Malt whisky basics

Malted barley is the only type of grain
used for the production & distillation
of Scotch malt whisky - and some of
the Irish whiskies as well. There are
many other whisk(e)y types, as well
as countries that produce whisk(e)y.
We’ll get to all that in a little while... 

barley - the source of malt whiskey

OK, let's start with the basics. Your average dictionary might describe 'WHISK(E)Y' as:

"A spirituous liquor distilled from a fermented mash of grains (barley, corn, wheat, etc.),
matured in wooden casks, usually for three years or more. Scotch whisky takes its dry,
somewhat smoky flavour from the barley malt, cured with peat, used in its preparation.
For Irish whiskey, no peat is used. Whisk(e)y was first distilled in British monasteries
in the 11th century - and it has been produced commercially since the 16th century."

Well, it seems that your average dictionary writer doesn't get out much...
There's so much more to whisk(e)y than can be described in one simple paragraph.
What's more, that last part about the origins of whisk(e)y might not be completely true.
But I’ll get back to the history of whisk(e)y shortly - let’s deal with the spelling first.

The question “Should I write whisky or whiskey?” might seem a little bit
academic at first (and very academic once you drank enough), but the
simple answer is: the spelling depends on the country. Not the country
where you are enjoying the whisk(e)y, mind you, but where it was made.

How to spell whisky - or whiskey...

It is mostly a matter of tradition (and there are exceptions), but as a rule
of thumb, whiskies that were produced in Ireland or the United States
are labeled as ‘whiskey’. The whiskies hailing from other countries are
usually spelled as ‘whisky’ - without the apparently superfluous ‘e’.

Because malt whiskey is not exclusively Scotch, I will use both spellings ‘whisky’ & ‘whiskey’ in this Beginner’s Guide.
I heartily encourage everybody else to spell ‘whisk(e)y’ how they bloody well like - life is complex enough as it is.

(*) The knowledge of distillation was
spread across the world primarily by
Scottish and Irish emigrants, but they
were not the only ones. The traditions
from other European countries like
France, Germany and Spain had their
influence on global spirits as well.

Aberfeldy single malt whisky

Indcidentally, the art of distillation itself wasn’t a British invention.
It was invented 2,000 years ago in Greece and/or China.

The Irish and the Scots still bicker about where whiskey was first distilled, and until quite
recently they usually did their bickering in Gaelic. This language was spoken by ‘Celtic’
inhabitants of the British isles. The earliest known Gaelic records refer to malt whisky as
'Uisgebaugh' and ‘Uisge Beatha’ - which in turn comes from the Latin 'Aqua Vitae'.

The earliest forms of whiskey were
most likely distilled from ale or beer.
The result of the distillation was not
matured in any way, so it’s probably
just as well that the Uisge Beatha
(Gaelic for 'water of life') was used
mostly for medicinal purposes

When the very first whiskey was distilled is still a matter of debate.
It was probably somewhere in the 14th or 15th century - and the first
distillers in Britain were most likely alchemists or monks. The actual
birthplace of 'the water of life' was probably Ireland or Scotland.

The origins of whisky - and whiskey

The knowledge didn’t travel further into Europe during the Roman occupation and the dark
ages. However, by the 12th century they had figured out how to distill alcohol in the Schola
Medica in Salerno, Italy - and one or two centuries later the knowledge had reached Britain.
We’ll get back to the distillation process in chapter four. First, we’ll have to look at...

And that wasn’t the only reason that life in Scotland and Ireland sucked in those days.
That was partly because of the English, but the weather and poor soil were factors too.

Why whiskey is called whiskey (or whisky)

This translates as 'Water of Life' - which livens up discussions and various body parts.
(Well, up to a point - drinking too much limpens them.) One body part that is particularly
livened up by whiskey is the tongue - which may explain the weird way the Gaels chose
to pronounce ‘Aqua Vitae’. Lack of proper education may also have been a factor...

Japanese single malt whisky

So, during the 18th and 19th century, emigration was running rampant.
Many Scottish and Irish people left their homeland in search of greener pastures, and on
their world wide travels they brought their knowledge of whiskey production with them. (*)

Malt whiskey production around the world

These days, whiskey is produced all over the world - on all continents except Antarctica.

However, the vast majority of the ‘world whiskeys’ are not actually MALT whiskeys.
We’ll get to the distinction between different whiskey types in the next chapter, but if we
choose the loosest possible definition there are more countries that produce whiskey
than there are countries that don’t. That ‘loosest possible definition’ means that we are
willing to consider the contents of any bottle that says ‘whisk(e)y’ on it as whiskey.
We shouldn’t, actually - but I’ll get back to that in the Advanced Beginner’s Guide...

The chapter on geography covers “world whiskies”...

As far as single malt whiskey production
(from malted barley) is concerned, I’ve
sampled whiskeys from Scotland, Ireland,
England, Wales, Canada, the US, Australia,
New-Zealand, Sweden, Holland, Belgium,
France, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey,
India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan,
Brazil, Venezuela and even South Africa.
So, malt whisky is produced world wide.

The column still (used for producing
grain whisky) is also known as patent
still, continuous still or Coffey still. It
was invented and perfected in the first
half of the 19th century by people like
Anthony Perrier (Irish), Robert Stein
(Scottish) and Aeneas Coffey (Irish).

Whisky production in the old days
Malt whisky casks

The very first whiskey was distilled in either Ireland or Scotland, so
there are no doubts about the Gaelic roots of whiskey. But why do so
many people still mistakenly call every whisky ‘Scotch’ and not ‘Irish’?
Probably because some Scotchmen launched the whisky industry...

Why most whisky is still ‘Scotch’

However, the Scotch whisky industry really got into its stride after the
invention and perfection of column stills in the middle of the 19th century.
Ironically enough, they’re also named ‘Coffey Stills’ - after an Irishman.

Scotland may have been the first country where a comprehensive law
facilitated the (legal) birth and growth of a malt whisky industry, but it was
also the first country where the grain whisky industry appeared just a
few decades later. The new column stills allowed distillers to produce
‘whisky’ from cheaper grains - and to keep distilling whisky all day long.

Apart from fondling their sheep and shaving their legs, the farmers of
Scotland had very little entertainment in the 17th and 18th century.

So, a growing number of them started to distil small
quantities of malt whisky on (illegal) farm distilleries.
They used malted barley and copper pot stills, but
it only became a malt whisky industry after 1823.

The Excise Act which was passed in that year was
the beginning of the end for illegal whisky distillation.
It allowed the first legal distillers (like George Smith
who founded Glenlivet) to obtain a distilling license
so he could pay taxes on the distilled malt whisky.

The number of distilleries grew and at the end of the
19th century, all illegal distillation was eradicated.

Loch Lomond 'single malt' whisky
Don't judge a whisky by its bottle

One other ‘basic’ thing to understand
about Scotch whisky is the fact that
the fanciness of the bottle has little
or no relation to the quality of the liquid
inside it. The bottle of Loch Lomond
whisky at the right wasn’t made in the
type of pot still that the bottle suggests.

Malt whisky is made in a ‘batch process’ - in copper pot stills from malted barley.
This means that the ‘stillmen’ have to fill and heat up the massive stills for every
‘run’, and then empty and clean the stills again after they have cooled down...
This also means that every malt whisky is unique - and needs a lot of time...

Check out the chapters about
distillation and maturation for more
‘technical’ details on malt whisky.

During the first half of the 19th century, Scotch was mostly drunk by Scots.
And what do the Scots like best when they are drunk? Right; complain about the English...
However, maybe they should be a little thankful too - especially if they are drinking Scotch whisky while complaining.

The chapter on vocabulary delves
deeper into the many differences
between malt whisky & grain whisky.
Understanding those differences
may prevent you from spending too
much money on inferior whiskies.

How the English helped ‘Scotch’ to spread globally

After all, it were English botanists (probably Victorian to boot) who brought American vines to Europe in the 1850s.
Those vines had some wine louse (Phylloxera) on them - and unlike their American cousins, the grape varieties
that were mostly used in Europe had no resistance to the little sap sucking suckers. Within a few decades, most of
the vineyards in Britain and France were wiped out - and the cognac and brandy industry along with it.

Scotch (and Irish) whiskies reached many new markets - and there even was a ‘whisky boom’ in the 1890s.
But that’s a tale for another time - we’ll first have to improve your whisky vocabulary in the next chapter...

Even after reading just one chapter of the Beginner’s Guide you should know more about malt whisky than you
did before - provided you were a proper beginner to begin with... And even though parts of MM have not been
fully reconstructed yet, you can find much more information about various aspects of the malt whisky world here:

An overview of the Scotch whisky industry, divided by the ownership of distilleries.
A list of the major Scotch whisky bottlers - both independent and industry-owned.
There are far more malt whisky brands than there are malt whisky distilleries.

An overview of all active and recently closed whisky distilleries in Scotland.
The whisky regions of Scotland have lost much of their significance these days.
As the ugly red-haired step-sibling of malt whisky, grain whisky is rarely mentioned.

SitemapFrequently Asked QuestionsMalt Maniacs - Malt Whisky Archives
Beginner's Guide to Scotch whiskeyScotch Distillery DataDistillery Map of Scotch Whisky
Single malt basicsSingle malt whiskey vocabularyGeography of Scotch and world whiskyDistillation of whiskeyBottlingShopping for whiskeyTasting whiskyPractice with whiskey tastings
Send an e-mail