The differences between grappa and whisky
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Actually, whisky does not exist.
Or rather, whisky is a generic term: it comes from the Anglicization of the Gaelic-Irish word “uisge beatha” or “uisquebaugh”, which means “water of life”, from the Latin expression “aqua vitae” that refers to all types of fruit-based alcoholic spirits.
At first, the word “whisky” was used to refer to the production process, the distillation, rather than to whisky itself.
Since the Scottish refined excess harvested barley with undoubted expertise, the term came to indicate not the generic spirits, but those made with rye, barley, corn and wheat. The product obtained is then poured into oak casks to age for an extremely variable time frame, depending on the type of product that one wants to obtain. It is during this aging period inside wooden casks that whisky will be able to acquire all those particular scents such as wood, tobacco, vanilla.
Nowadays, there are a lot of types of whiskies, marked by national borders. The most important ones are: Scotch whisky, produced in Scottish areas; and Bourbon whiskey, made in the USA and governed by strict regulations.
When and where did whisky originate?
Ireland and Scotland contend for the paternity of distillates. However, the first official document dates back to 1494. It is an entry list of the Scottish Exchequer Rolls: “Eight bolls (approximately 1200kg) of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
Which raw materials are used to make whisky?
Spring water, cereals (mainly barley) and yeast.
How is it made?
There are five main stages in producing whisky.
The cereal is steeped in water for 36-48 hours and, once it is drenched, spread across a malting floor to be allowed to germinate (malt) – but this process is halted right before a new plant comes out by drying it. If peat smoke is used during the drying, it will then result in peated whisky.
Barley is mashed and mixed with hot water. In this way, starch in the barley dissolves and the enzymes turn starch into sugar, producing a sweet liquid called “wort”.
Filtered and stripped of its solid component, the wort is mixed with water and selected yeast, then transferred to big tanks made of wood or steel where it will stay from 3-4 days, until the sugar turns into alcohol.
The whisky will then be distilled, typically twice in Scotland and once in the USA. In the still, the fermented liquid loses most of its water and it condenses into the final product, with a minimum alcoholic strength of 40%.
The type of wood, time and storage of the casks will greatly determine the whisky’s flavor and aroma, and so they are the outcome of careful choices made by the distilleries. In Scotland, whiskies age for a minimum of three years, while in the USA they age for at least two.
Now that we have gone over the main characteristics of whisky, let us now compare it with the grappa.
THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE
As we just have seen, there are a lot of dissimilarities between the two distillates. However, there is one question: aside from their flavor and aroma (characteristics that are often subjective and debatable), what is the most important difference between the production processes of grappa and whisky?
The answer is…its availability. Whisky is a distillate with market volumes that don’t create any problem: if demand rises, all it takes to meet it will be an increase in the number of cereals to be distilled. Whereas grappa presents factual limits: in theory, grappa’s total volume cannot exceed that of the handed marcs. Even if demand for the most famous Italian spirit exponentially grows, the vineyard area could not be increased, at least not immediately: in Italy, the size of vineyards is governed by strict regulations, especially for vines with high value, from which a great part of artisan grappa comes from.
All in all, quality grappa is – and always will be – a niche product, a true expression of the territories and micro-territories to which it belongs.