Whisky or Whiskey: One-time world leaders in whiskey production, Ireland added an ‘e’ in 1875 to distinguish their product from what they called the “inferior” Scottish version on the American market.
The influx of Irish immigrants meant America adopted the same spelling. Today, with Single Malt Scotch Whisky leading the world, the rest of the world has mainly opted for the original spelling with Irish and American variants often still choosing to stick with “whiskey.”
But whisky is no longer just an American, Irish, and Scottish game anymore. According to market research, the global whisky market now spans the globe and is expected to reach US$7.4 billion by 2023. And the rest of the world isn’t only a consumer of whiskies. Many markets, including South Africa, have developed their own local variants of this massively popular spirit.
Let us take a brief look at five of the most popular whisky types currently being enjoyed around the world.
These are blends of various grain whiskies, corn, wheat, rye, and/or others. These are the most popular whisky types, accounting for as much as 80% of all whiskies sold. All whiskies, regardless of region, are either categorised as blended whiskies or single malts
A blended whisky is a combination of any number of malt and grain whiskies. They are chosen, then “married” to complement and enhance their flavours. Around 95% of Scotch whiskies are sold as blends.
Examples of frequently purchased blended brands are Johnnie Walker, J&B, Bell’s, Chivas and Grants.
Single Malt whiskies
A single malt is the product of one distillery and may only be produced from malted barley, pure water and yeast. The resulting fermented mash is then distilled in a copper pot still, in batches. This makes single malt whisky more expensive to produce than a grain whisky.
Commonly purchased single malt brands in South Africa include Aberlour, Ardberg, Balvenie, Glenmorangie, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Haig Club Clubman.
According to connoisseurs, two of the best single malts are Glenmorangie and Ardberg. Glenmorangie regularly triumphs at the influential International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC). It has won more ‘Gold Best in Class’ medals in the past five years than any other single malt Scotch whisky. Ardbeg has been named ‘Best Whisky of the Year’ three times in a row in the revered Jim Murray Whisky Bible.
South African whiskies
South Africa brings its own blends and home grains to the industry, though the country is still maturing as a whisky producer. Despite this its Three Ships five-year-old Premium Select was named the world’s best blended whisky in 2012 at the annual World Whiskies Awards, held by Whisky Magazine. This was the first time a South African product captured the title. And the first single-grain whisky, Bain’s Cape Mountain, which was launched in 2009, has won three gold awards at the International Wine and Spirits Competition so far.
America produces multiple variants of whiskies, one of the most popular being bourbon. To be recognised as an American bourbon the whisky must be matured at less than 80% ABV (alcohol by volume) and matured in the USA from a mash of no less than 51% corn, then aged for a minimum of 2 years. Nothing is allowed to be added to the spirit that would alter the colour or flavour.
Tennessee Whisky on the other hand is produced in Tennessee and filtered through a bed of Sugar Maple charcoal.
Although, many believe it to be a bourbon, Jack Daniels is actually a Tennessee Whisky making it one of the most popular Tennessee Whiskies sold in South Africa. Commonly purchased American bourbon whiskies purchased in South Africa are Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, and Wild Turkey.
Japanese whisky has been produced for nearly a century, it wasn’t until the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 took home the title of World’s Best Whiskey in 2015 that heads turned and attitudes changed—even in Japan.
In contrast to the strict rules surrounding what can be classified a Scotch or a bourbon, Japanese whisky has only one: it must be made in Japan. And while the classic production of Japanese whisky is still essentially the same as that of Scotch—a mash of malted barley distilled and barrel-aged for a minimum of three years—the Japanese whisky offers many distinct qualities. For one, Japan’s distilleries typically handle their own blending, rather than trading stocks with one another, which means each house puts out a wide range of styles rather than a single signature, which is common for Scotch producers. Because they blend in-house, Japanese producers can work with multiple types of stills, diverse fermentation methods, and a greater range of casks for aging to create loads of different products
Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country’s first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than other major styles of whisky.
There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin (square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear. There are also a large number of special bottlings and limited editions.