Celebrate St. Patrick's Day Properly: The Story of Whiskey
In the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, and while the snow sits heavily on the ground (at least here in Colorado), we thought it would be a good time to lift the glass to whiskey.
What’s in a Name?
The word “whiskey” is derived from the Irish Gaelic “uisce beatha” which translates literally as “water of life.” (The Scots tend to spell it “uisge beatha,” but the concept is the same.)
But because “whiskey” was a rough phonetic transcription of the Gaelic “uisce” or “uisge” (literally “water,” which lends itself to pranks) English speakers never entirely figured out how to spell it. In the U.S. and Ireland, the English word is “whiskey” (note the “e”), but the same alcohol produced in other countries tends to be spelled “whisky,” except in Scotland, where “Scotch whisky” is simply called “Scotch.”
Whiskey: The Origin Story
While the concept of distillation (for perfumes and aromatics) may date back more than 3,000 years to Bronze Age Mesopotamia, no one thought to apply the chemical principles to alcohol until roughly the thirteenth century, when medieval monasteries started to distill wine for medicinal purposes. (Note: distilled wine is not an effective remedy for smallpox, but it might make you feel more mellow about your impending death.)
The distillation process was eventually applied to other kinds of grains and fruits (more broadly “spirit alcohol” or “aqua vitae”), but it remained largely a product of the monasteries for roughly a hundred years before the medical practitioners of the time (such as they were) decided to get in on the action. The Guild of Barber Surgeons (yes, that was a thing), adopted distillation practices by the fifteenth century, which we know because the Annals of Clonmacnoise attribute a prominent Irish chieftain’s death to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. (Yay, medicine!)
Distillation of alcohol from malt specifically became a thing in Scotland and Ireland around the turn of the fifteenth century and became popularized with the enthusiastic support of James IV of Scotland. And since Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries a few years later, all of those distilling monks were sent back into the general population with a grudge against England and a need to make a living. Whiskey became an overnight cottage industry.
Eventually, the demand for whiskey outstripped individual production, and more formal distilleries were established. The oldest surviving distillery is Old Bushmills, which has been refining alcohol in Northern Ireland since 1608.
Everything went swimmingly until…taxes.
In the U.K., the English Malt Tax of 1725 sent most whiskey production underground, because the smaller distilleries couldn’t make a profit after taxes, and next century saw a war between the Scottish distillers and the excisemen (who were like IRS auditors, with guns).
In the U.S., whiskey was used as currency throughout the Revolutionary War, and when the fledgling government tried to levy a tax on whiskey in 1791, the local producers decided that they could rebel against an American government, too, and launched the Whiskey Rebellion. In all, the 600 or so rebelling whiskey-makers (mostly farmers) were pretty quickly squashed by a federal militia of 13,000 men led by George Washington himself. But the American distillers (many of whom were Scots or Irish descendants) brought their proud tradition of hiding whiskey from the taxmen with them to the American frontier.
Factor in the whiskey-smugglers during the Temperance years, and whiskey turns out to be one of the bloodiest, most frequently-illegal, and most hotly-contested alcohols in human history.
What’s in a Whiskey?
The key terms that you need to know before you buy a bottle are “malt whiskey” (which is made from malted barley) and “grain whiskey” (which can be made from any kind of grain).
Unlike wines, the really fabulous and distinctive whiskeys are often blended and combined for perfect flavor:
- Single Malt Whiskey, as the name suggests, is made from a single malted grain. However, the final bottled product of this whiskey may include alcohol from numerous casks (some produced in different years) to achieve a specific brand-distinctive flavor.
- Blended Malt Whiskey (also “Pure Malt,” “Vatted Malt,” or “Malt Whiskey”), is bottled using alcohol from single malt whiskeys made at different distilleries; this is common practice for some of the biggest whiskey distributors.
- Blended Whiskey can contain several kinds of whiskey (usually non-malt, and generally including neutral spirits) made in numerous distilleries.
- Cask Strength Whiskeys are rare and expensive, being drawn from a single cask undiluted.
- Single Cask Whiskeys are bottled from a single cask, and so have much greater variation than blended whiskeys.
The flavors are so complicated because every part of the process adds depth and dimension to a good whiskey. The treatment of the malt, the distillation process, the quality and treatment of the oak barrels, additives, and a final chill filtration can all impact the nuances in your glass.
Here’s a good bit of bar trivia for you: How many distinctive flavors can be identified in a good glass of aged malt whiskey?
The lab says: somewhere between 200 and 300 unique flavors. And that’s why connoisseurs sometimes refer to whiskey as a “single-ingredient cocktail.”
On the Rocks, or Neat?
Neat whiskey is totally undiluted and allows you to experience the full punch of the alcohol, but water can play a significant role in enhancing the flavor. This isn’t just a test of manliness or culture; it’s a science.
Whiskey is very intensely alcoholic, and some of its compounds are hydrophobic (water repelling), so when you add a drop or two of water, it will interact with those components and release more of the aromatic components in the whiskey, which will enhance the flavor. The minutely lower alcohol content will also allow you to better distinguish the different flavor components.
If you’re new to the whiskey game, you can add water with a straw, drop-by-drop until you get a sense of your perfect flavor blend for a particular whiskey. It’s more precise than adding ice and will allow you to experience the different stages of the flavor as it opens up.
The downside of ordering your whiskey “on the rocks” is that, while the water will open up the flavor, the ice actually numbs your palate and makes it harder to detect those nuances of flavor. If you do go on the rocks, you’ll want larger ice cubes that will melt more slowly, so that you can finish your drink before it becomes unpalatably diluted.
Having said that, the most important thing is to find the flavor combination that you like the most. The science is interesting, but the enjoyment is critical.