A Glass of the Good Stuff: A Gentleman’s Guide to Whisky
Kegs are for college students and vodka is for ladies. When you want a man’s drink, you need a tumbler full of something sophisticated AND rugged. Take our crash course on a gentleman’s classic drink of choice: whisky.
By RK Gella
For some the equinox couldn’t have come early enough. For others the deep purple nights of winter brought an anticipated comfort. Those wishing to bypass the winter months from within the confines of a pseudo-hibernation lair, to those indulging in quieting effects of the wind chill from inside their igloos, the season hearkens the amber elixir, aged in smoke and char, predisposed to curing what ails you.
Whether served neat or with one hard cube, a splash of water or diluted with sweet vermouth and bitters, there is no better time to tipple whisky…
Or whiskey. To which ever you prescribe, but only after realizing the subtle and dramatic differences between the two, although it can be clearly identified that the same result is waged.
Whiskey and whisky, the superfluous “e” is anything but, and though both are pronounced the same (hwis-kee) each spelling denotes a different product. The Scotch and Canadians produce whisky, while the Irish and Americans produce whiskey. While “whisky” was the original spelling – accurately, the original bastardization of the Gaelic word uisce beatha meaning “water of life” – American and Irish distillers adopted “whiskey,” with the extra “e”, in the late 1800’s to signify a level of quality.
However, today the merit of the extra “e” is not withstanding. The Scotch, the Canadians, even the Japanese, all minus the “e”, have examples of outstanding whiskies, many of which are highly sought on the international market.
Finely crafted whiskies, to the same extent of artisanal wine, have the ability to represent a terrior. [Note here: terrior can’t be directly translated into English, but in French designates the ability of the crop (grapes) to express characteristics of the physical (soil, geography, climate) and the metaphysical (historical and spiritual) territory of which they were harvested via the finished product (wine)]. Simply incorporated into whisky, if you drink a handily crafted Scotch it should taste like Scotland, not Bourbon, Kentucky.
So aside from location, how do these various whiskeys and whiskies differ? Let’s begin where Henry II began…
Although debates continue on exactly when distillation arrived in Ireland, most scholars agree that the Irish did beat the Scotch to the punch of whiskey production by more than a few centuries.
By the 13th century the Irish were producing distillates from grains such as corn and barley and aging them in oak for prolonged periods. The result was a yellow to dark orange alcohol that embodied flavors of earth and dried fruit. Hence whiskey was born.
The recipe for whiskey production, generally speaking, involves the three steps of fermentation, distillation and aging. It begins with the fermentation of grain – it is always grain, whether barely, corn, or rye – then the distillation of the liquid in a pot still or column still, followed by prolonged aging in oak.
But if the Irish were the originators, how come Scotch is more prevalent? Like anything else, economics and politics play as much a hand in success as quality. Unfortunately for the Irish, economic and political turmoil dating back to the beginning of the 19th century has left much ground to recover.
Nevertheless, despite only encompassing 3 distilleries to Scotland’s 90, Irish whiskey continues to find its appreciators. Noted to be milder and smoother than Scotch, Irish whiskey’s usually bypass the incorporation of peat, tend to be distilled three times and require at least 3 years aging.
- Grains: Barley, Malted-Barley, Corn
- Age: Min. 3 Years
- Styles: Single Malt, Blended, Single Grain
So they weren’t first, but how have they revolutionized the whisky trade. What makes Scotch unique aside from its styles (single malts, blended malts, blended grains) is how it varies from region to region. Whether it’s notes of iodine and smoke from Islay, or rich and floral nuances from The Highlands, there is a Scotch to be enjoyed by all types of whisky drinkers.
Speyside / The Highlands
The Highlands literally caresses the Speyside region, yet there is a notable difference in product. The Highlands, more prevalent in rocky terrain than inhabitants, has become renown for its single malts. Offering more ethereal qualities than its neighbor to the north, Highland Scotch attains flavors often doused in honey.
Speyside on the other hand has the benefit of the Grampian Mountains, which softens the water used for their Scotch. It is no mystery then why this region contains the largest concentration of distilleries in all of Scotland and produces some of the most famous whiskies that include Glenfiddich and Macallan.
Perhaps the most distinctive and unique of all the other regions, this smoky, briny whisky benefits from its location and the use of peat (partially decayed vegetal matter that forms in bogs and wetlands).
Situated off the west coast shores of Scotland, the smell of dying vegetation and iodine envelop the nose. The description may hinder a few wary imbibers from the pleasure of assimilating ones palate to the drink, yet a well-made Islay Scotch truly maintains its weight in gold.
Other Regions: The Lowlands, Campbeltown
- Grains: Barley, Malted-Barley, Corn, Wheat
- Age: Min. 3 Years
- Styles: Single Malt, Blended Malt, Blended, Grain
Although Canadian whisky, notice no “e”, has lost support from American drinkers over the years – especially after Prohibition was repealed – it still sells volumes at home and internationally. Remarkably smooth, Canadian labeling laws tend to be somewhat lax when compared to its U.S. neighbor. Apart from having to be distilled in Canada with cereal grains and aged for 3 years, there is no legal bearing as to what qualifies as a Canadian whisky, Canadian rye whisky or rye whisky, although rye is the grain primarily used.
- Grain: Malted Rye, Corn
- Age: Min. 3 Years
- Styles: Single Malt, Blend
Talk about pride and something distinctly American. Bourbon… wait, I meant rye whiskey… no we’re talking Tennessee whiskey, benefiting from the Lincoln County Process a.k.a. Jack Daniels… alright all of those products fit the aforementioned statement but let’s break down what’s what.
Though it bears the name of the eponymous Bourbon County, bourbon whiskey can be produced legally anywhere in the United States. The fact is, despite owning 95% of production, there are several states that distill bourbon outside of Kentucky, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, even as far north as New York.
Differing from Canadian whisky, bourbon production is occupied with a series of regulations that oversee distilled proofing, age proofing, water source, wood, aging, composition of grain mixtures and the integrity of no added color or flavor.
Bourbon’s sweeter nature correlates to the use of corn in the mash. Regulations specify corn must be at least 51% of the grain used. The other ingredients include rye, wheat and malted barely.
Perhaps as important as the grains is the charred new American oak used to age these whiskeys, which gives off intoxicating smoky aromas and added notes of caramel and spice.
Again, differing from Canadian rye because of standards and regulations, American rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye, distilled to no higher than 160 proof and aged in new American oak.
The use of rye gives the whiskey an apparent difference in flavor when compared to bourbon. As bourbons possess sweeter flavors with a bit more viscosity, American ryes are smoother with a stronger bitter character.
This is why rye whiskey was predominantly used in cocktail recipes in the past, and why contemporary mixologists, in reverence for the history of their trade, have resurrected the application of the product.
It would have been easy enough to just label this segment as “Jack.” The ubiquitous black label, the signature straight shot, the rock and roll icon of all whiskeys – Jack Daniel’s has made an international name for Tennessee whiskey.
Aside from good ‘ol JD there’s not much else out there that can be counted as Tennessee whiskey, save for the hard to come by George Dickel’s Tennessee whisky (they forgo the “e”). When was the last time you signaled your barkeep for a straight shot of “George”?
Perhaps the biggest misconceptions of Jack Daniel’s – rather Tennessee whiskeys – is that they are bourbons, or conversely, that they are notbourbons because they are distilled outside of Kentucky.
Tennessee whiskey is not bourbon, hence why it is described here, however the reason for it not being bourbon has little to do with where it’s not produced but more importantly how it’s produced.
The key difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is the utilization of the Lincoln County Process, in which the whiskey is filtered through charcoaled maple chips before aging. Bourbon by definition is prohibited from using any filtering for flavor. This added step gives Tennessee whiskey its specific character.
- Grain: Corn, Rye, Wheat, Barley
- Age: min. 2 Years, most exceeding 4 Years
- Styles: Straight (min. 2 Years aging), Single-Barrel, Small Batch, Vintage
Who can forget Bob Harris (Bill Murray) struggling through his photo shoot in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For relaxing times… make it Suntory time.”
That was probably the best international marketing the Japanese whisky industry could have hoped for. Producing their own style of whisky since the late 1800’s only recently has the industry achieved recognition globally, and it’s about time, the Japanese love their whisky.
More comparable to the Scotch style, Japanese whiskies are produced throughout the country as single malts and blended varieties. Flavors range from salty and peaty to oily and fruity depending on the distiller.
- Grain: Barley, Wheat
- Age: N/A
- Styles: Single Malt, Blended