Thursday, August 27, 2009

Water of Life

Aqua vitae in Latin means water of life & an archaic name for concentrated ethanol. The term originated in the Middle Ages and was originally used for all types of distillates. Aqua vitae was typically prepared by distilling wine; it was sometimes called spirits of wine in English texts, a name for brandy that had been repeatedly distilled.

A local translation of aqua vitae was often applied to an important local distilled spirit. This leads to whisky in Scotland (from Gaelic, uisge-beatha) , whiskey in Ireland (from Irish, uisce beatha) , eau de vie in France, acquavite in Italy and akvavit in Scandinavia.

Whisky is a shortened form of usquebaugh. The compound descends from Old Irish uisce, "water", and bethad, "of life". and meaning "water of life" literally synonymous to the Latin aqua vītae. The word "whiskey" is believed to have been coined by soldiers of King Henry II who invaded Ireland in the 12th century as they struggled to pronounce the native Irish words uisce beatha [ɪʃkʲə bʲahə]. Over time, the pronunciation changed from "Whishkeyba" (an approximation of how the Irish term sounds) to "Whisky".

At one point in time Whisky was termed "Whisky". However Scottish whisky had lost popularity owing to cheap spirits; their Irish & American counterparts added an extra "e" to the spelling to distinguish from the Scottish stuff. In general whiskies distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada do not have the extra "e" but the Irish & Americans do. Some of the Irish & American spirits do not have the extra "e" which signify their Scottish roots.

I am not a big fan of non Scotch whisky hence limiting my thoughts to blended as well as single malts. Perhaps in days to come I will definitely get to try other stuff......but for now Scotch.

There are two major categories, single and blended.

Single means that all of the product is from a single distillery, while blended is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries. (could be combination of grain & malt)

Single malt is distilled from water and malted barley in pot stills. Well known brands are Glenlivet, Glenfidich, Ardberg, Springbank.

Blended mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky, distilled at more than one distillery. Well known brands include Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, The Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.

There are other variations like single grain/vatted/blended grain whisky's. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains such as wheat and maize (corn) and is typically distilled in a continuous column still. Vatted are a blend of single malt whiskies, from more than one distillery. There are quite a few malt whisky distilleries; however there are only a handful of grain distilleries mostly around Lowlands.

Malt whisky must contain no grain other than malted barley and is traditionally distilled in pot stills. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains such as wheat and maize (corn) and is typically distilled in a continuous column still.

The first step (Malting) is by, steeping the barley in water, and then allowing it to get to the point of germination. Malting releases enzymes that break down starches in the grain and help convert them into sugars. When the desired state of germination is reached the malted barley is dried using smoke.

Many distillers add peat to the fire to give an earthy, peaty flavour to the spirit.

Peat - is accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter. When the water is squeezed out, it can be used as excellent source of fuel. Peat fires give whisky its distinctive smoky flavour.

Today only a handful of distilleries have their own maltings; these include Balvenie, Kilchoman, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, Glen Ord, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank, Tamdhu, and Edradour. Even those distilleries that malt their own barley produce only a small percentage of the malt required for production. All distilleries order malt from specialised maltsters.

The dried malt (and in the case of grain whisky, other grains) is ground into a coarse flour called grist. This is mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. The grist is allowed to steep - which is referred to as Mashing & the mixture as Mash. Here the enzymes that were developed during the malting process are allowed to convert the barley starch into sugar, producing a sugary liquid known as WORT, that is transferred to another large vessel called a Wash Back.

Here the mixture is cooled, followed by addition of yeast & then allowed to ferment. The resulting liquid called Wash, is about 5–7% alcohol by volume very similar to a rudimentary beer.