Whisky or Whiskey?


Whisky or Whiskey?

Bar None

with Debbian Spence-Minott

Thursday, September 10, 2020

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Now that the election dust has settled, we will either raise a toast or take a drink for consolation. Either way, whisky or whiskey could be a good option! This week, we expand the conversation surrounding this ubiquitous terminology. Does the spelling really matter? The resounding answer is yes! Let us explore why. To be called a 'whisky' or Scotch whisky, this grain distilled product has to be made in Scotland. If produced elsewhere, then the spirit is simply known as whiskey. Let's give another example: For a sparkling wine to be called a Champagne the full process, from the growing of grapes to the production of the wine, must be done in the limited geographical region of Champagne, France. Yes, Champagne is a place! These limitations regarding naming rights are a part of the category's geographic indicator.

We will start the conversation today with Scotch whisky, then we will explore Irish whiskey, and some world whiskies. Other major whiskey categories include the single malt phenomenon and Indian whiskey, but I will leave these categories for another time as extensive discussion is required.

Scotch Whisky

Scotland is home to over 120 malt and grain distilleries, making it the greatest concentration of whisky production in the world. The story of Scotch begins as early as the 15th century. The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred in 1494 in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls. An entry lists “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”. Friar John was in luck – this was enough malted barley to produce almost 1,500 bottles of a potent spirit which would be refined and improved in the years ahead.

Scotch Moves Out Into the World

During the 19th century, titans of the whisky world like James Buchanan, Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker & James Chivas took Scotch out of Scotland for the first time. Using their entrepreneurial spirit, they took whisky out to the British empire and far beyond, creating an enduring love of Scotch from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Sydney to San Francisco, Montreal to Mumbai, Bogota to Berlin, Cape Town to the Cape Verde islands. The export markets they built are the foundation stone of Scotch whisky's success today. A spot of luck also helped global expansion. In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. Once again canny Scots were quick to take advantage. By the time the French industry recovered, Scotch whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.

Protecting Scotch Whisky in the Modern World

Scotch whisky must, by law, be distilled and matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years and bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40 per cent abv. The robust legal protection of Scotch – vital to safeguard a spirit globally renowned for its quality – has grown over time. The first definition of Scotch in UK law was secured by 1933, with a dedicated Scotch Whisky Act in 1988 and new Scotch whisky Regulations in 2009. These comprehensive rules govern the Scotch whisky industry.

Irish Whiskey

Ten years ago, if someone mentioned Irish whiskey as a category in a bar, bartenders would fumble a bit. Today, this category is on fire and is dominated by the green bottle! Jameson Irish Whiskey has weathered the rough times and has ushered in this new era of prosperity. Jameson Irish whiskey now has classic bar status within the international bar circuit. Jameson tops both best-selling and trending lists and when that happens, that is, balancing volumes with cool appeal, you know a brand is truly dominating. Other brands like Bushmills, Redbreast, and Teeling tend to perform well within the Irish Whiskey category.

World Whiskies

Japanese whiskey is the clear front-runner of this segment, as 90 per cent of the international bar circuit stocked at least one Japanese brand. Japanese whiskey is in extreme shortage, meaning fewer single malts and age statements among its brands. The top whiskey in this category is Nikka in either of its expressions: Nikka From The Barrel, Coffee Grain or Coffee Malt. The company's sub-branded single malts Yoichi, Miyagikyo (both now discontinued) and Taketsuru all contributed to the Nikka sales. Other brands Hibiki, Yamasaki, and Hakushu are more internationally developed brands with Hibiki being a top performer on the international bar circuit. If any brand can fill the void of the Japanese whiskey shortage it's Taiwan's Kavalan, loved by bartenders for its tropical flavours.In recent weeks, I was asked to explore if Nikka whiskey was available in Jamaica. Based on my research, I could find no evidence of same. Possibly a great import option to expand the portfolio of our purveyors?

Canadian whiskies like Crown Royal and Seagram's VO remain best-selling. And making inroads is Australia's Starward from the New World Whisky Distillery.

To my whisky/whiskey connoisseurs, as you can see the world of whiskey is not sleeping; innovation continues to rise and brands continue to fight for dominance; however, consumers rule! Looking forward to when we can once more enjoy convivial moments. Until then, cheers to an amazing week ahead!

Readers' Grapevine Club: If you are new to wines and want to join us on our wine discovery, then this is for you. On the third Thursday of each month, I will highlight your feedback on our grape variety/vine of the month. For September, we will focus on the great German Gewürztraminer varietal. Looking forward to your feedback and comments!

Readers' Feedback:

Extraordinary wonder and joy are interwoven through ordinary life; seek them relentlessly. Please share with me your wine, spirits, and cocktail experiences or comments on the above article at debbiansm@gmail.com, or follow me on IG @debbiansm #barnoneja.

Dr Debbian Spence-Minott
An Alumna of the US Sommelier Association
CEO of the Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines
President, Jamaica Union of Bartenders and Mixologists (JUBAM) Limited
Marketing Studies Lecturer – The University of Technology, Jamaica

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