When most people say they drink whisky, what they really mean is they prefer the flavour of whisky mixed with non-alcoholic beverages or other liquors; in other words, with soft drink mixers or cocktails. It takes a small gustatory leap to enjoy and appreciate whisky, and even rum and brandy when served neat.
This drinking preference and method of consuming adult beverages are not unique to spirits. In Western countries, up to 90 per cent of all tea and coffee consumed has sugar or milk added.
More than 70 per cent of whisky consumption is a mix of whisky in carbonated beverages. The most popular pairing is cola and Bourbon, for Scotch its soda. If not cola or soda, the other carbonated partners are ginger ale, lemonade and energy drinks all refreshingly masking or enhancing the flavour complexity and sweetness of taste. Mixers also reduce the alcoholic strength of the drink, which for many can be too assertive or serves to dilute and moderate the consumption of alcohol. This mixer consumption number climbs towards 90 per cent when cocktails are included. Neat pours, ‘on the rocks’ and splashes of water make up the balance.
The biological desire for sweetness is an evolutionary driver stretching back before humans discovered alcohol in the natural world. Carbohydrates, in the form of sugar and starch, can quickly and slowly be metabolised as a source of energy and nutrients. While essential for our childhood development, our biological need for sweetness remains an addictive and indulgent craving in our food choices and drinking preferences, even into adulthood. We all probably adopted similar drinking rituals, usually blending whisky with non-alcoholic drinks that we have grown culturally accustomed to. In countries where soft drink consumption is low, whisky is often mixed with their local beverage of choice, such as green tea in China. At the dawn of spirit drinking in the Western world, spirits were first prepared as therapeutic tonics. By the 12th century, a societal shift to recreational drinking for relaxation and sociability gained popularity. This period reported the first cases of acute alcoholic abuse of intoxication by spirits. Whatever the motivation for consumption, flavourings and sweeteners were added to improve the flavour. The first British records of grain-based aqua vitae (raw distillate) appeared in England (1398), Scotland (1494) and Ireland (1520). These were early proto-whiskies with no wood age and were made palatable with honey, herbs and spices. Of note, one of Scotland’s first commercial distillers, Robert Haig returned to his Throsk farm after training in Holland around 1644, where he distilled malt spirit flavoured with juniper.
Throughout the history of spirits, raw whisky did not appeal to the majority of drinkers unless diluted and flavoured for taste. They wanted a palatable, ideally delectable drink, and if reduced in alcoholic strength, ensured prolonged and responsible drinking occasions. Sugar plays a far more important role than merely improving the flavour sensation. It is also responsible for inducing inebriation.
Without the sugars, the alcohol making process cannot start. After enzymes have broken down the starch into sugars, the conditions are established for a massive chemical conversion to take place, fermentation. Yeast catalyses the sugars, converting them into alcohols, carbon dioxide and congeners. It’s a sweet paradox that without sugar, yeast cannot make ethyl alcohol. Fermented grain sugars make beer which when distilled concentrates the alcohol into spirit; then after years of maturation in wood, it becomes whisky. Maltose is the dominant sugar in malted barley, while fructose and glucose are the dominant sugars in corn, rye and wheat. Fermentation also creates acids which bond with alcohol to form esters. These sweet-smelling compounds make some of the most prized flavours that give whisky much of its distinct and aromatic character. Alcohol, flavour and taste, in essence, are thanks to sugar.
The dawn of whisky and proto-cocktails
Until Elizabethan times the distillation of strong waters or aqua vitae came under guilds, such as grocers, apothecaries, and barber-surgeons, or were made on small household stills for private consumption. In 1639, The Distiller of London published the first English handbook containing thirty-four flavoured spirit recipes; this encompassed a list of one hundred and forty botanical ingredients to formulate ‘rich spirits, strong waters & aqua vitae’ remedies. The last recipe, ‘usquebach (Irish appellation)’ was a whisky recipe using aqua vitae, compounded with numerous spices and fruits; notably raisins, cloves, mint and cinnamon. One hundred years later distilling and apothecary books incorporated new spices to compound whisky recipes, reflecting the importation and discovery of new ingredients from colonisation and trade. Until the late 18th century, whisky was a neutral spirit, compounded and flavoured with a melange of botanicals including liquorice, sugar, aniseed, caraway, nuts, coriander and coloured with saffron or burnt sugar. In 1800, The Complete Distiller (London) published eighty-three recipes, many of which were pre-made cocktail formulas, with four usquebaugh recipes (whisky), including a French usquebach. Distilling books until the later part of the 19th century devoted significant space to concoctions of flavoured neutral spirits with natural botanicals and artificial chemicals to imitate regional styles of whisky, brandy and rum.
The need for flavour enhancement or even flavour masking was due to inferior ingredients like spoilt grain or tainted beer, often fermented with wild and uncultured yeasts. Poorly fermented washes were distilled in primitive apparatuses made of glass, ceramic or metal alloys, often lacking sufficient copper to strip out sulphates. This lack of understanding of distilling techniques resulted in contamination, often burnt due to the wash being scolded under naked furnace heat. The greater risk came from poor or toxic fractional cuts, especially the noxious heads collecting methanol, acetones and acetaldehydes. If left too long to run before cutting the feints, residual oils, butanol and undesirable congeners were vaporised into the finished distillate. The result was smelly, poor tasting and fiery spirits injurious to health. Extra distillations increased the proof level, removing many of the unpleasant compounds, but required time and extra expenditure. Another process was rectification through charcoal filtration to strip out some of the unwanted chemicals. Later as production methods improved, cask maturation resulted in modern whisky, with a smoother, more flavoursome and ultimately safer liquid. However, time in oak casks was not a solution if the raw spirit exhibited too many flaws from fermentation and distillation. Once again wood sugars partially came to the aid during cask maturation. The toasting and charring of oak staves caramelises the cellulose wood sugars which constitute most of the wood’s composition. With slow seasonal extraction, these sugars add more sweet notes and flavours to the whisky.
History of cocktails according to whisky
The first printed document mentioning the word cocktail appeared May 1806 in a New York journal, describing ‘the cocktail’ as an alcoholic drink ‘composed of spirits of all kinds, sugar, water and bitters’. Half a century later, the first modern cocktail book, Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas of New York, was published in 1862. The concept of the cocktail existed centuries before this terminology came into the vernacular. The key influences that shifted the trend toward the concept of the modern cocktail were three major industry developments: brands, bars and bartenders.
Whisky producers were the pioneers of modern consumer packaging. These early entrepreneurs bottled and labelled spirits, creating the first whisky brands. The first bottled whiskies, Glenivat (sic, 1847) and Bininger’s Bourbon (1849) were displayed on the back shelves of bars in new lavish venues serving alcohol and branded liquors. The 19th century saw the rise of grand hotels and fine dining, especially in America, where well-stocked bars found fertile niches for cocktails to flourish. In Britain, gentlemen’s clubs, elegant bars, and gin palaces appeared. Gin palaces evolved into the Victorian pub, attracting patrons into extravagantly designed interiors offering new drinking experiences. An explosion of new proprietary brands marketing regional whiskies, rums, gins, brandies and liqueurs allowed bartending to become a career preparing new cocktail recipes to tempt customers. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were no branded bottles of whisky; however, as the century progressed, thousands of branded bottles competed for attention.
The flavouring of spirits started when potable distillation began in Europe during the mid-12th century.
Sweetness is an evolutionary driver stretching back before humans discovered alcohol
Monastic orders were the conduit for manufacturing spirit tonics infused with therapeutic ingredients, such as juniper for blood disorders or wormwood for digestion. Since the 15th century, distilling books and pharmacological treatises published both spirit recipes for medicinal and recreational use. As spirits became more readily available, either by household distillation or by public sale, the first cocktails emerged. By the time whisky became a commercial force in the 19th century, it had substituted rum, brandy and gin in many of the earlier cocktails.
Punch: This cocktail has its origins in Colonial India during the early 17th century. It used local ingredients: arrack (or aqua vitae), citrus juice, sugar, water and other flavourings. When the punch bowl landed in England, gin was the main additive, along with cream, butter, eggs and other ingredients. Brandy and later rum replaced gin in the punch. By the 18th century, punch immigrated into Scotland where local malt spirit was used, combining local honey and lemon rinds instead of juice.
Flip: In the late 17th-century these were dog-irons or pokers used to flip logs in the fireplace. In taverns and inns, flips were heated red-hot in the embers, then plunged into a tankard to froth a drink. The flip recipe was originally made with rum and ale, with popular ingredients such as molasses, eggs, butter, sugar and spices. In the 19th century when whisky became the leading spirit, it replaced rum and brandy. Flip irons with bulbous heads were called loggerheads, hence the expression ‘came to loggerheads’ was used to describe quarrelsome patrons reaching for the poker to finish an argument in a certain way.
Grog: August 1740, Admiral Vernon introduced the rum ration to the British navy after securing the Spanish colony of Jamaica for the Crown. After commandeering the stocks of local rum, he substituted the daily brandy ration for inexpensive and now plentiful West Indies rum. He was nicknamed Old Grog, affectionately given, as his heavy-duty grogram cloak was his most recognised item of clothing. The rum served from the ship’s scuttled butt contained citrus juice, sugar and water to prevent scurvy, making grog the official Admiralty cocktail, until July 1970 when the Government discontinued the ‘daily rum tot’ for health and safety.
Sling: This term appears to have morphed from earlier cocktails known as the toddy, using distilled South East Asia palm wine, or the sangaree made of arrack, rum or brandy. The sling became synonymous with gin, first with Holland's genever around 1800, then with English gins. By the late 19th century, American bartenders substituted rye and Bourbon for the whisky sling.
Ice: The new cocktail trend got a major boost from the mid-19th-century with the manufacture of ice. Refrigeration introduced year-round availability of ice, becoming an important additive for cocktails, aerated mixers and straight serves on the rocks. The chilling effects of ice on the taste buds and olfactory sensors suppresses some aromatic flavours and accentuates others, adding texture and mouthfeel while diluting the alcoholic strength of the serving.
Seltzers, soda and carbonated soft drinks: Before the ubiquity of bottled colas, the seltzer and soda syphon partnered first with brandy in the gentleman’s clubs of London, creating a new and refreshing drink craze of the 1850s. After the 1880s, blended Scotch whisky and soda became the go-to cocktail. Soda water made Scotch slightly acidic, appealing to the Victorian palates. As the Scotch boon spread across Commonwealth countries, those with sweeter palates ordered Scotch with aerated lemonade and ginger (ale). Soda and whisky is also known as the highball. This cocktail was spectacularly successful in recently reviving the Japanese whisky industry.
While it is a new golden age for whisky drinkers they follow the same sweet sensory path as previous generations of whisky drinkers. All thanks to sugar. From those yeast-eating sugars in the fermentation to those sweetened additives for consumption, sugar plays a crucial role in the making and the enjoyment of whisky, truly the sweetest of partners.