Ask an ExpertWhisky 101

Recently the Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corporation hosted its third Whiskies of the World show. As a follow up to this premier event I would like to take this opportunity to address some common whisky-related questions that I have been asked over the years, by both NLC customers and coworkers alike.

Q: What is whisky?
A: Whisky is an alcoholic beverage made by distilling grains and aging the resulting distillate in oak casks. The base raw materials used are what distinguish one distillate from another – brandy is made from grapes, calvados from apples, and whisky from grains. The most common grains used to produce whisky are barley, wheat, rye and corn, either employed separately, or as a mixture. The amount of time spent in oak casks is what determines the age of the whisky, with the minimum legal age varying from country to country. While most whisky producing country’s usually demand at least 2-3 years of barrel aging, the best whisky producers usually go well beyond this time frame.  

Q: Where was whisky first made, and who makes it today?
A: The word whisky is derived from an Irish Gaelic term, uisge beatha (pronounced: “isshka beyha”), meaning “water of life”. Although thought to have originated in Ireland, it was the Scottish who firmly placed whisky on the world stage. In addition to these two powerhouses other, well-established, whisky producing nations include the U.S., Canada, Japan and Wales. The different countries have traditionally produced their own style of whisky, but even within these styles there are large ranges of aromas and flavours. Both Irish whiskey and American whiskey are usually spelled with the added “e”, while the other major players, including both Scotland and Canada, spelling it as whisky. In recent years whisky production has started in many other countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. 

Q: What makes the aroma and flavour of one whisky different from another?
A: There are many factors which combine to make up a whisky’s taste profile. Some of the most important include:

a.) The types of grain used – while “malt whisky” in Scotland is made from malted barley, we see other grains dominate the whisky production in some of the other countries. There is a lot of corn used in the U.S. (i.e. bourbon),  and the Canadian industry, known for its light, and smooth tasting whisky gets much of its rich flavour and unique character, through the use of rye as its primary base material.

b.) The distillation method – without getting too technical, most distillers these days are using either the continuously-operating column still (as with most bourbons), or copper pot stills (as with single malt scotch), one batch at a time. In the world of distillation it is widely accepted that the old-school, labour-intensive, copper pot stills produce distillates with more flavour than the more modern, and time efficient, column stills.

c.) The casks chosen for aging – the grain based distillates that come off of a still are not considered whisky until they have been aged in oak casks for years. While a whisky maker may have many options when it comes to the choice of size and type of oak cask it has become tradition in some whisky producing countries to use old port and sherry casks. In an attempt to maintain quality and consistency in the making of an American whisky, bourbon makers in the U.S. must age their product for at least two years in newly charred American white oak barrels.

Q: How do I learn more about whisky?
A: In addition to the always fun “liquid to lips” training, I also recommend getting a mentor. Anyone can read about whisky on their own, but having a like-minded individual to ask questions to, and who can make recommendations for you, is invaluable. My personal go-to guy when it comes to all things whisky is a longtime NLC employee by the name of Chris Dowden. Chris is currently working in our Old Placentia Road store (Branch #23) in Mount Pearl. His passion and enthusiasm are contagious, with his best asset being his ability to captivate both seasoned veterans as well as whisky neophytes. For those who may want some pre-whisky show information I encourage you to drop by and see Mr. Dowden in Mount Pearl – he is a wealth of knowledge! [Ask him about his theory on stills. I really like how he views copper pot stills as the “art” of whisky production, while continuous stills are more of the “science”!] 

I hope that this short introduction to the world of distilled grains has served to whet your appetite for more knowledge, as well as a nip of whisky! You won’t know how good it can be unless you try it. Enjoy!

Andrew Facey
Senior Product Knowledge Consultant