It is a question I first heard in Ireland. Our host, while introducing us to an assortment of Irish flavors asked, “Without looking at that sign over there, tell me, is whiskey spelled with an ‘e’ or without one?”
To be honest, the question had never occurred to me before. I don’t normally drink whiskey, and that subtlety is something I never noticed. Combined with the fact I can’t spell out a simple paragraph without a spelling/grammar checker nagging me at every tenth word, I was at a loss.
Normally, it’s bad form to answer the main question a mere 100 words into a post. Why lose the suspense? But I’m gonna anyway.
The answer is, it depends.
In Ireland, our host was proud to proclaim the correct spelling included the ‘e’. He also bragged up techniques for making the Irish libation he claimed made it superior.
The Scots have their own opinion. While in Scotland we made an excursion to find out what that is.
15 miles north of Glasgow, we found the Scots answer to the Irish at Glengoyne Distillery.
After warming us up with a shot of whisky, er, make that a wee dram of Scotch, our spirited hosts showed us around.
We learned that Scotch Whisky (yes, that’s whisky without an ‘e’) is made primarily from barley. In fact, the initial stages of making scotch reminds me of my own brewing process when making beer.
The illustration above shows the malting process for barley. First, they moisten the grains, then give them a few days to germinate. The grains are raked during germination to control temperatures. This stage is rather important; it releases enzymes and softens up the starches, turning all those little rock hard barley grains into something that is more easily crushed and mashed to release their sugars.
The right side of the picture shows a fire under a basket. This fire halts the germination and roasts the barley. The level of roasting affects the flavor of the grain. For the Scottish malting process, they’ll also use peat as a fuel for the roasting stage. This imparts smoky flavors – how much depends on how long they use the peat and the type of peat used.
And no, I don’t malt barley when I brew; I buy it pre-malted. Scottish breweries don’t make their own malted barley either, malting is a business in its own right.
The Irish, for the most part, don’t use peat in the malting process.
Historically, the Irish were poorer than the Scots and couldn’t afford pure barley for the brew; they needed to augment it with other grains, depending on what was available. In time, some of these brewers moved the United States where they had similar issues; barley wasn’t easily grown in the Kentucky and Tennessee areas where they landed, and they too needed to augment their grains. And although the grains used and processes and the brew have evolved differently from the Irish homeland, the name remains: for Americans, it’s whiskey with an ‘e’.
The next bit after malting is like making beer; mashing the grain.
This is nothing like mashing potatoes. Mashing for whisk(e)y and beer involves mixing crushed malted grain with water, making a slurry that looks like oatmeal. The water is held at set temperatures that make those all-important enzymes mentioned earlier happy. Happy enzymes do chemical magic: they convert sugars from starches. There are variations on this process, but that’s the gist. Once the conversion is done, the sweet liquid wort is separated from the spent grains.
Fermentation occurs next. After the mash, in the beer process we do a boil and add hops. Whiskey doesn’t have hops, but in both cases the wort is cooled to a temperature amenable to yeast.
Those tiny little yeast beasties are the real brewers, they’re the ones that convert the sugars to alcohol. This takes a few weeks, and the yeasts are different between beer and whiskey, but the result is the same. Whiskey ends this stage with a higher alcohol content than beer, but its mere fumes will not make your eyes water just yet.
This is where making whiskey departs from making beer. Distillation.
Distillation is done by boiling the brew and causing it to evaporate in cooler piping. This concentrates the alcohol.
Following up on the idea anything worth doing is worth redoing, they run the results through the process again. For the Irish even this isn’t good enough, they distill it yet a third time – this provides lighter and smoother booze.
I understand that the best results from distillation are in the middle stages; flavors and bouquet are better. The good stuff is pulled off, the early and late stage results are routed into another distillation cycle.
Although this is done in a still, it’s still not done.
Once pulled off, the spirits are stored in oak casks. Here they age for at least three years and as much as 40 plus years. During this time the whiskey picks up flavor from the oak, the environment, and whatever chemistry the temperature and humidity imparts.
Because of this, about two percent of the keg contents evaporates away each year. These losses are called the “angels share” and are one reason older vintages are more expensive.
Is Irish Whiskey better than Scotch Whisky? Is American Whiskey as good as either? Does it matter how it’s spelled?
These are questions I’ll leave the whiskey/whisky fans to argue. Being a beer or wine sort of guy I recuse myself from the discussion. For me, the biggest challenge is to remember who spells it which way. I’ve heard the Scots are economical, perhaps that’s the ticket: they’ve worked out a way to spell whisky using fewer letters.