In Part 1 of our Whiskey Barrel Ring blog series, we introduced the meaning behind Rustic & Main’s whiskey barrel rings, the origins of whiskey itself, and the American moonshining eras. In this blog, we’ll provide an overview of the different types of whiskey within the Irish, Scottish, and American brands, and we’ll also cover aging, maturing, and finishing in the whiskey barrels. As you’ll see, the traditional methods utilized in whiskey making tend to add to its overall value, and the history behind the process complements and establishes the brand.
How Is Whiskey Made?
From BBC Travel:
“Generally, whiskey is made by (1) crushing grains (barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.) to create the grist, (2) adding water to create the mash (3) boiling this mixture and then allowing it to cool, (4) adding yeast, which carries out fermentation by eating the sugars to create alcohol, (5) draining the resulting liquid, which is now beer, and then distilling using a still and (6) aging the resulting liquor in wooden barrels”.
What tends to make whiskeys distinct are the grains used, how those are dried or processed, distilling methods, type of material that stills are made of (such as copper or stainless steel), wooden barrel qualities (such as being charred or previously utilized), and aging. The environment also plays a crucial role, such as soil type and water quality.
So how can you differentiate the different whiskey brands and types?
Whiskey Brands and Types
It is still debated whether Ireland or Scotland produced the first distilled whiskey, but the oldest “licensed” operating distillery in the world is widely regarded as Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, first established in 1608. We’ll start with Irish whiskey first.
Irish Whiskey Types: Single Malt, Single Grain, Pot Still, and Blended
The most common style of Irish whiskey is single pot still, which means it consists of malted and unmalted barley distilled in a copper pot still at a single distillery. In the late 1800s, malted barley whiskey was taxed at a higher rate than unmalted barley whiskey. Fast forward to the start of the 20th century and, thanks to the tax, pot still whiskey quickly became the most common type of Irish whiskey. Prior to the tax, single malt whiskey was the most common. Pot still whiskey, generally, is more grainy and has a “spicier” flavor, all thanks to the unmalted barley that goes into making it.
Founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1780, Jameson has been ranked as the most popular Irish whiskey in the world. Jameson is triple distilled in copper pots or column stills, and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of four years. They offer a variety of whiskeys with differing flavors, scents, and ages. If you’re a fan of Jameson, you’ll be pleased to know that we have this whiskey barrel wood in stock at Rustic & Main and use it regularly to craft many of our rings.
Scotch Whisky Types: Single Malt, Single Grain, and Blended Malt, Blended Grain
(Note the spelling difference between Scotch whisky and American/Irish whiskey.)
Originally, Scotch whisky was made from malted barley. However, a variety of grains are also used today. Scotch comes from several regions in Scotland, with some of the most popular being Speyside, Highlands and Islands, Lowlands, Islay, and Campbeltown. Islay, for example, is known for distilling peaty whiskies. Peat -- decomposed vegetation -- is cut from peat bogs, and has been used as an energy source in Scotland for many generations. The peat is used to dry and smoke the barley, which is how the whisky gains its unique smokey flavor and scent. In essence, the finished product reflects more than culture, it also captures a tangible part of the landscape. The majority of scotch is double distilled in copper stills.
American Whiskey Types: Rye, Wheat, Corn, Malt, Tennessee, and Bourbon
To be considered bourbon, the whiskey must contain at least 51% corn. The rest can be a mixture of barley, rye, or wheat. Today, many bourbons are produced using the sour mash process, and distilled in column stills. Additionally, they must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Bourbon is usually aged in toasted or charred barrels.
Tennessee whiskey is charcoal filtered after being distilled, a process known as “charcoal mellowing.” Jack Daniel’s, one of the most iconic American whiskey brands, distills their whiskey only once in copper stills, then filters it through this charcoal. This extra step is what differentiates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon.
The Importance of the Barrel
With an old-time design, whiskey barrels change the clear appearance of raw whiskey into a golden bronze color, reduce the harsh bite, blend and add flavors, and help the whiskey develop its unique tastes and scents. Whiskey barrels have also been used to store wine, further adding to the flavor of the whiskey. The emergence of aging, maturing, and finishing in barrels significantly changed what whiskey had to offer.
Oak barrels are either toasted or charred, which imparts familiar flavors from the wood, such as butterscotch and vanilla. The origin of charred barrels is debated. However, aging for the purpose of increased quality was a process discovered by accident. In the 19th century, when the Scots started using Spanish sherry casks to transport their Scotch whisky, they noticed that demand was increasing for those that had been stored longer. Hence, aging became part of the whiskey-making process.
Today, however, the primary barrels used are American bourbon, with a small percentage still using sherry casks. Some age in both sherry and bourbon barrels, and then are mixed together. Some use bourbon barrels and then transfer to sherry casks for the finish. Ultimately, the details of the aging process are individual brand secrets. Nevertheless, there is a working relationship between American bourbon makers and Irish-Scottish whiskey makers. Since bourbon barrels can only be used one time to age bourbon, the Scots and Irish use these barrels for aging and maturing, which picks up not only some of what the bourbon leaves behind, but also the residual taste from the charring/toasting.
Preserving the Legacy of Your Favorite Brand
The whiskey barrel has become a distinctive symbol that is inherently associated with renowned distilleries, old pubs, and taverns. They stir the imagination with history and tradition. Without a doubt, they have an air of rustic sophistication. Whatever your favorite brand, it carries with it a rich heritage.
If you fancy yourself a whiskey connoisseur and would like to capture some of that rich heritage and rustic sophistication in a handcrafted ring you can wear every day, take a look at our collection of whiskey rings. Or, get in touch with our live chat team to start designing your own custom whiskey barrel wood ring today!