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Whiskey: The Basics

Whiskey is a spirit, aged in wood, obtained from the distillation of a fermented mash of grain. Whiskey is produced in four countries: the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. The whiskeys produced in Canada, Ireland, and Scotland take on the name of their countries. Whiskeys produced in other countries, even though they may taste similar, cannot legally be called Canadian, Irish, or Scotch.

Whiskeys vary in alcoholic strength, from 110 proof American bottled in bond whiskey, to 70 proof Canadian whiskeys, sold only in Canada. Most whiskeys sold in the United States are either 86 or 80 proof, depending on the distiller and brand. Prior to the 1960s, most whiskeys were bottled at a higher proof. Today, modern drinkers prefer lighter-tasting whiskeys. Federal law requires that the label on each bottle be plainly marked with the proof of the liquor.

What is Proof?

Proof: the amount of alcohol in any distillate, and represents 50 percent alcohol by volume. A combination of half alcohol and half water is scored as 100 proof or 50 percent alcohol.

 The term “proof” came out of the pioneering era of distillation. In the beginning, to determine the strength of liquors, distillers would mix equal quantities of the spirit and gunpowder and then apply a flame to the mixture. If the gunpowder failed to burn, the spirit was too weak; if it burned too brightly, it was too strong. However, if it burned evenly, with a blue flame, it was said to have been proved. Hence the word proof.

Pure alcohol, like the kind used in laboratories, is 200 proof, being 100 percent alcohol. A combination of half alcohol and half water is scored as 100 proof or 50 percent alcohol. Proof is a measure of alcoholic strength, not necessarily of quality.

Kinds of Whiskey

American Whiskey
American whiskeys are rigidly defined by law, and gov­erned accordingly. They include bourbon, corn, sour mash, Tennessee, blended, straight, bottled in bond, and rye.

The history of American whiskey and America parallel each other. Whiskey was an integral part of everyday life in the Colonial days. It helped comfort the settlers during hard times and was enjoyed at the end of a rough day. It was also used to cure snakebite, ward off disease, and ease pain both superficially and internally.

Canadian Whisky
Canadian whisky is a distinctive product of Canada made under government supervision in accordance with the regulations governing the manufacture of whisky in Canada. Canadian whiskeys’ are whisky blends. The most distinguishing characteristic of Canadian whisky is its light body.

Scotch Whisky 
Scotch whisky is a distinctive product of Scotland, made in compliance with the laws of Great Britain. There are two types of Scotch whiskies sold in the United States.  The first type is blends of malt and grain whisky.  These are the most popular because they are made in large quantities and the least expensive.

The second type is single malt.  A single malt Scotch comes from one distillery and made from only one malted barley.  Single malt Scotches are expensive because they are made in limited quantities.