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Whisky

Whisky is the noblest grain distillate, the king of spirits and one of the most popular drinks in the world. The origin of whisky is contested between Scotland and Ireland and is linked to the monastic environment and the Gaelic name of 'uisge beatha', meaning 'spirit', but today it is produced all over the world: from Scotland to Ireland, Japan, the United States, Canada and even India. The production techniques are diversified, but the fundamental ingredients are spring water and cereals: malted barley in the original Scottish Single Malt recipe, but also wheat, rye and maize in the other variants - Blended, Bourbon, Tennessee, etc. Depending on the raw materials, the production areas and the ageing times, the whisky takes on different characters and aromatic profiles, but always remains a distillate with a rich, unmistakable flavour, leading to an intense, unique and irresistible experience.

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Whisky is the noblest grain distillate, the king of spirits and one of the most popular drinks in the world. The origin of whisky is contested between Scotland and Ireland and is linked to the monastic environment and the Gaelic name of 'uisge beatha', meaning 'spirit', but today it is produced all over the world: from Scotland to Ireland, Japan, the United States, Canada and even India. The production techniques are diversified, but the fundamental ingredients are spring water and cereals: malted barley in the original Scottish Single Malt recipe, but also wheat, rye and maize in the other variants - Blended, Bourbon, Tennessee, etc. Depending on the raw materials, the production areas and the ageing times, the whisky takes on different characters and aromatic profiles, but always remains a distillate with a rich, unmistakable flavour, leading to an intense, unique and irresistible experience.

The History of Whisky

Whisky is a cereal distillate with very ancient and legendary origins, yet still shrouded in mystery. The origin of the invention is disputed between Ireland and Scotland and it is impossible to establish when and by whom the first whisky was produced. It was certainly born in a monastic environment with curative and medicinal purposes, and it was the monks of both Ireland and Scotland who for centuries guarded the techniques of distillation, playing an essential role in the spread of whisky. While a legend attributes its invention to St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, the first reliable evidence of its production dates back to 1494 in Scotland: a document recording the shipment of a batch of malt addressed to Friar John Corr for the production of aqua vitae, called 'uisge beatha' in Gaelic, hence the name whisky.

From the 16th century onwards, the Scots began an important trade in whisky as a source of income, greatly increasing the production of the spirit with detrimental social effects, due to rising grain prices and dwindling food supplies. For this reason, the English Parliament imposed taxes and restrictions on whisky production, encouraging the proliferation of illegal and clandestine distilleries throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the meantime, in Ireland in 1608 the first official distillation licence was granted to Old Bushmills and, in the 19th century, the first large distilleries, such as John Jameson & Son, strongly developed the export of whisky to America, favouring its widespread diffusion throughout the United States.

The spread and great success of whisky throughout the world was behind the increase in production throughout the 19th century and the invention of new techniques: in 1853 Irishman Aeneas Coffey created the first continuous column still for the Glenlivet distillery in Scotland, allowing a cheaper and faster continuous distillation process. While in the 1850s shopkeeper Andrew Usher blended several casks of whisky to create Vatted Malt, a whisky which at the time was more full-bodied than the Single Malts in circulation, other distilleries began to mix traditional barley distillate with wheat distillates to create the first Blended whiskies, which were particularly popular abroad for their sweeter, lighter flavour.

Whisky spread rapidly in the United States thanks to the commercial activity of the large Irish distilleries, but soon, from the 17th century, an autonomous production of whisky (i.e. 'whiskey', as the American spelling dictates) developed, becoming the symbol of freedom and independence from the mother country. It is no coincidence that George Washington, after taking leave from political activity, founded a distillery near Mount Vernon in 1797 and developed a special recipe based on rye and barley. The long tradition of American whisky will always be strongly characterised by the use of grains such as corn and rye in addition to barley, unlike the original recipes from Ireland and Scotland, which used only barley malt.

In the 1900s, American Prohibition and two world wars led to the collapse of whisky exports worldwide and the distilleries in Scotland and Ireland saw their production fall by more than 50%. In Italy, for example, during the Fascist period, the autarkic regime led to the creation of Tuscan whiskies and the Italianization of the name to "oatmeal spirit". It was only from the 1960s onwards that Scotch and Irish whisky once again came to the fore as a great excellence, synonymous with quality, prestige and elegance. New distilleries were set up together with large industrial groups and production quadrupled within a few years. In recent decades, the prestige and excellence of whisky has encouraged its production all over the world: from Canada to India, from Italy to Japan. Thanks to the work and expertise of modern distilleries such as Nikka and Suntory, Japanese whiskies are establishing themselves on the international market as some of the best and most elegant spirits in the world, competing with whiskies from countries with longer traditions such as Ireland, Scotland and the United States.



The Whisky Production Method

Whisky originated as a distillate from malted barley, but other cereals such as wheat, maize and rye can also contribute to the production of some types. The whisky production method can be divided into five main stages: malting, infusion, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

Malting is the transformation of barley starch into maltose, i.e. the transformation of complex sugars into simpler, fermentable sugars. To do this, the ripe barley grains are soaked in water in soaking tanks and, after a few days, are spread out on floors called 'malting floors' while still damp. The water-soaked grains slowly begin to sprout and the starch begins to turn into green malt. At this point peat, a fossil fuel naturally formed from plant remains and extracted from the ground, is burned in special ovens and its smoke is carried over the barley grains to help them dry.

The dried malt is ground into a flour which is then infused in hot water in special vats called 'underbacks'. This process is called 'mashing' and results in the production of a must called 'wort'. The wort, which is rich in simple sugars, is then transferred into large tanks called 'washbacks' and added with yeasts, which are responsible for the fermentation process, at the end of which a slightly alcoholic liquid reminiscent of beer, called 'wash', is obtained.

The 'wash', i.e. fermented wort, undergoes a double distillation in copper stills called 'pot stills'. At the end of this process the spirit is usually diluted with water and then matured, i.e. aged in oak barrels. The minimum ageing period is fixed at 3 years but the most prestigious whiskies usually remain in casks for a very long period, between 10 and 25 years.

At the end of the ageing process, the whisky is eventually filtered and then bottled "cask strength", i.e. full strength, as it comes out of the cask, or diluted with distilled water to slightly lower the alcohol content. At this point, the bottles are placed on markets all over the world.



Types of Whisky and Production Areas

There are many types of whisky, depending on the raw materials used, the methods and the area of production.

Whiskies produced in Scotland are called Scotch Whiskies and are traditionally made from barley malt. Barley malt spirits produced entirely by a single distillery are known as Single Malts and are the fullest-bodied, most complex and traditional type of Scotch whisky. The blending of several Single Malts from several distilleries results in whiskies known as Vatted Malts, also known as Pure Malts or Blended Malts. Blending barley malt distillates with grain distillates results in lighter, easier-to-drink whiskies called Blended whiskies. Whiskies made from wheat alone, called Grain Whiskies, are very rare and are usually blended with malt whiskies to create Blended whiskies.

Scotland's different production areas strongly influence the style of whisky. Scotch Whiskies produced in the Highlands, i.e. in the central part of Scotland, are full-bodied and generally peaty, i.e. characterised by the typical smoky notes due to the use of peat smoke to dry the barley. In Speyside, softer and sweeter whiskies are produced, aged in casks which very often have contained sherry. Malt whiskies that are soft, delicate and completely free of smoky notes are typical of the Lowlands, while in the Islands, particularly Islay, very smoky and peaty whiskies are produced, characterised by unmistakable iodine and salty notes. The increasingly widespread practice of ageing whisky in casks of different origins and provenance has given rise to cask finished whiskies, also known as 'double matured' whiskies, generally aged for many years in American oak casks and then subjected to a final passage in casks which have previously contained liqueur wines such as sherry, port or madeira.

Irish Whiskies differ from Scotch whiskies in some variants in the production method: not all the cereals used as raw material undergo malting; peat smoke is rarely used to dry the cereals and the production process involves triple distillation, while in Scotland double distillation is preferred. This is why Irish whiskies are generally rounder, softer and lighter than Scottish whiskies.

The types of American whisky, i.e. 'whiskey', according to the American spelling, differ mainly on the basis of the raw materials used, represented by corn, wheat, rye and malted barley. Bourbon must be produced from a blend of at least 51% corn and can be called Kentucky Bourbon, if aged in the state of the same name, or Tennessee Whiskey, if, in addition to being produced in Tennessee, it has been filtered with charcoal made from local white maple and aged in heavily toasted barrels. Whiskies made from a blend containing at least 80% corn may be labelled Corn Whiskey, while Rye Whiskey is made from at least 51% rye. American whiskies are usually sweeter and smoother than Scotch and Irish whiskies.

Whiskies produced in the East reflect the types and production methods typical of Scotland. In India, the tropical climate favours very effective ageing and gives the distillate rich and complex aromas, while in Japan, the use of sophisticated and advanced technologies allows the production of very elegant and refined whiskies, able to compete with those of Scotland for complexity and depth.