Monday, June 20, 2011

Whiskey Laws

First an apology to anyone who follows this blog regularly. It has been my intention to put up new posts at least once a week, twice if possible. Updates have not been that frequent over the last few weeks, but hopefully I can be a little more consistent from here on out.

I know that when I did the Whistle Pig review, I said I would go over the differences between American and Canadian whiskey regulations next time around. But as I started in on the research, I got a little overwhelmed and realized it would be better lay out some basic definitions, then take one country at a time. Once I've covered the five major whiskey producing nations, I'll do an overview and highlight the differences between them. I'll alternate with reviews to keep it interesting as well. Also, keep in mind that whiskeys are made in certain ways sometimes by laws and regulations, and sometimes just by tradition. I'll try to differentiate as I go along.

I should really start with the most basic definition - whisk(e)y: a distilled spirit made from grain (basically beer which has had its alcohol concentrated by a still). Barley, corn, wheat and rye are the most common grains found in whiskey production, but really any grain can be used to make whiskey. Some people might ask "Belvedere is vodka and it's made from wheat, what's the difference?". The logical answer is that it's not whiskey because it's not aged in oak barrels. And that is the wrong answer. Most whiskeys are aged in oak, sometimes by law, sometimes by tradition, but not by definition. White (unaged) whiskeys do indeed exist. What is important is the level to which the spirit is distilled. A vodka (which can be made from anything fermentable, including grain) will be distilled to a very high proof, up around 190. But a whiskey will typically not be distilled above 160 proof. Sometimes this is by law, sometimes it is tradition, but it is part of the basic definition of whiskey. At a maximum of 80% alcohol, whiskey will retain much of the flavor and character of the grain it was originally made from. Vodka on the other hand has almost all of the flavor and aroma literally distilled out of it, reaching 95% alcohol before water is added back to it when it is bottled. Why is this done? Well, vodka was originally made from the cheapest possible ingredients (potatoes, etc) and tasted so bad that it made sense to distill the flavor out of it. In fact it was still so awful tasting that people added botanicals (like Juniper) to it to mask the flavor, making gin (which is really the original flavored vodka). So, you can probably see why I have no respect for vodka in general, and especially expensive ones that start with quality ingredients. While I'm covering basic definitions, I should go over the other distilled spirits as well. Tequila comes from the Agave plant (commonly mistaken for a cactus, the plant is a succulent, more closely related to yucca). Rum is made from sugar (cane sugar, molasses, sugar beets, etc). Brandy is made from fruit (most commonly grapes, and certain types of brandy, such as Cognac, can only be made from grapes).

Another item to take note of is the still. There are two types, the pot still and the column still (sometimes known as the continuous still for its method of operation, sometimes known as the Coffey still for one of its inventors). The pot still is the original method and works in a batch process. A vessel is loaded with an alcoholic liquid and heated. The alcohol evaporates first, and passes out through a tube at the top of the vessel. Once it cools, the alcohol (along with some other liquid) re-condenses in a separate container, and is now concentrated away from the liquid left in the still. For most whiskeys, this process is run through two or three times (double distilled, triple distilled). The column still, which was invented close to 200 years ago, is a little more complicated, and I won't go into the details of how one works. It operates on a continuous process - as long as steam and alcoholic liquid keep being pumped into it, concentrated alcohol and waste liquid (water from the steam and the liquid the alcohol was separated from) will continue to come out. The column still is more efficient, especially when producing highly concentrated alcohol (such as vodka, or denatured alcohol). The pot still has a greater mystique, and many believe it to produce a better product. That may be partly because the column still seems more industrial, and its operation is harder to understand. But at the end of the day, quality whiskey can be made from either type of still. In recent years, with craft (or micro) distilling growing rapidly, hybrid stills that are a combination of pot and column have become popular too.

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