Whisky draws its flavor from three sources – ingredients, distillation, and aging. Nothing more, nothing less. So, let’s take a deeper dive into each of these three areas, starting with ingredients.
If you read a whisky bottle label or if you’ve ever gone on a distillery tour, chances are you’ve been told about their water. Water is water. Right? Apparently not. Every distillery in the world seems to have some cool, unique angle on water. Our water comes from the highest elevation, Our water is glacier fed, Our water comes directly from Mars. Wait. There’s no water on Mars.
Now, granted, water can have an impact on the taste of whisky. If it comes from a peat bog on Islay, chances are it’s gonna taste a little ‘earthy’. If it flows over ten miles of rock, it might have a mineral taste. So there is some influence on the overall taste of the whisky. But not much, compared to some of the other taste influencers. But there are a few interesting water sources out there.
The Jack Daniels Distillery draws its water from the Stillhouse Hollow (some call it Cave Spring Hollow), which originates in a cave near the distillery. Evidently, the cave structure is high in limestone, which gives the water a low iron level. That’s good if you are making whisky because iron creates off-flavors and can inhibit fermentation.
The Glenfarclas Distillery, in Speyside, has spring water diverted right into the plant, through a 150 year old water wheel. I’m not sure that there is anything special about the water, but the setup is very cool.
Whatever impact that water has on taste, it is generally overstated by distillery owners and marketers. Same for yeast. There just isn’t much of an impact.
Not so with grain. The type of grain used in distilling whisky is a key to the final flavor. Corn, for example, gives whisky a sweet, syrupy taste. Barley tends to provide a roasted, toffee taste. Rye tends to be spicy. Wheat doesn’t provide much flavor at all. Which is why the Canadian industry learned early to add some rye to their whisky.
And then there’s the unique, if not oddball grain whiskies. Koval Whiskey, produced in the US midwest, is made from oats and/or millet. Eddu, from France, is made from buckwheat. Corsair, from Kentucky, makes a quinoa whisky, Dry Fly Whiskey from Washington State makes a whiskey out of triticale. Whatever that is. And there are tons of Asian whiskies made from rice based awamori and shochu. So there you have it. A virtual smorgasbord of grain choices to choose from.
What about the origin of the grain? Does Scottish barley provide a different flavor than Japanese or American? The industry term for this is ‘terroir’, which loosely translates to ‘subtle differences from the local soil and climate’. A big deal in the wine industry. Or the cigar world. But pretty subtle in the whisky world. What matters more is how the grain is prepared for the distillation process. For example, malting is important, especially if you dry the grain with lots of smoke. Adding unmalted grain can also affect taste – that’s an Irish specialty.
So, that’s pretty much it for ingredients and how they impact taste. Interesting. Diverse. But not the biggest influencer in whisky flavor. Of much greater importance is distillation and what effect it has on your favorite whisky. Stay tuned for more on that. Cheers!