Did You Know Every Country Makes Their Whisky Differently?
Throughout the world, whisky making traditions, methods and practices have been known to differ significantly, yet there is one thing that unites whiskyheads like no other –the love for whisky.
Every whisky making region of the world makes their whisky differently. The Scottish have different ways, and so do the Americans. The Indians are doing it differently than the Japanese, and the Canadians are doing it different than anyone else.
When we taste a whisky, we are familiarizing ourselves with the very origin of the spirit. It is only natural for us to get to know how every grain, every drop of water, every piece of wood and every second, minute and hour that goes into making the spirit we treasure.
Today, The Whiskypedia takes a deep dive into learning how every major whisky producing country throughout the world, makes their whisky differently! Let us begin with the land of Scotch whisky, one of the most respected regions, known expressly for their expertise at producing quality whisky.
We are sure by now everyone knows that “All Scotch is whisky, but not all whisky is Scotch.” Only whisky distilled in Scotland, and living up to the standards of the Scotch Whisky Association can be called Scotch whisky
These standards dictate that the whisky must be distilled by with some portion of malted barley, water and yeast. Nothing else except these three ingredients must be added to the mash, except in case of grain whisky, wherein whole grains such as corn, wheat and more can be added. Malted barley must be used for the mash in Scotland, whether it is a single malt, or a single grain whisky. The mash must be distilled, matured for at least three years in oak barrels in the country of Scotland, and nowhere else.
Scottish distilleries use copper pot stills to distil their product, and the shape of these stills can vary from distillery to distillery. While the Coffey still, designed and patented by Aeneas Coffey, their use is far less prevalent in Scotland.
The traditional pot still distillation process is preferred since it offers the distillers more control over the spirit. It is a less efficient process, yet is more preferred by the Scottish distilleries. Historic distilleries such as The Glenlivet, a Speyside giant and the first legal distillery in the region are renowned for their unique lantern-shaped copper pot stills.
Large lantern-shaped copper stills at The Glenlivet Distillery
Aberlour, another beloved single malt distillery located near the confluence of the rivers Spey and Lour, have wide-bottomed copper stills with long necks shaped like a swan. Macallan, another important Speyside distillery are known for their short, onion shaped stills. Glenmorangie, a Highland distillery are known for having one of the tallest copper stills in Scotland.
Copper stills at the Glenmorangie Distillery
The shape of these stills help influence the end result of the spirit. The Macallan spirit is known for their richness, whereas the Glenmorangie spirit is known for its light tasting spirit. The Glenlivet’s complex yet light, floral character have helped it become known as the quintessential Speyside single malt.
The short onion-shaped stills at the newly constructed Macallan Distillery
The Scotch Whisky Association have devised perhaps one of the most meticulously defined legal standards and parameters for Scotch whisky, which makes up for a sizeable portion of the country’s exports.
Unlike most countries, Scotland has one of the most well-defined regulations for whisky production. Let us get to know how single malt, single grain and other blended whiskies are classified.
The whisky must not have any added flavours, or colouring except for permitted caramel food colouring. These regulations also dictate the specifications for the types of Scotch whiskies which are as follows;
From a mash of malted barley and other grains, the whisky must be distilled, matured and bottled at a single distillery. Single grain whisky does not mean that a single type of grain has been used to distil it. It implies the use of other whole grains in addition to malted barley in the mash.
A blend of multiple single malt and multiple grain whiskies in any proportion. Some of the most popular Scotch whiskies are blended whisky brands such as Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and Johnnie Walker.
Blended Malt Scotch whisky
A blend of two or more single malt whiskies. This style of whiskies are not prevalent in Scotland anymore although some brands have released a few expressions of Blended Malt whiskies over the years. Chivas Regal Ultis, Monkey Shoulder and Johnnie Walker Green Label are few of them.
Blended Grain Scotch whisky
A blend of two or more grain whiskies. While you may have expected learning about whisky to be fun, the rigorously enforced standards have ensured the quality and reputation of Scotch whisky always remain pristine. Scottish distilleries have thrived, and achieved superstar status with millions of Scotch lovers making a beeline to visit them each year.
When it comes to maturation, many distilleries opt to mature their distilleries in a variety of new and used oak barrels from different regions of the world. American ex-Bourbon, Spanish Oloroso Sherry, ex-Port & Madeira casks, Hogsheads and more are some of the most popular kinds of barrels used by Scottish distilleries to mature, and finish their whisky. Finishing implies maturing the whisky in a special type of barrel for a brief amount of time to impart some unique flavours into the spirit.
Now Scotch whisky might be the most popular and well-known kind of whisky, but their neighbours’ love for whiskey is the stuff of legends. Let us hop over to Ireland to learn how the Irish make their whiskey.
Unlike Scotland, the Irish have fewer kinds of whiskey, and their methods of distillation vary too. The Irish do rely on pot stills, but the way they use them has been known to be slightly different. Coffey stills were beginning to become increasingly popular in Ireland when they were first introduced, but were soon met with disapproval by many Irish distillers.
Barrels of spirit at the Jameson Distillery warehouse
The Coffey still is an improved, patented design of the column still, and allows smoother, continuous distillation of spirit. This was in stark contrast of the more cumbersome pot still method. The Coffey stills did have their own set of shortcomings according to many Irish distillers, who said it robbed the spirit off its flavour components. This led to Coffey stills generally fading out of the Irish distillation scene over the years.
Coffey Stills at the Kilbeggan Distillery, Ireland
Other regulations stipulated by the Irish authorities over whiskey distillation in the country are not too different from the Scottish. Maturation of distilled spirit in oak barrels for up to three years is still necessary, but their ways differ slightly.
The Irish have been known to have up to four different kinds of whiskey, and they are as follows;
Just like Scotland, blended whiskey makes up for a larger portion of Irish whiskey sales globally. Iconic brands such as Jameson, Powers Gold Label and others are all blended Irish whiskeys. Blended Irish whiskeys can be a blend of any two or more kind of whiskeys.
Jameson is a blend of single pot still and grain whiskeys, matured for four years. It has come to be known as the definitive Irish whiskey in many parts of the world, and has been credited with reviving the dying Irish whiskey industry.
Single Pot Still whiskey
Quite similar to the Scottish ‘single malt’ style we spoke about earlier with one chief distinction – Single Pot Still whiskeys are distilled from a mash of malted and unmalted barley along with other cereal grains. The malted and unmalted barley must be in proportions of 30% each, and distilled at a single distillery.
Another notable distinction for Irish whiskeys when compared with Scotch whisky is that most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled. This triple distillation method is known to make Irish whiskeys their renowned smoothness. Redbreast is one of the Ireland’s best single pot still Irish whiskeys.
Single Malt whiskey
There are a number of Single Malt Irish whiskeys such as Sexton, Bushmills, and Tullamore D.E.W. among others. Although single malts are less common in the country since blended Irish whiskeys are more popular. Nevertheless, there are some quality Single Malt Irish whiskeys in the market today.
Grain whiskeys in Ireland have a similar role as Scotch whiskies and whiskies in other regions of the world. They are usually used as fillers in blended whiskey, in order to make the single malts stretch, and provide a smoothness to the overall flavour profile of the spirit.
Irish Grain whiskeys are produced using the Coffey stills, which is a cheaper, more productive column-still design. It lacks the flavour and aroma of its peers, but is more cost-effective to produce, and many value-for-money brands use them for their blends.
Although some quality grain whiskeys are produced in Ireland such as Teeling Single Grain, Kilbeggan Grain whiskey and more.
These are the different types of Irish whiskeys produced in the region, so let’s move on to our next destination - America, the land of Bourbon whiskey.
Whiskey in America is also known as Bourbon whiskey, provided it meets certain regulations and parameters. Although there are many different types of American whiskeys such as Rye whiskey, blended American whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey to name a few.
The most common type of whiskey in America is the Bourbon whiskey. The original inspiration for the name ‘Bourbon’ is disputed. Some claim the name is inspired by the French Bourbon dynasty, whereas some claim the name was inspired by places in the US, Bourbon County, Kentucky or Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Nevertheless, it is the most commonly found sold type of whiskey in America, and Jim Beam is the highest selling Bourbon whiskey brand.
The current Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett
Jack Daniel’s, makers of the Tennessee whiskey brand are the largest selling ‘American whiskey’ brand worldwide. Since they do not wish to call their product Bourbon, despite meeting all the regulations for a Bourbon, the title goes to Jim Beam.
Whiskey brands must meet the following regulations and standards in order to qualify as Bourbon whiskey. The spirit should be produced in the United States of America, from a mash that is 51% Corn or more. The spirit must be aged in charred, new American oak barrels.
In order to qualify as a ‘Bourbon whiskey’, the spirit can be aged for any duration. Some brands even mature their product for a matter of months before bottling and selling their whiskey.
For a Bourbon to qualify as ‘Straight’ Bourbon whiskey, it must meet all the aforementioned regulations and be matured for at least two years. Any Straight Bourbon that has been aged for less than ‘Four’ Years, must state its age on the label.
As you can see, the regulations and standards in the United States of America, can be rather complicated. In addition to Bourbon and Straight Bourbon whiskey, there is Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’s is one of the few, and the most popular Tennessee whiskey in the country.
Jack Daniel’s qualifies as a straight Bourbon whiskey since it is distilled from a mash that is predominantly Corn based, and it is matured in charred, new American oak barrels for more than two years. In order to be labelled a ‘Tennessee whiskey’, Jack Daniel’s spirit undergoes filtration through burnt pellets of sugar maple charcoal.
Racks of sugar maple wood being burnt at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in order to use it for the Lincoln County Process
In addition to the immensely popular veteran brands such as Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s, the other major players in America’s thriving Bourbon whiskey industry are Heaven Hill Distillers, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses and many more.
Heaven Hill Distillers own the brands Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald and more, whereas Jim Beam also have a list of Bourbon brands apart from their flagship product.
Many new players are emerging in the Bourbon whiskey industry. Most notably, the newest being Rabbit Hole Bourbon based in Louisville, Kentucky. Rabbit Hole’s interesting combination of grains for the mash bill have earned them numerous accolades in recent years. The company has as many as three different iterations of Bourbon whiskeys called Dareringer, Cavehill and Heigold, all distilled using a different combination of grains that includes corn, rye, barley and wheat.
Another popular type of whiskey popular in North America is straight Rye whiskey. Rye whiskeys are distilled from a mash that is particularly Rye heavy, with just a fraction of the mash being made up of other grains.
Notable straight Rye whiskey makers in region are Bulleit, WhistlePig, Pikesville, Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. Rabbit Hole too have released Boxergrail, a Rye whiskey that won multiple gold medals upon its initial release.
Other types of whiskey in America are Wheat whiskey, which are distilled with a mash that is 51% wheat or more; Corn whiskey, distilled from a mash that is 80% Corn or more; Malt whiskey, distilled from a mash that is at least 51% malted barley. There are blended American whiskeys too, but the segment is sparsely populated and there are no major players producing blended American whiskeys.
India is the world’s largest whisky consuming nation, and most of the world’s highest selling whisky brands are Indian whiskies. The consumption of whisky in India is in fact so high, that Indian whisky, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and many other international whisky brands co-exist and thrive in the country with ease.
Most Indian whisky brands produce blended whisky, although there are a handful of single malt whisky brands that have gained some traction in the market. Amrut Single Malt, Paul John and Rampur Single Malt are some of the Indian single malt whisky brands currently in production.
Among Indian blended whiskies, their components differ and depend on the segment they belong to. Quality Indian blended whiskies such as Royal Stag, and Blenders Pride are created by blending imported Scotch malts with fine Indian grain whisky.
There are many value-for-money Indian blended whiskies that rely on molasses-based, neutral spirit to make their products cost-effective. Blended Indian whiskies such as Officer’s Choice, Royal Challenge, Original Choice, Signature, 8PM, McDowell’s among others are produced by combining Scotch malts with neutral spirit, and sometimes grain whisky.
These are the two most common types of whiskies made in India. The country is also one of the world’s fastest growing markets for international spirits, with whisky occupying a pivotal role in this growing segment. Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and Bourbon whiskey are the three most popular types of international whiskies in India.
Japanese whisky giants, Suntory, have recently entered the Indian whisky market with their own product, Oaksmith, a blend of Scotch malts and Bourbon whiskeys. Japanese whisky, although ever popular in the West and other Asian countries, has yet to register a footprint in the vast Indian whisky arena. This could change as it appears Japanese whisky giants have begun to notice the endless potential represented by India’s whisky loving population.
Whisky production in Japan only began less than a century ago when Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii sought the help of Masataka Taketsuru to build Japan’s first whisky distillery, the Yamazaki. Taketsuru had returned from Scotland with a degree in chemistry, and multiple apprenticeships at Scottish whisky distilleries.
Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky
Taketsuru would go on to build the Nikka Whisky brand, but not before he worked for Torii for more than a decade. Torii and Taketsuru not only birthed, but also helped shape the Japanese whisky industry for many years. By the time they were ready to meet their maker, Japanese whisky had begun to make a name for itself abroad.
Both Torii and Taketsuru had modelled the Japanese way of whisky production on the Scottish ways, with the climate and natural resources of Japan adding a slightly different element. Thus, the Japanese whisky industry slowly grew into a region that commands tremendous respect for their exploits in the art of making whisky.
The Yamazaki Single Malt
The Japanese make whisky the same way as the Scottish do, with single malts, single grains and blended whiskies making up for a huge chunk. Copper pot stills, malted barley and cask maturation are the common practices used by Japanese distillers such as Suntory, Nikka, Akashi, Togouchi and many more.
Japan is home to some extraordinary single malt whiskies such as the Yamazaki, Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Hakushu and the Akashi. Most of the aforementioned single malts are named after their distilleries, just the way they do in Scotland.
The Chita Single Grain is one of Japan’s premier single grain whiskies. It was released recently by Suntory to much critical acclaim. Another remarkable grain whisky from Japan is the Nikka Coffey Grain, which as the name suggests, has been distilled using the Coffey stills.
Like many other regions of the world, blends occupy a good chunk of sales in Japan too. Some of the most legendary Japanese blended whiskies over the years were Hibiki, Nikka From The Barrel, Toki,
Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru had imported two Coffey stills from Scotland in the past. These stills are still used by Nikka to produce the Nikka Coffey Grain, and Nikka Coffey Malt expressions. Interestingly, since the Coffey Malt expression is not produced in a pot still, it has to be labelled as a grain whisky due to regulations.
In addition to the usage of commonly used European and American oak barrels, the Japanese have mastered the usage of a rare, locally available resource – the Mizunara Oak. Unlike the oak trees in America and other parts of Europe, the Japanese Mizunara oak is notorious for its slow growth. The wood has also been known to be difficult to work with, including making barrels for aging whisky. In spite of all these difficulties, the Mizunara oak is coveted by whisky makers all over the world for the unique imprint it leaves on the whisky it comes into contact with.
Chivas Regal, the great Scottish house of blended Scotch whisky, were one of the first international whisky brands to use Mizunara oak to mature their spirit. The Chivas Regal Mizunara was released in honour of Japanese whisky making traditions, and received much praise from critics and recreational whisky enthusiasts alike.
The Japanese whisky industry is quickly emerging as one of the world’s hottest whisky making regions. They have consistently released some sublime expressions, winning medals and awards internationally, and have proven their mettle both in theory and in theatre. Even the sceptics now consider them to be capable of rubbing shoulders with the best of the best from Scotland, Ireland and America.
Most Canadian whiskies are Rye whisky or Corn whisky based blends, and there are no set regulations for whiskies produced in the region. Across the country, there are a lot of unique styles and ways in which Canadian distillers and blenders create their own expressions.
Some of Canada’s most famous whisky brands are Crown Royal, J.P. Wiser’s, Canadian Club and Forty Creek among others. Crown Royal is Canada’s bestselling whisky, and was first created by Seagram’s owner Sam Bronfman. He had the whisky created as a tribute for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their royal visit to Canada. Crown Royal is also the bestselling Canadian whisky in the United States of America.
Seagram’s has been one of the most impactful whisky brands in Canada. The company also owned the Seagram’s VO (Very Own) whisky brand, which was one of North America’s most popular whiskies in the past.
J.P. Wiser’s, another legendary Canadian whisky brand, was created by Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. The brand is still sold in Canada, and does very well commercially.
Unlike Scotch whisky, and Irish whiskey, most regions of the world do not regulate whisky making stringently. While this does allow the Scottish and Irish authorities maintain the quality of one of their most important exports, other countries view whisky production differently.
Regulations and standards in countries such as America, Canada and India are fairly relaxed, with a loosely laid out set of protocols, beyond which whisky makers are free to regulate their own quality.
Other whisky making regions of the world such as Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, and more have their own interpretations of whisky. These regions are populated with regionally produced whisky brands.
In this story, we have learned the methods, practices and techniques used by our favourite whisky makers from different parts of the world make their product differently. We learned how strictly the Scottish and Irish authorities regulate the whisky making in their respective countries. We learned how diverse the American whisky industry truly is, and we also learned how the Indian whisky landscape is a thriving market for local and international brands to co-exist.