The Basics Series: What is whisky? How does it differ from beer, brandy or rum?
- This is for anyone who has wondered what whisky is, and how it is different from other types of alcohol at a bar.
- There are 2 categories of alcoholic drinks: (1) fermented drinks and (2) distilled drinks. Beer falls into category 1. Whisky falls into category 2.
- Whisky differs from other distilled drinks in that: (a) it is made from cereal grains and (b) it is aged after distillation.
- While whisky is traditionally made from barley, corn, rye and wheat, some new distilleries are pushing the envelope by using oats or even rice.
- We explain related terms such as Scotch, Single Malt, blended whisky and bourbon.
Me, circa. 2013, apprehensively ordering a drink with no idea what’s inside (Image Source: Doctor Sleep, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019)
For a good part of my youth young adulthood, I visited fancy cocktail bars and confidently ordered and drank rum, brandy and whisky with no actual idea how they are different.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have had a clue if a bartender poured me a shot of nail polish and told me it was a Scotch. It was also a terrible waste to give me all the good alcohol I unknowingly drank. Or perhaps my bartender had the exact same thought, and had been pouring me hand sanitizer the entire time.
I eventually read up to avoid being scammed by a bartender in future. I now have a better idea of what I’m drinking, and my preferred spirit (whisky). That said, I wish I had received some education earlier before wasting my dollars and calories on such things.
To avoid my fate and embarrassment, it is essential for anyone at the age of 18 (or the minimum legal drinking age in your country) to at least know what is in their drinking glass.
You may consider this a quick and easy guide to what WHISKY is, and how it is different from brandy, rum, gin, tequila and other terms you hear thrown around (e.g. whiskey with an “e”, Scotch, bourbon, single malt, cognac and Martell).
Before we dive into the differences between whisky and brandy etcetera, we must understand its difference from fermented-only alcoholic drinks.
There are 2 broad categories of alcoholic drinks: (1) fermented-only drinks and (2) fermented & distilled drinks.
Fermented drinks. All alcoholic drinks are first created by the fermentation process – a process where yeast “eats” natural carbohydrates (such as starches and sugars from a plant) and convert them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Thanks to fermentation, early humans (as far back as in the Stone Age period) were able to make alcoholic drinks. Eventually, fermentation helped early Europeans create what we know as beer, ale, grape wine, mead and cider. East Asians who had access to rice used fermentation to create sake in Japan, mi-jiu (米酒) in China and Makgeolli in Korea.
Fermented & Distilled drinks. There is a limit to how much alcohol that fermentation can create. As alcohol levels approach a concentration of 18-20% of the mixture, the environment becomes toxic and yeast begins to die. Understandably, 18-20% ABV was not boozy enough for the 1st century alchemists working in Alexandria, Roman Egypt. Life was short, brutal and boring, so these ancients probably wanted to get truly smashed.
They invented the distillation process which is able to separate volatile compounds (chiefly, alcohol) from other heavier compounds in a fermented beer mixture. This helps to create drinks of much higher alcohol content not possible in nature, at 40-60% ABV. With the invention of distillation, it became possible to create liquor – such as whisky, brandy, rum, gin and tequila, amongst other types.
The Greco-Egyptian alchemist, Zosimus, has studied and written about the distillation process around 4th century AD. (Image Source: Science Photo Library)
Whisky, brandy, rum, gin and tequila are all distilled drinks. Let’s get into how they are different.
Whisky vs Brandy vs Rum vs Tequila vs Gin
What makes a distilled drink a whisky? There are 2 key elements that distinguishes a whisky from other types of liquors:
- The first is the type of plants used to derive the alcohol and flavour profile.
- The second is the ageing process of the distilled spirit in an wooden cask.
Type of plant used. Whisky are made from the fermentation of cereal grains, which tend to contain higher levels of starch. The main types grains used to make whisky are barley, corn, rye and wheat.
Other types of liquors derive their alcohol and flavour profile from other plants. Brandy is made from the fermentation of fruits, most typically white grapes. Rum is made from the fermentation of sugar cane. Tequila is derived from the sugars within the heart (or piña) of the Mexican agave plant.
Corn, malted barley and rye to make bourbon whiskey at the Wild Turkey distillery (Image Source: Wild Turkey Distillery).
Rum is from sugar cane while brandy is generally from white grapes (Image Source: Copalli Rum Distillery and Mashed.com)
Finally, we have gin. Gin can be made from a large variety of plants – including barley, wheat, potatoes or grapes. However, the spirit must have been distilled so many times to the extent that almost no residual flavour from the original plant remains, so that it ends up as a “neutral spirit”. Juniper berries and other botanicals (ie herbs, spices or flowers) are then added to flavour the spirit.
Aging of spirit for several years. Another essential feature of a whisky is the fact that it must have been aged for a couple of years in wooden casks. This is not a requirement for white rum, blanco tequila or gin, although brandies are also often aged in casks.
A whisky is not complete at the end of distillation – the spirit coming out the still is completely colourless.
Newmake spirit at a whisky distillery is colourless, neither amber nor brown (Image Source: Copperworks Distilling)
Most of the flavours and colour are imparted to the whisky during the aging process. Traditionally, the casks used are either American white oak (typically used to store bourbon) or European oak (typically seasoned with sherry). Maturation in an American white oak casks tends to impart a toasted bread or vanilla flavour to the spirit. European oak tends to impart flavours of rich dried fruit cake, raisins and dark fruits. Longer term maturation also tends to smoothen harsher notes in the spirit as the wood absorbs more undesirable flavour compounds (eg. sulfur notes).
How long does maturation take? Scottish distilleries are mandated by law to age their spirits for at least three years under the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. American whiskey distilleries are required to age their whiskies for at least two years before they may call their whiskies “straight whiskey” under the US Code of Federal Regulations. New labelling rules introduced by Japanese government mirror the Scottish requirements.
Even if not mandated by law of their country (as used to be the case for Japan), respectable whisky distillers would typically age their whiskies for at least three years.
Whisky = beer on steroids + years of aging
So, to easily understand what whisky is, let’s just say that whisky is highly alcoholic beer that has spent some time aging in a barrel. The French analogue would be brandy – which is essentially highly alcoholic white wine that has also been aged.
Wine is to brandy; beer is to whisky
Why is Scotland historically affiliated with whisky but not brandy or rum? Long before a globalised transport system enabled the purchase of ingredients from abroad, spirit distillers could only use ingredients that grew close to home. The French had grapes and thus made brandy. The Carribbeans had sugar cane and thus made rum. Agave plants are native to Mexico where tequila and mezcal were first distilled. The Scots had barley and corn and could therefore distill whisky.
New distilleries such as Kikori push the envelope by insisting that rice can be used to make whisky too (Image Source: Kikori Distillery)
Occasionally, more experimental whisky distilleries venture into using oats or even rice. As both of these are technically cereal grains, “whiskies” made from oats or rice can legally be labelled whiskies. Of course, the type of grain used certainly affects the final flavour of the whisky. Kikori’s rice whisky is lighter, more floral and has a sake-ish aroma borne out by the sweetness of Japanese short-grain rice. Yet there are also oaky notes which are not seen in sake as they are not typically aged.
Other terms you should know
An oil on canvas painting by Winston Churchill entitled 'Jug with Bottles' at Sotheby's auction house. The former prime minister was extremely fond of Johnnie Walker’s blended Scotch, which he often drank the first thing in the morning (Image Source: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)
You might have wondered how whisky relates to other terms such as whiskey with an “e”, Scotch, Single Malt, blended whisky or bourbon.
Whisk(e)y’s spelling varies between countries, just as each country produces a different style using slightly different ingredients or methods.
- "Whiskey” is a spelling popularized by the Irish – and used both in Ireland and America. Back in the early 19th century, Irish distilleries enjoyed great popularity and could be sold at a premium over Scottish whisky. To protect their trade distinguish their stuff from Scottish whisky, Irish distilleries decided to collectively refer to their spirit as “whiskey”.
- “Whisky” is the original spelling and is just about used everywhere else in the world including Scotland, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Scotch may only be used on the label of a whisky that has been distilled and matured exclusively in Scotland.
Single Malt means two things at the same time- firstly, that the whisky is from only one distillery, and secondly, that the whisky is made from 100% malted barley. This is may be contrasted with “Single Grain” whisky which is also from only one distillery, but made with some degree of other grains (eg corn, wheat or rye).
Blended whisky is the opposite of a “Single” whisky. They contain a blend of whiskies from two or more different distilleries.
Bourbon refers to American whiskey, that has also been made with at least 51 per cent corn.
And so there you go – all the basics you need to know to chat up your bartender in the hopes for free drinks. Go forth and grab a dram!
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