There are significant differences in quality among whiskies, brandies, and other types of distilled spirits. There are also significant differences in price and, by and large, the prices reflect these quality variances. Like wines and beers, distilled spirits ultimately reflect the quality of their ingredients. Whether one is making a whisky from grain, brandy from fruit, or rum from sugar cane, a great deal of attention is paid to the starting materials. The distilled spirit manufacturer has greater control over the production processes than a winemaker does and can more successfully overcome year to year ingredient variances. Therefore, the age of the spirit may be important in that it indicates a specific amount of wood aging, but it is not important from the standpoint of which specific year it was distilled. With many wines, the year in which it was made (when the grapes were grown) is of major importance.
Another quality factor is the method of distillation. Most spirits are distilled in a continuous still but pot stills are used for some of the most famous beverages. Straight malt scotches are pot-distilled, as are Cognacs and other brandies, and some rums.
Proof of distillation is a critically important quality factor and is regulated for nearly all spirits although with some spirits, the distiller has a range of proofs which can be used. Bourbon, for example, cannot be distilled at over 160 proof but the manufacturer can elect to go lower. Two Bourbons, one distilled at 160 proof and the other at perhaps 130, would be entirely different.
Following distillation, there are many processes which enable the distiller to alter or enhance the spirit. Charcoal filtering, as practiced by some whisky manufacturers, is one example. Another is wood aging. The type of wood is generally regulated but some spirit makers have options to experiment and nearly all can determine how long the spirit will remain in contact with the wood. Wood aging is expensive because the product cannot be sold and the volume is gradually reduced over the years due to evaporation. This is an example of the relationship of quality and price. Although increased wood aging will improve many spirits, they must be sold at a higher price since they have higher production costs.
Blending, a process important to only a few wines, is another critical quality factor. Spirits must maintain brand consistency and it is the blending which assures this. Whether you are drinking a Hennessy VSOP Cognac, a Canadian Club or Cutty Sark whisky, they must always remain the same, whereas vintage-dated wines are expected to be different. Since the distiller begins with plants and fruits which vary from year to year, spirits cannot be made with a strict recipe. Skillful blending is required to maintain odor, taste, and flavor consistency. Even with straight whisky, such as Bourbon, the master distiller carefully blends barrels from various parts of the warehouses to obtain a consistent house style.
Distilled Spirit Types And Standards
Each of the major types of distilled spirits available in the United States will be discussed as regards how their specific production standards deviate from the general methods just described, their Federal Standards of Identity, and their sensory standards.
Whiskies have traditionally dominated the American spirits market but this is no longer the case. In 1960 whiskies accounted for some 74% of the American market while the white goods (Gin, Vodka, Rum, Tequila) could only claim a market share of 19%. The remainder was in specialties, mostly brandies. In 1984 the whisky share dropped to 41.5% while that of white goods increased to 41.8%, and the specialties to 15.7%. Nevertheless, whisky still claims a significant share of the American distilled spirit market.
The spelling of the various whiskies is interesting. The Scotch and Canadians use the spelling whisky, the Irish spell it whiskey, and the Americans use both. United States regulations however, use the spelling whisky, and except for Irish, we will use that spelling throughout this text.
Rum was the first commercially produced spirit in America; it was produced from the 1600's but faded during the 1800's when whisky began its rise to prominence. American whisky began in Pennsylvania and Maryland and from those states, it traveled south through Virginia to Kentucky & Tennessee.
In Virginia, a settler wrote to a friend in 1620 that a drink was being made from corn (rum from molasses was the primary distillate at the time). It was not until the 1770's however, that consistent references were made to whisky production. The famed Kentucky distillery of Jim Beam traces its beginnings to 1795. During the period dating from the late 1700's, there is evidence of rye whisky distillation throughout Virginia and North Carolina. Whisky was probably being distilled in the part of Virginia that became Kentucky in 1776 and the primary grain was probably corn although rye whisky was the predominant one for some time.
Although many early American whiskies were based on rye, corn was the principal native grain of North America and came to be the primary grain used. Corn has a much sweeter taste than rye, which is characterized by bitterness. With corn, like rye, barley malt (5 to 15%) must be used to convert the grain starch to sugar for fermentation.
The whisky region or belt of America is probably due more to ethnic settlement than anything else although distillers like to point out the limestone shelf, permeated with springs, that spreads under this region. Limestone land produces good corn and a fine supply of uncontaminated water. American distillers are emphatic in their belief in the importance of the water. They say that their limestone springs produce water free from iron or other minerals that discolor the distillate, that it contributes toward to the texture and sweet taste, and that the calcium aids the enzyme activity during fermentation.
Thomas Jefferson, while governor of Virginia, offered pioneers 60 acres of land in Kentucky if they would build a permanent structure and raise the native corn. Since no family could eat 60 acres of corn and it was too perishable and bulky to transport, they often distilled it into whisky; a solution that solved many problems. Since it was held in barrel, the longer it took to be sold or to be transported, the better it became. Whisky was used, as was tobacco and salt, as currency in early Kentucky.
There is said to be a relationship between the whisky and Kentucky's other famous product - horses. Whisky was shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans and traded for horses. The horses were driven back over the Natchez Trace trail back to Kentucky. The limestone spring water was also felt to be good for raising horses. It grows good grass, the famed Kentucky bluegrass, on which to raise horses with strong bones. The New Orleans connection led to the development of a drink called the Sazerac cocktail, a combination of whisky and peach juice. This probably inspired Southern Comfort, the famous Bourbon liqueur.
Louisville may have been the site of the first whisky production in Kentucky. The distiller was Evan William, whose name survives today. Others attribute the first to have been Wattie Boone (a cousin of Daniel) near Bardstown. Today, Louisville and Bardstown, along with the capital of Kentucky, Frankfort, are the main areas of distillation.
Using whisky as an example, we will describe how distilled spirits in general are made. In the subsequent sections, we will discuss how these procedures are altered when making various types of whiskies and other spirits.
In winemaking, the natural fruit sugar is fermented into ethyl alcohol but in the manufacture of whisky and some other spirits, grains are used and they contain starch, not sugar. Hence, the first step consists of cooking (the gelatinization of the starches), and saccharification, or conversion of the starches to grain sugar. This is called mashing. Grain is ground and cooked and then mixed with barley malt. Malting refers to the process of allowing grain to germinate, or sprout and barley is the grain most typically used. Malt contains enzymes which have the unique ability to convert grain starch to maltose or grain sugar.
Since the mash now contains fermentable sugars, addition of yeast will initiate the production of ethyl alcohol. During fermentation, perhaps 5-6% of the available sugar is consumed in side reactions and the secondary products formed largely determine the characteristics and sensory qualities of the final product. These are the products known as congeners and in whisky making they are retained during the subsequent operations. If the objective is to produce grain neutral spirits, the congeners are removed. They include aldehydes, esters, higher alcohols (fusel oils), some fatty acids, phenolics, and many unidentified trace substances.
The term sour mash is frequently misunderstood. Sweet mash whisky is produced by using fresh water to begin the fermentation while, with sour mash, they add to the water a residue of a previous distillation. The amount added varies, one distillery using as much as 41%. It may be added to the grain mash in the cooker, the yeast mash, the fermenting vessels, or all three. This results in a slightly sweeter and heavier bodied whisky; it is not at all sour as the term suggests. It also aids in the continuity of the fermentation, encourages yeast growth, inhibits bacterial contamination and helps prevent wild yeasts from becoming a problem. Most Bourbons are made using the sour mash method although they will not always state it on the label. Sour Mash is a normal straight whisky production method and is in no way unusual. Distillers in states other than Kentucky often feel the need to add the term as an indication of authenticity. Sour mashing is also known as backset or setback.
Straight - With rye or Bourbon, it means that the whisky has been aged according to regulations and that it has not been "stretched" with neutral spirits. They may contain more than one distillation of a specific type, even from more than one location but cannot contain distillations of a different type (proof or grain mixture). When a minimum of 51% rye or Bourbon is mixed with neutral spirits, it is called a blended rye or Bourbon.
Up to this point (except for the use of sour mash), the process for making whisky is similar to that used for beer and the product is called distillers beer. The distillers refer to the fermented product as three day beer, five day beer and so forth. The two critical factors in the distillation process are the type of still utilized and the proof of distillation. United States law stipulates that a product labeled as whisky must be distilled at less than 190 proof, or 95% alcohol. Above 190 proof, the spirit loses the congeneric substances characteristic of the grains used and legally becomes a grain neutral spirit. The nature of a neutral spirit is that is contains little, if any, elements of the original ingredients. You normally would not be able to distinguish among rye neutral spirits, corn neutral spirits, or barley neutral spirits. For that matter you probably could not distinguish among grain neutral spirits and fruit neutral spirits.
Distillation takes place in column stills. With Kentucky Bourbon whisky, a double distillation is used. The product of the first distillation, in 5 story stills, is called "low wine." The second distillation takes place in an apparatus called a "doubler" and produces the final product, usually at a higher proof than the low wine. The first distillation is done with steam and it extracts the various constituents indiscriminately; thus the use of a doubler for refining the final product.
A newly distilled spirit is colorless, pungent in taste, and harsh and must be matured to acquire smoothness, and mellowness. Most spirits are matured in wood and this provides color as well. Colorless spirits, such as gin and vodka, cannot be placed in wood and must be processed differently to reduce the harshness. Vodka, for example, must be charcoal filtered in the United States.
After distillation, whiskies are diluted with distilled water, aged in wood, diluted again, then bottled. Thus, the proof of distillation has no relationship with bottling proof. Bottling proof has more to do with marketing needs than anything else. One spirit could be distilled at 190 and bottled at 100 proof while another could be distilled at 125 and bottled at 80 proof. The former, although stronger, would be lighter and have no distinctive character while the latter would be heavier in body and have a more distinctive flavor and odor.
The changes in the spirit during wood aging are caused by three types of reactions occurring simultaneously and continuously in the barrel. One, complex wood constituents are extracted by the liquid; two, there is oxidation of components originally present in the liquid as well as of materials extracted from the wood; and three, there are reactions between various organic substances present in the liquid, leading to the formation of more and new congeners.
As with wine, the type of wood is very important and most of the major spirits have strict requirements. Some whiskies, Bourbon regulations require that the barrels be new, and that the insides be charred. This is done by setting the inside of the barrel on fire until a layer of char is developed. Most whiskies and other spirits do not have do be aged in new, unused wood, nor do the barrels have to be charred. Charring improves and softens the taste of the spirit and provides both body and color.
Length of aging is a complex matter and depends on the character of the whisky. A light bodied whisky does not need as much wood as does a heavy bodied one. Some whiskies may be fully matured after only four years in wood while others could require eight years or even more. The decision on how long to mature is actually made when distilling. The manufacturer will decide what specific type of spirit to make and there is a close relationship between distilling and aging strategies. In a column still, the distiller can pull the spirit off at whatever proof they want and can control the eventual body and character of the product.