Celebrating Whisk(e)y

March 27 is International Whisk(e)y Day. Whiskey is beloved by many and has been called the greatest drink in the world, even the “Water of Life”. To the whiskey novice or non-whiskey drinker, however, it seems a bit daunting. Is there an “e” in the word whisk(e)y or not? What is the difference between bourbon, whiskey and scotch? Can one add water or ice, or is that a strict no-no? We will answer these questions and more!

What is International Whisk(e)y Day?

International Whisk(e)y Day was first celebrated in 2009 by a group of prominent whisky writers at the Whisky Festival Northern Netherlands. The purpose was not only to enjoy and celebrate whisky, but to do some good for their friend and legendary whisky writer Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson). Attendees donated money to Parkinson’s Disease research, from which Jackson had suffered for many years. For more information on International Whisk(e)y Day, including ways to celebrate (apart from the obvious), visit www.internationalwhiskyday.org.

International Whisky Day on March 27 is not to be confused with World Whisky Day (May 19), National Bourbon Day (June 14), International Scotch Day (February 10), and National Scotch Day (July 27).

To E or not to E?

The name of the spirit is whiskey, or is it whisky? Yet more confusion, and the basis for more than a few arguments. The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey. In fact, only in Ireland and the US is it spelled “whiskey”; to the rest of the world it is “whisky”. One reason has to do with the translation from the Scots and Irish Gaelic language. The word for whisky is uisge beatha, literally “Water of Life”. 

In the late 1800’s, Scots whisky was considered to be of inferior quality. Distillers in Ireland, therefore, added the “e” to the spelling of whisky to differentiate themselves from the (real or perceived) lesser-quality Scots whisky. When distillers emigrated from Ireland to the US, they took the Irish spelling of whiskey with them. Canada, because of its ties with Scotland, maintained the Scottish spelling of whisky. These days, both Scots and Irish spirits are considered to be among the best in the world.

Phew, who needs a drink now?

Whiskey vs. Scotch vs. Bourbon

The distillation of whiskey has changed very little over the past 200 years. Just three basic ingredients are needed: water, barley and yeast. As a rule (of course, there are exceptions), Scots and American whiskies are distilled twice and Irish whiskies are distilled three times. 

In Scotland it is common to use peat to dry the malted barley. This gives Scottish whisky its fullness and traditional smokiness. In Ireland and America, they use wood or other fuels in this process and this makes the spirit less smoky and lighter.

Scotch is whisky produced in Scotland from malted barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Bourbon is made in the United States from a mixture of grains containing at least 51% corn.

A Wee Drop? (of water)

Is it acceptable to add water to your whisky? Serve it on the rocks? Yet more questions! Taste is a personal thing, so technically there are no right and wrong answers.

Before considering water or ice cubes, it is important to have the right glass. Use a glass with a narrow opening to concentrate the aromas of the whiskey; this type of glass is called a “nosing glass”. The whiskey should be swirled to introduce oxygen and allow the flavors and scents to begin to express themselves.

After tasting the whiskey in its natural state, adding water (even a drop or two) can help release additional flavors and layers. Adding ice has the opposite effect; dropping the temperature of the whiskey actually prevents these characteristics from emerging.

To Each Their Own

Whether one prefers their spirits from Ireland, Scotland, America, Japan or Canada (or elsewhere), it is ultimately a matter of personal taste and preference. Add ice or water, or sip it straight up. Try many varieties: single malts, blended, smoky, fruity, sweet. The world of whisk(e)y is vast and may seem daunting, but is well worth exploring.