Whiskey History

Whiskey vs Whisky

“If you don’t know how to spell a word, I suggest you look it up in the dictionary”, is something one would hear often from a teacher while attending school. Now that technology has easily allowed us to eliminate the possibility of grammar errors, without the hassle of dusting off any books, we shouldn’t have any trouble. Although this burden has been relieved from us in the majority of literary circumstances, many debates still arise from the spelling of the beloved beverage “whiskey”.

Whiskey vs Whisky
Weller by Buffalo Trace

“Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak. Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels”, is what wikipedia tells us. So which is it; ‘e’ or no ‘e’ (that is the question) and why? As always, an interesting historical footnote is the cause of this common confusion.

Research shows that, the anglicized form of the Gaelic phrase “Uisce beatha”, or “water of life”, is where the word “whiskey” originally stemmed from, (as Scotland and Ireland both possess a rich Celtic heritage). The Scottish spell it “whisky” and the Irish spell it “whiskey”. Irish immigrants brought the ‘e’ to the states in the 1700’s, resulting in American whiskies being referred to as “whiskey” ever since. According to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, Ireland, the different spelling originally began as a marketing stunt, as an attempt to increase pricing.

So, are “whisky” and “whiskey” two different spellings of the same word/product- or are they two separate groups of spirits, spelled relatively the same? Generally, Scottish whiskies are distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is distilled three times – this process determines how “light” and “smooth” the finished product will be. In addition, the size and shape of the stills, that are used in the distillation process, tend to be different. In Ireland (and much of America), pot stills are used – producing a “softer” and “more rounded” spirit. In Scotland, distilleries use a wide variety of stills, allowing a wider range of flavors.

Despite the differences in a distiller’s method of production, there will always be similarities between the two. There will also be those who remain faithful to the ideology that there is true meaning, artistry, and culture behind the spirit’s grammar, Maker’s Mark being one of them. Maker’s Mark is one of the only American made whiskeys who choose to label their product, the “Scottish way”. Even though the company was eventually sold and is now owned by a Japanese company “Beam Suntory”, the family’s request to the spelling of whisky (without the ‘e’), still remains. As the world admires the sought-after label, it is fairly common that buyers are often misled while attempting to buy an American made whiskey, (especially those who are faithful to the notion that countries with an ‘e’ spell whiskey with an ‘e’). So, what could be more important than the presumption and expectations of a multitude of consumers? The answer is, something that cannot be bought: the heritage of the distiller.

Bourbon Whiskey Whiskey History

Can Bourbon be made outside of Kentucky?

Sweetens Cove Bourbon

“Kentucky Bourbon is the ONLY bourbon”, they say. “You can’t really make bourbon outside of Kentucky because it’s a combination of the barrels and the limestone fed springs that give us water. That’s our story and were sticking to it.” Considering that only 5% of the world’s supply of bourbon is made outside of the southern state – is there a method to this myth?

First off, all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Whiskey can be made anywhere in the world. However, bourbon was born and raised on American soil. So in 1964, Congress declared this unique spirit “a distinctive product of the United States”. With strict rules and regulations for the production of “America’s Native Spirit”, not any ole’ whiskey (foreign or domestic) can take claims to the name “bourbon”.

To properly produce bourbon, the dry grain mixture must consist of (no less than) 51% corn – along with other ingredients such as rye and wheat. Corn being a sweet grain, many distillers often use 65-70% corn. “The more corn, the sweeter the whiskey.” The grains are then milled, so that the fine mixture can be combined with fresh spring water. This is the part where our Kentucky neighbors say, “One of the reasons we make so much bourbon here in Kentucky is because of our water. The water filters through the limestone, picking up calcium and removing iron. Quality water, for quality bourbon.”

The grain and water mixture is then cooked under pressure, in order to create the “mash” for fermentation. Once the mash has cooled, malted barley is then added – allowing the starches to be turned into sugars. This mixture is then pumped over to a fermenter, and yeast is added. As the yeast feeds on the sugars of the mash, cO2 and alcohol are produced while generating heat. After 3-4 days of this process, the yeast dies off and the mash has now evolved into a low alcohol content “wash” or “distiller’s beer”. The liquid is then distilled, producing a clear spirit ranging anywhere between 65-80% alcohol – aka, unaged whiskey. This whiskey is poured into brand new, charred, white oak barrels, and then placed into a warehouse to age for 2 or more years.

There are currently more than 20 working bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky, making more than 200 of the world’s most beloved brands – resulting in a 95% contribution to the bourbon industry. Why?

  1. The ease of growing corn. Kentucky’s fertile soil allows corn to be a dominant grain of the state.
  2. With the demand of fresh spring water, ideal for bourbon production, many distilleries have been built near springs. Kentucky is located on a large limestone layer that filters out iron and unwanted minerals while collecting sweet-tasting calcium and magnesium. This not only allows but encourages distilleries to use the local water supply.
  3. A wide range in temperature between seasons in the state, cold winters and hot summers, allows the charred oak barrels to absorb and release the bourbon during the aging process. This gives the spirit its distinctive color and taste.
  4. Although the original inspiration for the whiskey’s name has yet to be proven – Bourbon County, KY is a real place.

The state of Kentucky prides itself on the history of their bourbon production, and rightfully so. Against all odds, who else (if anyone) dares to dip into an industry ruled by the bluegrass state? Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon, Wigle organic Pennsylvania Bourbon, New York’s Kings County Peated Bourbon– the list goes on! There are bourbons being made all over the USA. Even better, reviews are giving these upcoming distilleries two thumbs up.

In fact, Marianne Eaves – who holds a place in history as “Kentucky’s First Female Bourbon Master Distiller since Prohibition”, was recruited to serve as Master Blender of a new Tennessee brand, Sweetens Cove. Starting with 100 exclusive barrels of 13-year aged Tennessee product, Marianne’s “meticulous process of blending” began. With whispers of, “caramel and vanilla aromas” and “oak, sweet and spicy” with a “lasting smoke finish” … many have become curious.

The ultra-premium Tennessee bourbon was released May 26, 2020.

As distilleries emerge all over the country, the bourbon industry has clearly proven itself to be successful. With rising expectations from seasoned bourbon connoisseurs, distillers, and newcomers alike – the demand for this cult product is growing exponentially. And whether anyone likes it or not, it’s growing above and beyond the Mason Dixon line.