Introduction to Whiskey
The art of distillation began with the Babylonians in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq) from at least the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled long before potable spirits. Distillation was brought from Africa to Europe by the Moors, and its use spread through the monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic, palsy, and smallpox.
Between 1100 and 1300, distillation spread in Ireland and Scotland, with monastic distilleries existing in Ireland in the 12th century. Because the islands had few grapes to make wine with, barley beer was used instead, resulting in the development of whisky. In the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, the first written record of whisky appears describing the death of a chieftain at Christmas from "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae". In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae", enough to make about 500 bottles.
Whiskey is made from water and grain. Types vary based on production, distillation, maturation and blending.
The first step in the process is known as Malting, this will release the starch in the barleycorn by controlled germination. Traditionally the barley is steeped in water for up to 2 days the water being changed several times during this period, the water used in the last steeping is heated to help start the germinating process.
The barley is then spread on a malting floor and turned daily to allow the barley to germinate. As germination progresses the starch within the barleycorn releases some of its sugars. It is at this stage that the germination is halted by drying the malted barley in a closed kiln ready for the next stage of the process.
The malted barley is mixed with un-malted barley prior to being passed through a mill to be roughly ground into grist The grist is then mixed with water in a mash tun where it is slowly stirred. The addition of water allows the natural sugars to dissolve in the water which is drained off this liquid is called "wort"
The wort containing the dissolved sugars from the barleycorn is now pumped into a set of vessels commonly known as "washbacks" into the wort is added yeast. This causes the a reaction with the sugars to produce an brown coloured liquid. When the fermentation process has run its course the liquid ceases to foam and bubble at which point it is ready to be pumped to the stills for distillation.
The distilling process is where the alcohol which has a lower boiling point than water is separated from the fermented liquid or wash from the washback. For Example, traditionally Irish Pot still whiskey is distilled three times in copper stills to ensure a smooth and delicate spirit.
Traditional Copper Pot Stills
1. The wash is heated in the first still (Wash still) and condensed into low wines
2. This then goes to the second still (Low wines and Feint still) where more impurities are removed and feints are collected.
3. The feints then go to a third still (Spirit still) where a further refining of the spirit takes place The result is the production of a colourless spirit which has a high alcohol content.
It is this third distillation that gives "Irish" its different taste which is purer and lighter than Scotch Whisky which is distilled twice. At the Midleton distillery in Co. Cork depending on the desired outcome the spirit may have been distilled as many as 5 times. The distilled spirit at this stage still has a long journey ahead of it before it can be truly called whiskey.
Having been successfully distilled the required number of times the spirit is filled into wood casks and left to mature for a legal minimum of three years, however more often than not it is usually more with eight, ten, or more years required for some of the top brands.
It is during this maturation process that the magic that is Whiskey takes place. The clear spirit over time takes on the character of the cask in which it is stored. The casks may have been used previously to store sherry bourbon or rum although new oak casks are also used. While maturing in sherry casks the alcohol's extract the sherry residue that has soaked into the wood, or whilst maturing in charred bourbon casks the spirit will extract some of the chemicals in the wood of the cask.
It is all of these factors along with temperature humidity and general storage conditions plus the length of time the whiskey is left to mature that contribute to the final product.
Prior to bottling the matured whiskey is vatted or "married" as it is sometimes referred to In this the final stage of the distilling process. The purpose of vatting is to fuse together many casks of whiskey in order to produce as consistent a quality and flavour as possible . This is the art of the blender, however Irish Whiskey producers have a historical disdain for blended whiskey and even today with a few exceptions the vatting process for brands such as Power's or Paddy will take only two or three days.