World Whisky Day is a day to get together with friends to try new and interesting spirits – and there’s so much going on in the world of whisky it’s hard to keep up. So, we’ve narrowed it down to seven wonders – trends, histories and little miracles that turn good whisky into great whisky.
Australia is home to a unique climate; with temperatures fluctuating on a daily basis, from single-digit mornings to mid-20 degree days. Humidity can also fluctuate wildly. The effect of humidity and a warmer climate on whisky barrels is that it increases the rate of ‘breathing’: the swelling and contracting of wood.
These shorter cycles effectively speed up the ageing process in the barrel. Therefore in Australia, one year of ageing might equate to two to four years in other more stable climates. This makes judging the ageing process both challenging and exciting. It also means the ‘angel’s share’ (the evaporation from each barrel every year) is up to 10%! Huge compared to the average 2% evaporation expected in Scotland.
But despite these challenges, there are more than 120 distilleries in Australia, 31 of which are in Tasmania with a large percentage producing whisky. All are very small by global standards, but their products are world class. And when it comes to winning awards, Australian whisky definitely punches above its weight.
The birth of the giant Japanese whisky industry we know today comes down to two men; Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. In the early 20th century, Shinjiro was a successful importer of Western liquor, but, not satisfied with this success, he decided to build Japan’s first whisky distillery. The most important person he hired was Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied the art of distilling in Scotland. Masataka played a key part in helping Torii establish the world-famous Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, where whisky was made in the Scottish style. In 1934 Masataka left Shinjiro and started his own company, Yoichi Distillery, the producer of Nikka whisky. Today, these two major forces of Japanese whisky are recognised for their excellence around the world. Both have many global awards to their names, including the 2001 ‘Best of the Best’ award for Nikka 10-year-old single malt and Suntory winning ‘Distiller of the year’ several times at the International Spirit Challenge. With Japanese exports showing no signs of slowing down, it’s obvious that the giants of Japan are casting a long shadow.
Made from at least 51% corn mash and aged in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon is the sweet, full-bodied whisky of the American south. In fact, around 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, hence the name ‘Kentucky Champagne’. Traditionally seen as the working class spirit, bourbon is undergoing a big image change. Premium bourbons are now seeing huge increases in popularity. High-rye bourbons like Bulleit are already earning considerable market share. This renewed popularity is also seeing a boom in bourbon tourism, or ‘bourbonism’ as they call it in Louisville. In 2016 there were over 1 million visits to Kentucky distilleries and that’s set to grow even more with the backing of the Kentucky Distillers Association. From August 2018, Louisville will be the gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. No doubt this growing popularity will spread quickly to Australia, as premium bourbon becomes red, white and true blue.
If bourbon is the spirit of the south, rye is the whiskey of the north east. Rye whiskey must be distilled from at least 51% rye grain and has a drier finish than bourbons. The rye gives the spirit distinctive, bold, spicy and fruity flavours. It’s these flavours which have driven the popularity of rye particularly favoured by bartenders and mixologists in the cocktail market. The popularity of rye whiskey has already taken off in America and with growing interest in the flavours from Australian bartenders, we can expect an Australian rye-volution very soon.
More than age, region, or method, whisky drinkers are in search of flavour. As a result, producers are turning to new barrel-finishes in the pursuit of interesting new flavours. Different casks produce different flavours, adding complexity to the distillery character which is already in the newly made spirit. For example, 10 years ago, Pedro Ximenez sherry casks were used to give whisky a taste of dark fruits and raisins with a hint of sweetness. Whisky finished in this style is now easy to come by. Jameson meanwhile, recently released two of its experimental ‘Caskmates’ project range, each finished in former beer barrels. The possibilities and exciting flavours are limited only by the whisky maker’s imagination and their ability to think outside the barrel.
The ever burgeoning popularity of whisky has seen age statements increasingly disappearing from labels over the last few years. The reason? There is simply not enough aged whisky to meet the growing demand. No-age statement whisky is crafted using whisky with a minimum age of 3 years, the medium age is however much higher, often stretching to beyond 15 years. After that, it is up to the experience and skill of the master blender to create a worthy product. Using different barrels and precisely blending with older stock, very fine whiskies are created. After all, premium NAS whiskies are nothing new and many of the most highly collectable whiskies are in fact NAS whiskies and come from producers such as Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich and Ardberg. These stalwarts are now being joined by new whiskies such as Kavalan Podium and Loch Lomond Original. If you haven’t yet discovered the delights of NAS whiskies, there is no time like the present.
It’s impossible to talk about whisky without talking about Scotch. It was first written of in the 15th century when a friar at Lindores Abbey in Fife became the distiller. Since then, Scotch whisky has been highly regulated by law. To qualify as ‘Scotch’ a whisky must be produced from water and malted barley at a distillery in Scotland. It must also be matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland and have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% by volume. These are just some of the regulations which mean that the Scotch whisky label is a guarantee of quality, and has been for many centuries. Whether it’s single malt, blended malt, single cask malt or blended malt and grain, the drinker can be assured of the experience and devotion of the whisky producer to create the finest flavours. Amid all this rich history we are also seeing an exciting emergence of independent bottlers, utilising whisky from old distilleries that previously did not focus on releasing liquid under their own label. With such dedication, the highlights of Scotch whisky, new and old, are many, and are waiting to be discovered.
So this World Whisky Day, head to Vintage Cellars and learn more about the seven wonders!