Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic drink or spirit made out of mashed grain, which is prepared through certain key steps involving the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels.
Basically Whiskey or whisky refers to a large variety of distilled alcoholic beverages that are fermented from grains like barley, rye, wheat, maize etcetera. The whiskey made from different types of grains are categorized under different names like barley, malted barley, rye, and malted rye etcetera. Whiskey is fermented from the grain mash and aged in casks or barrels made of wood, preferably oak. Apart from its use as a drink or spirit, Whiskey is also used in confectionaries and chocolate at times. It can also add a different dimension to certain savoury dishes.
The earliest accounts pertaining to the distillation of alcohol have been recorded in Italy during the 13th century, wherein alcohol was claimed to have been distilled from wine. Its use spread through medieval times with monasteries, using it mostly for medicinal purposes, such as in the treatment of health problems like colic, palsy, and smallpox.
Distillation gradually spread from the European continent to the countries of Ireland and Scotland towards the later medieval centuries. Because some of the islands did not have enough grapes to make wine with barley, the grain present in abundance was used instead, resulting in the development of whisky. However, because the process of distillation itself was still in its infant stages at that time, the resultant whisky produced tasted quite raw and sharp compared to today’s much improved smoother versions.
With the onset of the 1880s, the French brandy industry crashed down with the attack of ‘phylloxera’ a pest that destroyed much of the grape crop; as a consequence of which whisky became the primary liquor in many markets for a while.
During the Prohibition period that lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the United States, all sales of alcohol was banned across the country. The federal government nevertheless, made an exemption for whisky which was prescribed by some doctors as a form of medicine and made available through licensed pharmacies.
Types of Whisky
Whiskies differ in terms of the base product used, alcohol content as well as quality of final product.
- Malt whisky is prepared primarily from malted barley.
- Grain whisky is generally made from any variety of grain.
- A third category of whisky involves the use of a blend of both malts and grains that are combined in various ways as follows:
- Single Malt Whisky Whisky from the mash of a single malted grain coming from a single distillery. Unless specifically mentioned as “single-cask”, it would most likely contain whisky from different casks and perhaps of different ages too. In this way, the blender manages to achieve a taste recognisable as distinctive of that particular distillery. Most often, the single malt is named after the distillery (e.g. The Glenlivet, Bush mills, Nikka), and carries an age statement and perhaps also some indication of certain unique treatments like ‘maturation’ in a port wine cask.
- Blended malt whisky consists of a fusion of single malt whiskies coming from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled as "pure malt" or only "malt" it is almost certainly a blended malt whisky. Formerly this was also called a "vatted malt" whisky.
- Blended whiskies are characteristically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often in combination with some neutral spirits, and flavouring such as caramel. A whisky merely described as Scotch, Canadian or Irish whisky is most likely to be a blend and such a blend typically contains whisky from several distilleries so as to allow the blender to produce a flavour that is consistent with the brand, as well as the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal or Canadian Club). These would usually not contain the name of the distillery. An example of an exception to this rule is the Jameson Irish Whiskey which comes from only one distillery.
- Cask strength (also called barrel-proof) whiskies are usually quite rare. Normally only the very best and high-quality whiskies are bottled in this manner. They are bottled directly from the cask either as such - undiluted or only very lightly diluted in order to retain the essence of the drink.
- Single cask (also called single-barrel) whiskies are generally bottled by only specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, and Gordon & MacPhail, amongst others. Each bottle of such a single-barrel whisky comes from a separate cask, and the bottles are specially labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these whiskies may again vary substantially from one cask to another even within a given brand.
Aging of Whiskies
Whiskies never mature in the bottle. Aging happens only in the cask, and so the "age" of a whisky is just the time the whisky is held in between the processes of distillation and bottling. This is indicative of how much the cask has reacted with the whisky, modifying its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been bottled for several years at a stretch may have a rarity value, but are not necessarily "older" or "better" than a more recently created whisky that is matured in wood for a similar time. Beyond a decade or two, additional aging within a barrel is also not actually going to make a whisky any "better".
Most whiskies are commonly sold at or close to an alcoholic strength of about 40% abv, which is held as the statutory minimum in certain countries – although the strength can vary. Also cask-strength whisky may have as much as double the normal percentage of alcohol.
One fluid ounce of ~ 27 g provides-
- 64 calories and 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 0 carbohydrate and 0 protein
- Other than providing calories from alcohol, this drink provides no useful nutrients.
- With as much as 7 calories per gram of alcohol, the number of calories in alcohol is second only after fat (9 cals/g).
- The calories from alcohol are metabolised first by the body, even ahead of burning fat – a situation which is not desirable, especially if one is on a weight loss diet.
Culinary Uses of Whisky
Owing to the ability of any whisky to impart a distinctive flavour to various foods, there are a number of sweet as well as savoury preparations possible with the use of Whisky. Some of them are –
Porterhouse Steak with Whisky Mushroom Sauce
- Porterhouse steak
- salt and pepper
- cooking oil
- sliced mushrooms
- sliced onion
- chicken broth
- grainy mustard
- Bourbon (or any whiskey)
The Porterhouse steak is seasoned on both sides with salt and pepper and allowed to rest for a while before rubbing with oil. When the griddle is very hot, steak is placed on it for 5 minutes before it is transferred to a pre-heated oven and allowed to reach desired level of doneness [medium or rare].
The mushroom sauce is prepared by melting butter in a heated saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter starts bubbling, the mushrooms and onions are added and stirred until onions are softened and fragrant.
Next the chicken broth is poured in along with mustard and whiskey. The sauce is seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. After simmering for few minutes the sauce is done. It is poured over the steak, just before serving.
A serving size of 1 meal of the Porterhouse Steak with Mushroom Sauce provides-
· 290 calories with 60 calories from fat
· 6g total fat with 2g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol
· Sodium 520 mg and Potassium of 750 mg
· 42 g total carbohydrate with 15 g sugars and 7 g dietary fibre.
· 16 g protein
· Vitamin A – 25 %, Vitamin C – 35 % , Calcium – 10 % and Iron 15 % [Based on % daily values]
- Serving this dish alongside roasted herbed tomatoes increases Vitamin A and antioxidant Lycopene content.
- Stir-frying edamame (the healthy Japanese soy beans) in the reserved steak juices and presenting as a side would be a healthy way of incorporating protein, fibre and soy isoflavones that have cardio-protective and anti-cancer benefits.
Other Interesting Recipes are-
- Traditional Prawn Cocktail uses malt whisky in the mayonnaise sauce.
- Whisky in Chilli Tiger Prawns wherein Tiger prawns are cooked in spicy sweet sauce enriched with a whisky base.
- Bourbon Three Bean Cake in which Bourbon whisky gives a rich, sweetish flavor to the baked beans made with three different kinds of beans (black, red and white) cooked together with bacon, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, molasses, brown sugar and Dijon mustard.
- Spiced Soy Roast Chicken is basically roasted chicken with a delicate hint of certain Chinese herbs and spices, soy and Irish whisky in the basting sauce.
- Figs with Honey and Whiskey which has fresh figs cooked in a honey- sweetened whisky base to add a kick.
- Raspberry Cranachan uses whisky for a bitter sweet flavour addition to the creamy raspberry Cranachan.
Whisky also happens to be a common ingredient in traditional Christmas Cakes, Plum cakes, Dundee Cakes, Plum Puddings, Chocolate Whiskey Balls among many others.