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What's In The Whisky Bottle?

Delish 10/5/2022 Brendan McGinley

All you really need to know about whisky is whether or not you enjoy it. But for those who do, there’s a world of information that is not only fascinating, but can enhance your enjoyment of the spirit. All whisky is made with a few common ingredients: water, grain, yeast. But small variations in the whisky-making process yield endless variation. The water source, the terroir of the grain, and the strain of yeast all affect what ultimately makes its way into the bottle—and that’s before the wood casks that age the spirit start doing their thing.

When experts play around with these variables the results are exciting and delicious. Take Johnnie Walker High Rye. The blended Scotch whisky is a spicy and savory expression that is as ideal for cocktail mixing as it is for savoring on its own. Pour yourself a tumbler and let’s experience a new way to sip.

BOTTLING

Neither rye nor Scotch can be bottled at anything less than 40% ABV. Johnnie Walker High Rye meets that standard at 45% (which is 90 proof). But what makes the expression is the terrior, or where the rye is grown. While the United States has been the leader in rye production, its position as the major producer of rye plummeted during Prohibition. Canada picked up production, with one major difference: they did not require rye as an ingredient in the mash. As a result, rye’s quality suffered, as did its reputation as a classy cocktail mixer. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the drink resumed its ascent, finally coming back into its own as a popular go-to in the 2010s. Johnnie Walker, a brand known for its award-winning liquid and experimentation, took the best of the grain and added that signature smoky flavor that can only be produced in Scotland. The result: A high rye Scotch whisky expression with all the boldness of the grain but with a touch of smoke. The perfect cocktail companion.

FILTRATION

Whisky never goes bad, because it’s already oxygenated to its limits during the aging process. Unlike wine, the air trapped inside the bottle doesn’t affect the quality. The liquid contents are guaranteed to remain consistent from the first to the last pour. However, after some time, the water in your whisky bottle can begin to evaporate, potentially differentiating two pours from the same bottle and creating a cloudiness in the whisky. This haze is merely congregated fatty acids, and can be eliminated through a process called chill-filtering, which cools the whiskey to just about freezing and allows the clustered lipids to be caught by extremely fine sieves. While it’s generally agreed this process costs the whisky a bit of its most subtle flavors, master distillers around the globe (or at least in the nations that make quality whisky) feel chill-filtering is worth the minor trade-off in nuance for a big gain in visual presentation.

CASK AGING

To sell whisky as rye in America, it must be aged in new, charred-oak vessels. Johnnie Walker High Rye is from such barrels, but it also has all the origins of a Scotch. See, in order for the liquid inside to qualify as Scotch, it must be mashed, fermented, distilled, and aged in Scotland. Rye, on the other hand—which is distilled mostly from rye grain rather than the malted barley for which Scotch is known—can be included in the mash bill without a requirement of production locale. That’s how you get Johnnie Walker High Rye Scotch Whisky.

DISTILLATION & PROOFING

Scottish law says Scotch whisky can’t be distilled past 190 proof—a lenient rule, considering 200 is the chemical limit of possibility to make rocket fuel. America defines whisky at the same limit, but further regulates bourbon, rye, and some other variations to a 160 proof maximum distillation. In the case of Johnnie Walker, after initial distillation, the liquid is decanted from the barrel and water is added, proofing it down to an enjoyable 45% ABV (90 proof) for bottling. Not all whiskies receive this second round of proofing, and the water must be reintroduced carefully so as not to upset the complex flavors of the whisky.

MALTING, MASHING, AND FERMENTING

Johnnie Walker High Rye’s mash bill is 60% rye, breezing past the 50% minimum required for whisky to be sold as rye in the U.S., and distinguishing it as a high rye thanks to its higher grain content. The liquid, while produced as a Scotch, is a pioneer, containing both malted barley and other cereals. To be labeled Scotch, those cereals must be whole and unmalted. That suits this rye just fine, as it plays in harmony with single malts drawn from all around Scotland, including Johnnie Walker’s legendary Speyside distillery, Cardhu. With smoky Islay malt and a sweet bit of wheat from Cameronbridge in the Lowlands and Teaninich in the Highlands, this mash bill is practically a tour of Scotland.

glossary © Hearst Owned glossary

ABV Alcohol by volume. While U.S.-made spirits are measured in proof, Scotch whiskey is only listed at ABV.

Bourbon A type of straight American Whiskey made from a mixture of grains, or mash, that’s at least 51% corn.

Cask aging After distillation comes this stage, when a whisky is poured into barrels to absorb flavors and color from the wood (usually oak). The liquor mellows out and achieves equilibrium through interaction with the barrel.

Blended grain Scotch whisky A mixture of two or more single grain Scotches distilled at more than one distillery.

Blended malt Scotch whisky A mixture of two or more single malt Scotches distilled at more than one distillery.

Blended Scotch whisky A mixture of one or more single malt Scotches with one or more single grain Scotches.

Cereal Not your breakfast bowl, but made of the same stuff: the seed part of a grass crop. The most common cereals used to make whisky are barley, corn, wheat, and rye.

Chill-filtered A whisky that has been passed through extremely fine filters at low temperatures to remove fatty acids that can make whisky look hazy.

Distillation The process of heating an alcohol to steam and passing it through a series of chambers to separate it from water and undesirable compounds, purifying it into a spirit.

Expression A term used to describe different variations on a whisky recipe as a result of differing ingredients, distillation, aging, and more.

Highland A region of Scotland known for its bold, emphatic flavors that let its mash bills boom, rather than the cask or the distillation fire.

Islay A region of Scotland known for its smoky, peaty whiskeys, often with a briny quality from its island air. Not to be confused with Island-region Scotch.

Lowland A region of Scotland known for its grassy, floral flavors owing to a prevalence of grain whisky.

Malting Cereals that have been allowed to partially germinate through a combination of heat and moisture. This releases enzymes whose starchiness is crucial for yeast to make beer, the basis of whiskey. It’s possible to forgo malting, but other ingredients will have to provide an accessible sugar for yeast to eat.

Mash A porridge made of cooked cereals. Once its sugars are dissolved, the grains are filtered out to create the sweet liquid known as wort (rhymes with “dirt”).

Mash bill The list of grains, by percentage, used to create a whisky.

Proof A U.S. method of reporting alcoholic percentage, it’s simply double the ABV. The max proof physically possible is therefore 200, but this would be unpleasant drinking, to say the least.

Rye A hardy cereal crop, and also the short term for rye whiskey, which, by law, must be made in new, charred, oak barrels using a mash bill of 51% rye or more. Other whiskies may use rye grain in their mash bill without being labeled as rye whiskey.

Scotch whisky A whisky produced entirely in Scotland using malted barley (and if other cereal grains, they must be whole, unmalted).

Single grain Scotch whisky Made from malted barley plus other grains at a single distillery.

Single malt Scotch whisky Made from malted barley with no other grains, in pot stills, at a single distillery.

Wash The happy little yeast colony in cooled wort, which sets to work turning your cereal sugars into beer (and, after distillation, whisky).

Wort The filtered liquid from the mash. It is boiled to sterilize it, and, once it cools and yeast is added, it becomes a wash.

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