Some whiskey knowledge to help you on your way
So, you’ve decided to dive in to the wonderful world of whiskey. Good for you. Yes, there’s a lot to discover – but we’ll take it easy. After all, as they say in the best whiskey circles, there’s no rush.
It’s believed that the origins of whiskey lie with monks who discovered the Moors in Spain using clay pot stills known as alembics to extract and distill flower essences for perfumes. The monks realised that they could distill a beer made of grain in these stills and create high-alcohol strength uisce beatha or “water of life”. In time, the Irish word uisce became anglicised to “whiskey”.
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from barley and aged in wooden casks. For it to be called whiskey in Ireland, the spirit has to be in the casks for at least three years and bottled at a strength of no less than 40% ABV.
If you’re completely new to whiskey, Irish is a good place to start (honest). Our whiskeys are quite approachable and tend not to feature some of the tastes and aromas that newbies often find tricky, such as peat-smoke.
And remember, even if you don’t find something you like first time, try again. You’ll get there, promise.
High levels of alcohol can sometimes mask aromas, so adding a small drop of water can actually open up the whiskey and reveal all its complex loveliness.
Ice, however, does dull flavours, so it’s not recommended if you’re trying to explore subtle nuances. We suggest you try the whiskey neat and then add either water or ice sparingly as you go.
When it comes to tasting, we recommend copita glasses (often called sherry glasses) or Glencairn whiskey glasses. Their shape and design help concentrate the flavours of the whiskey and also prevent the spirit from evaporating too quickly.
To ‘nose’ the whiskey, raise the glass to just few centimetres below your nose. With your mouth slightly open, inhale and see if you can identify certain aromas. Is there vanilla? Can you detect oak?
Take a small sip and let it coat your tongue. Think about the flavours. Is it floral, spicy? Whiskey is a very complex substance containing an enormous range of tastes and aromas. Over time your palate will develop and you’ll become more capable of identifying these.
There are endless possibilities for using whiskey as a cocktail ingredient, but the most common ones are: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Mint Julep – and of course, Irish Coffee. Jameson, in particular, works very well in mixed drinks.
OK, it’s very staightforward. Ish. We say Irish Whiskey, but Scotch whisky. American whiskey, but Canadian whisky. Oh, and Japanese whisky. So now you know. Sort of.
This type is unique to Ireland. It’s made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley, which is triple-distilled in traditional copper pot stills. Expect full, complex flavours and a wonderful, creamy mouthfeel. Midleton Distillery has nurtured and developed this type of whiskey since 1825.
Malt whiskey is made exclusively from malted barley and also distilled using a copper pot still. Although malt whiskey is made in Ireland, this style is generally associated with Scotland.
Grain whiskey is typically produced from a mash of maize and malted barley, usually in a continuous distillation apparatus known as a column still.
Blends, marriages and staying single
A blended whiskey is one that contains two or more types of whiskey. Jameson is a blend of pot still and grain whiskey. In the case of a whiskey like Redbreast, pot still whiskeys – of which some have been aged in ex-bourbon barrels and some in ex-sherry casks – are married together to create that particular brand. The term ‘married’ rather than ‘blended’ is used to avoid confusion, as all the whiskey used to make Redbreast is pot still whiskey.
You may also come across the term ‘single-cask’. This is simply a whiskey bottled from one single barrel. It’s usually numbered and labelled with the cask it came from. These whiskeys are sometimes considered very exclusive, as each barrel would have its own unique colour, flavour and character.
Copper pot stills are used in batch distillation and produce a smaller volume of more full-bodied spirit. This method is used for barley-based whiskeys.
The column or continuous still is used for grain or non-grain whiskeys. It’s a highly efficient method that produces a light spirit high in alcohol – up to 94.8%.
After distillation, the spirit is put into casks. Up to 60% of the taste comes from the barrel itself, so we go to great lengths to look after them.
The main type of casks used at Midleton are American barrels produced from white oak (Quercus alba). These were previously used to age bourbon, and impart distinctive flavours and aromas such as vanilla, honey, coconut and spices.
We also use sherry casks, known as sherry butts, which originate from the south of Spain. These are made from European oak (Quercus robur), and lend notes of dried fruit, cinnamon and fruitcake.
In recent years we’ve begun experimenting with more types of barrels for maturing our whiskey, such as port pipes, Malaga casks and even barrels from the prestigious Château Léoville Barton winemakers.
Our Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, is a fifth-generation cooper and is responsible for monitoring the quality of our precious barrels. He regularly visits Kentucky, Jerez and Portugal to source them. In Midleton he inspects every one that comes in and he repairs by hand and eye. That’s craft.
Bourbon barrels are charred before they’re filled with whiskey; sherry and port casks aren’t. Charring enables the whiskey to permeate the wood and access certain properties and flavours. It also caramelises the sugar in the wood, imparting a sweeter flavour, and opening the pores of the wood to allow more of the qualities to pass more quickly to the whiskey.
European oak is lightly toasted as opposed to flame-charred.
The bourbon barrels used to age Jameson Black Barrel are uniquely double-charred, so that the whiskey can seep deeper into the wood, resulting in a much sweeter taste profile.
People someone wonder if whiskey continues to mature once it’s in the bottle. The answer is no. The moment the whiskey leaves the barrel, it’s as good as it gets. Which is pretty good.
And, provided it’s kept out of direct sunlight, the whiskey will last indefinitely in the bottle. (Once you open it, however, you’re on your own…)
Some people view the age statement on the bottle as a guide to its value. But it’s not the only one. Creating a premium whiskey involves more than just time. Distillate styles, cask management and blending all play a major part. So our Whiskey Masters are free to exercise their artistry without the constraint of age considerations.
Producing whiskey is a combination of art, craft and science. It costs more to make than spirits like vodka and gin, which don’t involve as many stages of production or require the lengthy ageing processes.
And ageing – or precisely, maturation time – is arguably the most important factor affecting cost. Here’s why. Approximately 2% of the whiskey in a barrel will evaporate every year. This may not seem like a lot, but consider a whiskey which has been in a barrel for 12, 15 or even 21 years. When the time comes for blending and bottling, a significant amount will have vanished. This is known as the “angels’ share” and can’t be avoided without compromising quality. Which is something we’d never do.
Rarity is another factor. Many whiskeys are produced in small quantities and occasionally in limited runs. Since there’s a smaller quantity of these whiskeys on the market, they’ll naturally command a higher price.
Finally, tax. A whiskey with higher alcohol content will draw a higher duty than one with a lower alcohol content. Most whiskeys are 40% ABV, but some are bottled at 43% and 46%. ‘Cask strength’ whiskeys – often between 58-65% ABV – will be particularly heavily taxed.
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