Is it whisky or whiskey? Do you know your stills from your barrels and your single malts from your blends? It may not seem important but the language of whisky is much of an art as the drinking of the famed Scottish national drink and getting to grips with the language will further your position as a serious whisky connoisseur for sure.
No Scotch whisky will ever be spelled with an e and it is taken from the Gaelic word for aqua vitae (the water of life). The first recorded distillation of spirits in Scotland can found in 1493 and experts believe the earliest whiskies, right up into the eighteenth century will have tasted more like gin than the rich, malty and peaty flavours we know today.
The first stages of Whisky
Most of the whiskies people drank until the early 1970s was blended and a mixture of grain whisky and single malt whisky, the former made with maize and the latter from malted barley. You can also buy what is known as blended malt whisky which brings together single malts from different distilleries.
Whisky is made in stills, another key word for the whisky lover’s vocabulary and grain whisky is made in continuous stills whilst malt whisky is made in pot stills, which can only be made one at a time. The core elements which give whisky its individual flavour are the smoke or heat source used whilst it’s malting, with peat smoke popular for deep earthy flavoured malts. The second element is the shape of the still, with the size of the still effecting how the smoke is collected and incorporated into the flavour: tall stills allow only the slightest vapours in whilst shorter stills allow weightier, heavier elements through. At this point the spirit is known as distillate and it is run through a spirit safe so undesirable sediment and other elements can be removed.
Distillate to Whisky
The distillate is now in a state where it is ready to be put into its cask, for the ageing process. Casks can be as large as a 500l butt (formerly housing sherry usually), a 200l barrel, what is known as a hogshead or even smaller in quarter casks which are known as rundlets and kilderkins. The casks are usually used more than once and this gives pay to terms such as first and second fill.
Whisky is only called whisky once it has spent three years in its cask and it may spend many more years waiting and maturing and some whiskies move from cask to cask. The wood of the cask gives the whisky its colouring and every single whisky in each cask is unique.
The Language of Drinking Whisky
This is something you may be more familiar with but when it comes down to the drinking, you can still keep on top of the professional’s lingo. Each dram of whisky may be assessed for its aroma, mouth feel taste and finish, with a good description of the nose for flourish. Part of the social side of enjoying a good whisky or two is the critique and the chance to truly get to grips with the flavour you’re enjoying, whether that’s burnt sugar or candied oranges and finding the right words makes all the difference.