A Spirited Affair: Spotlight on Whisky


Less than a week to go until our Spirited Affair! This is our annual fundraiser featuring local beer, wine, and spirits. Now, we’re pretty familiar with beer here on the Growler. We also did a spotlight on wine last year.

But what about spirits? What’s the story behind distilled drinks like whisky?

Whisky

If you’d like the dictionary definition, distillation is the “…process of separating component substances from a liquid mixture by selective vaporization and condensation.”

The dictionary definition is not terribly helpful.

But what it means is that the different substances making up a liquid mixture evaporate at different temperatures. If you can control the temperature correctly, you can extract alcohol from a wort-like mixture by boiling it out, and then condensing those gases to turn it back into a liquid. All while the water remains behind, resulting in a beverage with a much higher alcohol by volume.

Whisky has its roots in Ireland, dating back to roughly 1100 CE. According to the stories, Irish monks had travelled through the Mediterranean and Middle East; they then brought knowledge of distillation back with them. In any case, distillation of whisky was established in both Ireland and Scotland by the 15th century. Whisky-making spread to North America with British, Irish, and Scottish immigrants (George Washington had quite an impressive distillery),and in Canada, it was also helped along by the Late Loyalists who arrived from the States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Québec in particular had quite a large number of distilleries around this time—the Molson family actually started out distilling, rather than brewing.

Brewer, distiller, kindly smile - John Molson, is there nothing you can't do?
Brewer, distiller, kindly smile – John Molson, is there nothing you can’t do?

Indeed, through the early 1800s, whisky was more popular than beer. By the middle of the century, there were over 200 whisky-makers in Canada. However, since hard liquors are very high in alcohol, they attracted attention from early temperance advocates, who urged people to drink milder beverages like beer. Some of these Victorian distillers are still quite familiar to us today: Seagram, Hiram Walker (Canadian Club), and of course, Gooderham and Worts.

Advertisement for the Waterloo Distillery, operated by Seagram and Sons (courtesy the University of Waterloo)
Advertisement for the Waterloo Distillery, operated by Seagram and Sons (courtesy the University of Waterloo)

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20090219-Gooderham

However, there are a few key differences between brewing and distilling. It starts very similarly: a cereal grain (barley, rye, corn, it doesn’t really matter) is malted, milled, and then placed into a mash tun. With the addition of hot water, enzymes formed in the malting process convert the starch into a fermentable sugar. The sugar-infused liquid is then separated from the grains.

The pot still's set-up.
The pot still’s set-up.

This is where things diverge. At this point, brewers would boil this “sweet wort” in a brew-kettle and add hops for flavour. Distillers cool the “wash” immediately and add the yeast to start fermentation. When fermentation is complete, the distiller now has a liquid that is about 8% ABV. Pretty high for a beer, nowhere near high enough for whisky (legally, whisky has to be at least 40% ABV).

So, the distiller then places the wash into the still and begins heating it. In the 1800s, distillers were still using copper pot stills. As the wash is heated, the alcohol will evaporate before the water. The vapour passes into the condensing tube where it cools and turns back into liquid form—except most of the water has been left behind, meaning the alcohol is much more concentrated. Victorian condensers were often submerged in open wooden “backs” (vessels) containing cold water.

The first liquid to come out of the condensing tube is a mix of volatile compounds (methanol, anyone?) that evaporate first. They are called the “heads,” and must be thrown out. Similarly, distillers don’t use the very end of their distillation—the “tails”—as it does not actually add anything useful to the whisky. To concentrate the wash even more, it is distilled again—Scotch and Canadian whisky gets two rounds, Irish whiskey gets three. The product is then aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, where it can “breathe” and develop mature aromas, flavours, and colours.

(Sidebar: properly, this beverage is spelled whiskey in the United States and Ireland, and whisky in every other whisky-producing country in the world, including Canada.)

You can try some delicious offerings from the Toronto Distillery Company this Thursday. We look forward to seeing you—it will be a spirited event indeed!

-Katie

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