What Is Whisk(e)y?

What is Whisk(e)y?


Most of you know the technical answer to this, but I don’t want to leave anyone behind. So we’re going to address this now, and then never talk about it again. Deal? First, all whiskey is distilled from fermented grains, and only grains. There is no such thing as a fruit, honey, sugar cane, or potato whiskey. (Yes, you can add flavorings to whiskey, but that’s after it’s been distilled…from a grain mash.) At this point you could stop, and by certain legal definitions, have something called whiskey. It would be called unaged whiskey, white lightning, white dog, etc.

Second, most unaged whiskey is put into a wooden container. Usually, but not always, the wooden container is an oak cask. After the whiskey has spent anywhere from a few months to a lifetime in the barrel, it is then bottled. You've got traditional whisk(e)y.

That’s it. That was a tedious explanation, but there you go. You now know what whiskey is. If I left you with only the above, though, I wouldn’t be doing my job. So let’s get into some fun. Let’s talk about the most important part of any whiskey.

The most important part of any whiskey comes from people. Any guesses what it is? Ok, I’ll give you a hint: It’s invisible. Are you getting warmer? Alright, last hint: You can’t physically add this element to whiskey. Do you know what it is? What really makes a whiskey, a whiskey? I can tell you in one word.


What do I mean by “intent?” Well, what makes whiskey different from vodka? If the vodka is distilled from fermented grains, then it is essentially the same as unaged whiskey. So why is one vodka and the other whiskey? Because one distiller intends to make vodka while the other intends to make whiskey. That’s the only difference, their intentions.

Each distiller asks themselves, “What kind of spirit do I want to make?” If they intend to make whiskey, then ultimately that’s what makes it whiskey. Intentions are what distinguishes whiskey from all other grain alcohols. They’re what separates whiskey from vodka, whiskey from gin, and whiskey from spiritus. It's because of beautiful people around the world who make grain alcohol and purpose it to be whiskey, that it comes to life. You and I then keep it alive when we sample, share, and savor our juice called whiskey – naming it so. The life of whiskey thrives because we will it to.

The next time you’re enjoying a dram, think about where your whiskey came from. Think about how it was made not by a definition, but because a fellow human wanted to and said it was whiskey.

This is heavy, Doc.

— Zac Smith