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Whisk(e)y Myth Breakers (part 1)

Author: Matt Wooler - Monday, April 20, 2015

I get asked all the time about certain things to do with whisky. Quite often it runs along the lines of "I heard this about whisky... is it true?". The list is rather long regarding these questions but here is 5 top questions I will answer for you now:

1. Scotch whisky is a style and is made anywhere. Is this true?

Answer: No. This is just a beginners mistake due to assumption more than anything else but it does get frustrating after a while. OK so getting the fact Scotch whisky can only be called Scotch if it is made in Scotland. Whisk(e)y can be made anywhere provided it follows the laws stipulated in the country of origin and also where it is being sold.

2. Can Bourbon only be made in Kentucky?

Answer: No. Bourbon is a label/badging and the lads in Kentucky have done a good job of coaching the public into perpetuating this myth. Any whisky made in the US can called Bourbon if it follows these main rules (plus a few more). The whisky must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn, must be ‘aged’ in new charred oak barrels, must be made in the US, distilled at no more than 80% ABV, barreled at no more than 62.5% ABV, bottled at no less than 40% ABV. Distillers I have spoken with from the US say if you follow the stated rules you can then literally take a new charred white oak barrel, open at both ends, turn it slightly at an angle, let the whisky trickle from one end to the other into a bottle, and it can be called Bourbon.

3. When do they add peat into whisky?

Answer: There is no physical peat in whisky. I have heard this one time and time again. No peat is not added to whisky and it would be pretty dirty if was did. The flavour of peat smoke is imparted during the drying process of the barley. Depending on the length of time and amount of peat burnt, will be the defining factors in how ‘peaty’ the whisky is. Drying the grain can be done using fired wood, gas, coal, peat or any other combustible material.

4. Older whiskies are better whiskies aren't they?

Answer: It is an oldie but a goodie and certainly not necessarily true. Many factors will influence aging. Particularly the region and or location plus style of casks are primary culprits for ‘killing’ a whisky. Whiskies will mature to a peak point over time before plateauing and then eventually dropping off as the barrel begins decay. At first wood imparts extraordinary colour and flavour to whisky but in time that wood becomes the enemy. Typical descriptions such as mousey, stale, wet leather, car tyres, rotten eggs or mothballs will come to mind. Young whiskies can make for fantastic experiences but a good gauge is a whisky will hit an optimum point of around 10 to 15 years (give or take a few years).

5. Whisky must be aged at least 3 years

Answer: Not necessarily true but close (in some countries). In the EU and Scotland the stipulation is for New Make Spirit to be aged in oak for at least 3 years in order to be called Whisky. In Australia it is required to be aged in oak for 2 years, while in the US it does not need to be aged at all. Each country is different but all producers must consider the minimum age in order to sell their product as whisky in that target country.

Fun Fact

A fun fact to consider here is the note we made in item 2 about naming Bourbon and the note in item 5 about minimum age. Hudson Whiskey (we can discuss details about the ‘e’ at another time) produce several products at the Tuthilltown Distillery in the state of New York. Yes that is New York and not Kentucky. One particular product is Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey. Here in Australia the bottle does not display the label Whiskey on it but it does say Bourbon. The label has been designed specifically for use in locations outside of the US. This is because it does not meet the minimum age requirements to be called whisky in Australia. The Hudson Baby Bourbon is very young, being aged in petite 3 gallon new American oak barrels for a minimum of 4 months. In the US though, because it has touched wood, it can be called Bourbon. A great story and smart marketing because when someone says “I’ll have a Bourbon” you immediately think bourbon whisky while failing to consider can it legally be called whisky in Australia.

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