (like Bourbon). Much of the malt whiskey is made in pot stills. True Irish Pot Still Whiskey is made with a significant portion of unmalted barley giving it a great, rustic aromatic profile and unique flavors. Many years ago Irish Pot Still included other cereals such as oats and rye.

What’s With the “E”?

In short, Scottish Whisky has no ‘e’ while Irish Whiskey does. There are many theories to explain this subtle difference including the cheeky suggestion that the Scots were too frugal to buy the additional vowel! The most credible explanation is that in the mid 1800s Scotch Whisky brands saturated the marketplace with loads of cheaply made whisky. Producers in Ireland, in an effort to further distinguish their products, adopted the use of the extra vowel. Certainly, this is not a condition that exists today but the subtle spelling variation endures. In the world of whisky we generally find that Canada, Japan and Wales follow the Scottish spelling while the US uses both spellings. In no way should consumers believe that the choice of one spelling over the other is any indication of style.

Types of Irish Whiskey:

Blended – this is by far the greatest volume of Irish Whiskey. As the name suggests, it’s a blend of grain Whiskey and malt Whiskey.

Grain – In Ireland grain Whiskey is most often made with maize. It is produced in column stills as it is in Scotland and the USA.

Malt (single malt) – is made with malted barley as is the single malt Whisky in Scotland. It is distilled in pot stills and is much more weighty than grain whiskey.

Irish Pure Pot Still – is much like the malt Whiskey as it utilizes malted barley in a pot still with the distinctive difference of including unmalted barley. This style is very distinctive.

 


 

Answers to 20 Essential Whisky Questions

Posted January 13th, 2010 by sean@bevx.com

1. What is Scotch? First know that Scotch is purely Scottish. It is not a style of Whisky rather simply a Whisky that is made in the nation of Scotland. It also has to be aged in oak barrels for at least three years to legally be called Scotch Whisky – more on barrel aging later.

2. Varieties of Scotch Whisky. Scotch Whisky is typically divided into four categories: Single Malt, Grain, Blended, and Blended Malt (sometimes called Pure Malt or by its former moniker, Vatted malt). Blended Whisky is by far the largest category by volume and sales. Blended Whiskies are a blend of Grain Whiskies and Malt Whisky. Brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewars, and Chivas are popular blends. Blended malts are a blend of two or more single malts.

3. What does Single Malt mean? Single refers to a single distillery. Malt is the sole grain material used to produce the Whisky. So a single malt is a Whisky made at one distillery and made with 100% malted barley. Simple.

4. Scotch Whisky Regions. For centuries the Scottish Whisky industry has sub-divided the nation for tax purposes. Over time vague regional styles emerged and remain to some degree today. While the decisions made by the individual distiller have more impact on the subsequent Whisky than does the distillery address, it is useful to familiarize yourself with Scotch Whisky’s regional styles: Lowland Whiskies are the most delicate and lightest in body. They do differ from other Scottish malts, as they are triple-distilled as opposed to double-distilled, as are all other Scotch malts. Island malts, most notably Islay, are noted for their assertive notes of peat and notes of the sea. While these would logically be the toughest malts to get cozy with, they are presently wildly popular. The Highland region encompasses the largest number of distilleries. It is commonly further sub-divided with the Speyside region being the most famous zone. Speyside malts are rich with malted barely flavors and noted for being slightly sweet and fruity. Campbeltown, a dangling peninsula on the western coast was once a thriving distilling center but now it is home to just three distilleries.

5. Where’s the “E”? Scotch Whisky has traditionally been spelled without an E while Irish Whiskey uses an E. No special reason for the difference although some Irish producers have suggested (in jest) that the Scots are too thrifty to spring for the additional vowel.

6. Age statements, what do they mean? Most Single Malts bare an age statement boldly printed on the label. If the label says 12 years old (or any other age) it means that 100% of the Whisky in that bottle has aged in an oak barrel for at least 12 years and not one day less.

7. Does Scotch Whisky age in the bottle like wine? No. Whisky is aged in oak barrels. Once it makes it into a bottle the aging stops and the spirits flavor and aroma profile is captured.

8. What kinds of barrels are used to mature Scotch Whisky? Barrel aging is absolutely essential to Whisky. Whisky, like all Spirits is clear and colorless when it comes off of the still. All of the natural color observed in Whisky comes from the barrel – as does many of its aromas and flavors. The majority of barrels used for aging Scotch Whisky were originally used to age Bourbon in the USA. Scotch Whisky is (almost) always aged in used barrels while Bourbon is required to be aged in new oak barrels. It’s a great symbiotic relationship that exists between Bourbon and Scotch Whisky producers.

Other types of barrels are used as well with ex-Sherry being the second most common barrel type. There are no rules regarding the former use of an oak barrel.

9. Finished in “Port Wood”. What does this mean? In the past few decades the practice of special wood “finishing” has become popular. This is a creative way for a distiller to add an additional flavor component to their Whisky. A year or two in barrels that have freshly housed Port, Madeira, Rum, Sherry, or any Wine or Spirit adds a bright and distinctive flavor and aroma component. This is far from a marketing gimmick as it is an additional tool utilized by the distiller to make tasty and unique Whiskies for us to enjoy.

10. What is “Single Cask” Whisky? As the name suggests in a very literal sense is a Whisky that comes from one single cask as opposed to a marriage of casks as is the norm. Most single cask Whiskies are also typically free of added color and are bottled at “cask strength.”

11. Cask Strength Whisky; what does this mean? It simply means that the Whisky was bottled at the cask’s (or group of casks’) natural strength. Most spirits are diluted with water at the time of bottling to meet a uniform standard with 40% alcohol by volume being the most common. Cask strength Spirits are not diluted and often not altered in any way.

12. How strong is Whisky? Whisky must be bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume, which translates to 80 proof in the US. This is the standard strength found in most dry Spirits (Liqueurs are typically bottled at a lesser strength.)

13. Is older Whisky better? Whisky distillers have an ascending scale of prices for their Whisky offerings. The older the Whisky, the higher the price. Logically, one would assume that an older Whisky with a higher price tag is better than younger, cheaper Whiskies from the same distillery. While this is sometimes true, it is far from a rule. It is a matter of personal taste and preference. There are many instances that I prefer a Whisky in the middle of a distillery’s age range as opposed to the oldest. In a few cases, I prefer the youngest Whisky. Keep an open mind and trust your palate. There certainly does come a point of diminishing returns where the Whisky has been in the barrel to the extent that it has lost its original flavor profile, its vigor, and has become weighed down with the flavor of wood.

14. What is Peat? Peat is an organic fuel cut from the turf. This was once a vital home heating and cooking fuel in Scotland and throughout the British Isles. Peat was also burned to dry malted barley. While a great and cheap fuel, peat has a definite “reek” when burned. As you can imagine this greatly influenced the malted barely and the resulting Whisky.

15. Ice. I say no but many say yes. The bottom line is that it’s your drink; you paid for it so have it as you will. However, you should be aware that ice does dull both the aromatics and the palate.

16. Water. I answer with an emphatic yes. In most cases water can actually make a Whisky more vibrant on the palate and the aromatics more lively and pronounced as well.

17. Cocktails. Yes! Making cocktails with Scotch Whisky is a terrific way to enjoy the spirit. It doesn’t just have to be the most affordable blended varieties either and you can even make cocktails with single malts.

18. When should Scotch Whisky be consumed? While ordering a dram of malt with your cheese omelet may raise an eyeball or two, there is no bad time to enjoy Scotch Whisky. Once you venture into the world of Scotch Whisky you will find that there is a greater range of flavors and textures that exist in Scotch Whisky than any other Spirit Category. Some Whiskies are dry and zesty making them perfect aperitifs while others are rich, lush, and decadent working well with dessert. You will find a Whisky for nearly every occasion.

19. What should I drink along side my Whisky? Many people prefer to have nothing but water with their Whisky not wanting any other flavors to influence the complex and subtle flavors that Whiskies offer. Some, myself included, enjoy a quality, all-malt Ale to sip along side a Whisky.

20. What is “chill-filtering” and is it important? Chill filtration is one of Whisky’s hot controversial topics. Chill filtration is performed to ensure that Whisky, or any Spirit, will not cloud when chilled or mixed with water. However, artisan producers and blenders (as well as many Whisky lovers) feel that the process that strips the Spirit of many of its natural fatty acids taking with it subtle aromatics, flavors and texture.

 

Now you are armed with all the knowledge that you need to pursue the joys and pleasures of Scotch Whisky.

 


Whiskey’s Essential Element – Wood

Posted April 20th, 2011 by sean@bevx.com

If we were to line-up the ingredients utilized to create Whiskey we would gather grain (of varying types and forms depending upon the Whiskey we are making), water, yeast, and WOOD.

Among all of the materials used in the creation of Whiskey wood is the most important of all contributing anywhere from 50% to 80% of Whisky’s aromas and flavors. This ratio of wood’s impact varies greatly due to the type of Whiskey, the time in wood, and the climate in which it is matured. Straight Bourbon requires new barrels so clearly the impact is more profound.

There are clear and simple reasons to why the world’s greatest Whisky types, Straight Bourbon, Irish, and Scotch Whiskies are all required to be aged in cask for a period of no less than two years, as is the case for Bourbon, and three years for Irish and Scotch Whiskies.

Aging whisky in wood is not at all passive. It is quite active. Congeners in the spirit have time to react with each other. They are accelerated by careful interaction with oxygen and many of the wood’s compounds including sugars, tannins, lignin, and lactones, glycerol, fatty acids, and a dozens of aldehydes (vanillin being essential). Wood being a solid contributes solids to the whiskey in the form of various sugars and glycerol to name a few. In simple terms wood contributes flavor, aroma, and texture. Producing Whiskey without wood is akin to making a soufflé with no eggs.

Oak
The mighty oak has always been more than just a tree; it is a symbol of strength. The oak is an important symbol in both Celtic and Norse mythology. The wearing of oak leaves was a sign of special status among the Celts and later by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today oak leaves and clusters are used to denote rank in many of the world’s military forces.

For the maturation of Whiskey the wood of choice is oak. There are hundreds of varieties of oak but just a few that work ideally for the maturation of Spirits or Wine.

The genus name for oak is Quercus (kwarkes). In America the ideal cask oak is White Oak orQuercus Alba. In Europe the sub-varieties are Quercus Robur and Quercus Petraea. Oaks hybridize with an indiscretion most commonly associated with Lindsay Lohan’s activities on the Sunset Strip so the classic European varieties (robur and petraea) have become one in some forests.

One of the things that make these varieties of oak so desired for the production of casks is what makes these oaks attractive to ship builders. The American colonists were immediately drawn to the tall straight White Oak for ship timbers. These trees built England’s Royal Navy fleets for decades. In addition to being straight the white oak is tight grained, easily bent when heat is applied, and resistant to leakage.

American versus European Oak

European oak is more easily penetrated by liquid, especially spirits, and allows greater oxygen flow. American oak is lower in tannins as compared to its European counterparts while contributing more flavor compounds that are agreeable in Spirits and some would argue less agreeable in most Wines. In the simplest of terms American oak has stronger flavors than European oak.

Previous Use and Oak Virginity

Oak’s influence is first determined by the type of oak, it’s previous use or virginity, where it was grown, when felled, how it was dried, how it was cut, and the cooperage (how the barrel was made).

This is of great importance for both Irish and Scotch Whiskies. The two most popular types of used casks utilized for Whisky maturation are Bourbon and Sherry casks. Many falsely simplify the discussion by stating that Sherry casks = European oak while Bourbon casks are made with American oak. Not so fast.

What these Scotch Whisky sellers and instructors fail to mention or even consider is that a great portion of the casks used to mature Sherry are made in America from American oak. This new mantra we now hear from the Scotch whisky producers is seemingly a reaction to fielding questions regarding the influence of the previous wine or spirit on the mature Scotch Whisky.

The talking point is to refer to casks as American oak and European oak rather than Bourbon casks or Sherry casks. The decision to do so must be to marginalize the affect of the original Spirit held in the cask. In truth, the original wine or spirit contributes to the flavor of Irish or Scotch Whisky and that is okay if not desired. Anyone who has tasted a great number of Single Malt Scotch Whisky’s would be quick to tell you that influence of Bourbon and Sherry on the respective Whisky is undeniable.

Regardless of origin, oak casks are essential to Whiskey and so much so that even the world’s finest grain Spirit cannot sensibly adorn itself with the moniker of Whiskey without living a portion of its life in wood. In many instances the law requires such action and where these laws have no jurisdiction, logic prevails.

 

 

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