The ancient spirit takes many forms from Irish to Bourbon or rye; and from Scotch to Japanese, Don Kavanagh unravels the methods, flavors and stories.
"Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough."
Mark Twain wasn't just an author and raconteur, it turns out he was something of a prophet too; whether it's Irish or Scotch, Canadian or Japanese, Bourbon or rye, whiskey is undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt.
Ireland and the U.S. can't make the stuff fast enough, Scotland is in danger of being left behind and Japan has become an unlikely star. No longer is whiskey seen as the tipple of grizzled old men, but instead it's become the preferred drink of bearded hipsters and Wall Street warriors. It seems that an affluent generation of sophisticated drinkers are looking for quality and flavor, and whiskey provides both.
With a raft of whiskey styles being produced, it's hard to pin down the actual flavor that appeals so much. But it comes down to a combination of sweetness, spice and smoke, which all crop up regularly, no matter where the whiskey comes from.
The name whiskey, by the way, comes from an Anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce ("water"), which is pronounced "Ish-keh". It’s probably more familiar in its long form – uisce beatha, the water of life.
|Irish whiskey: Made in Ireland from barley. Triple distilled and usually a blend of pot-still spirits and lighter spirits from a continuous still. The taste is generally sweeter and less smoky than Scotch, and smoother and less sweet than Bourbon.|
|Scotch whisky: Can be made as a single malt (the product of a single distillery) or a blend (a mixture of single malts and lighter grain spirits). Produced from malted barley and usually distilled twice. Aged for a minimum three years in Scotland.|
|Bourbon: Made from a mixture of grain with a minimum of 51 percent corn. Double distilled and aged in charred new American oak casks, which tend to give sweet vanilla and butterscotch notes.|
|Rye: Made from a minimum of 51 percent rye. Double distilled and aged in new oak. A spicier, more peppery character than Bourbon.|
|Japanese whisky: Made in the same manner as Scotch. It is mostly sold as blended whisky, although the most famous examples are single malts.|
Whiskey in the jar
Irish whiskey is arguably where it all started. A clerical chronicle, The Annals of the Four Masters, recorded that a certain nobleman fell into a coma on Christmas Day 1405 after a surfeit of "esci bethad".
The Irish version made up 60 percent of world whiskey sales in 1870 but by 1933, that share had slipped to a mere 10 percent. Part of this was due to Ireland's insistence on abiding by the Prohibition laws in the U.S. While Scotland shipped millions of cases through Canada (and thence to the U.S.), the Irish distillers played by the rules and paid the price.
Gradually distilling in Ireland fell away and by the middle of the 1980s, there was one distilling company on the island and just two distilleries, at Midleton in Cork and Bushmills in Antrim, the oldest licensed distillery in the world, with a grant to produce dating back to 1608.
The opening of the Cooley Distillery in 1989 saw the first flush of a whiskey revival that has continued ever since. New distilleries are popping up around the country, all riding the wave of popularity that has seen annual growth of 20 percent in recent years.
| The Bushmills Distillery has a licence to distil stretching back to 1608.
A national passion
If any one country can claim to be intimately entwined with whiskey, it is Scotland. But be careful – they spell it without the "e", for reasons lost in the mists of time. Scotch was first mentioned in the exchequer rolls of 1495, when it was noted that Friar John Cor received "eight bolls of malt, wherewith to make acqua vitae", or whisky.
The industry today is worth more than any other Scottish sector apart from oil and financial services. In 2013, exports to the U.S. alone amounted to $1.25bn.
While Scotch comes in many forms it is single malt that takes pride of place, and the sheer number and variety of malts available adds to its attraction. Flavors depend on the size of the stills, the water source, the barley, the amount of peat smoke used in malting, the barrels used for aging, and even the location of the storage warehouses.
Distilleries range in size from the huge 10.5-million-liter capacity Glenlivet to the tiny, almost unbearably lovely Edradour, home to the smallest legally permissible still in Scotland.
Two decades ago, distillers could not imagine how demand would grow for single malts and due to the years taken for whisky to mature, they’ve been chasing to keep up. Currently there is a fever of distillery building in Scotland.
It's all good news for whisky fans; whether you love the delicate, heathery whiskies of the Highlands or the smoky, medicinal malts of Islay, there is more coming down the pipeline. Eventually.
© Buffalo Trace Distillery; Fotolia
| Frankfort's Buffalo Trace distillery had a crucial role in reinvigorating Bourbon.
The American spirit
As recently as the 1990s Bourbon was a dying breed, dogged by the perception that it was an old man's drink. In 2002, Bourbon exports were just $376 million; last year they were more than $1 billion.
Part of the credit can be laid at the feet of the Buffalo Trace distillery where, back in 1984, distiller Elmer Lee produced a super-premium, single-barrel Bourbon that would compete with single malt Scotch brands. The whiskey – Blanton's – was so revolutionary that it inspired a raft of other distillers. Beam released its small-batch collection, Heaven Hill developed single-barrel versions, and Brown-Forman unveiled Woodford Reserve in 1996.
Rye was the most popular style in the U.S. prior to Prohibition, but faded afterwards as the sweeter and more full-on Bourbon flavors won over more fans. Since then, despite being in the shadows of its more-popular sibling, sales have tripled in the past seven years, as bartenders have promoted it as a classic cocktail ingredient.
| Yamazaki's prosaic exterior hides a romantic history.
Land of the rising dram
Japan might seem an odd hotspot for whiskey production, but the Japanese have always had a taste for Scotch and perhaps none more so than Masataka Taketsuru, whose story is today the subject of a Japanese TV drama, Massan.
Taketsuru was the scion of a sake-brewing family who went to Scotland to study organic chemistry in 1918. While studying, he worked at a number of distilleries and developed a passion for the spirit – and for a local girl, Rita Cowan. The pair married over the opposition of both their families and eventually moved back to Japan, where Taketsuru helped establish the Yamazaki distillery for Suntory.
Chosen for the purity of the local water, Yamazaki was Japan’s first whisky distillery and it has repeatedly carried the flag for the local product, with the 18-year-old winning six consecutive gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And then the 25-year-old 2013 Sherry Cask edition was named whisky of the year in the 2015 Whisky Bible.
It's not all about Yamazaki, either – Hibiki, Nikka and Yoichi have been turning heads for a decade now and Japanese whisky's floral, lightly spicy flavors have proved so popular around the world that this industry too is suddenly ramping up production.
Beyond these four countries, whiskey's allure persists, both for consumers and producers with distillery outposts from Canada through India, even spreading to Australasia and – yes – England. That probably says everything there is to say about how far whiskey has come.