That sound as the ice drops into the glass from just the right height; too high and it will chip and melt quicker. The way the glass feels in your hand, thick, with a heavy base; the popping noise as you pour from a fine bottle, or that clink from the head of the decanter. It’s these little things that add to my love of whisky. The smell lingers in the air, and when accompanied by a fine cigar it’s the perfect match. Yet to the amateur drinker it’s a world so divided it makes Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street. Do not fear – we are here to help you traverse the Seven Kingdoms with relative safety, avoiding those pesky White-spirit Walkers.
For as long as I have tended bar I have had to endure the debate – which very quickly descends into a full-blown argument – around how whisky is made and the differences between bourbon and Scotch, single malt and Irish, and the new boy in town, Japanese whisky. Don’t feel bad for getting confused – we all make mistakes – but like Julie Andrews says, let’s start at the very beginning.
The outcome of distillation is clear, and very high proof. The type of stuff that will put hairs on your chest. Then it’s aged and bottled for us all to enjoy.
Whisky is a general term used to describe a spirit made from a distilled grain, matured in oak. Whether you’re drinking bourbon, rye, Canadian rye, Irish whiskey or Scotch, you’re drinking whisky.
Whisky is for all intents and purposes simply distilled beer, having gone through the process by it’s heated to a temperature where the alcohol evaporates but much of the water does not. The outcome of distillation is a spirit that’s clear in colour, and very high proof – think homemade moonshine, the type of stuff that will put hairs on your chest. That is then aged and bottled for us all to enjoy.
There are many different kinds of whisky, each defined by their history, their countries’ legal definition of what whisky is, and the most prevalent grain used in the production process. For example, American whiskies made in areas such as Kentucky or Tennessee are very corn-heavy because that’s the regional crop. In Scotland they focus more on barley. This starting grain is very important to the flavouring process. If you use corn, you tend to get a much sweeter liquid, whereas barley makes for a much lighter drink. Despite this, though, it is actually barrel maturation that has the greatest effect on the final flavour. Whisky gets its rich dark colours from inside the barrel, so the darker the colour, the more contact it has had with the wood.
Wood maturation not only adds colour to the whisky, it can also add a vanilla sweetness and certain spicy notes. American whiskies, such as bourbon, tend to be matured in brand-new oak, while in most other countries distillers tend to use their barrels multiple times. This is the reason American whiskies tend to be darker and heavy in vanilla flavour, while Scotch is a softer, smoother drink. The different types of whiskies are identified based on the combination of three factors: the grain used, barrel maturation, and the country of origin’s legal definition of whiskey.
American Whiskey: Bourbons and Ryes
Under the law, certain American whiskies must be made up of a percentage of certain grains. Bourbon must be mashed from a minimum of fifty-one percent corn before fermentation (though often this percentage is much higher).
The longer the aging, the sweeter the flavour; American whiskies are mainly aged in new oak barrels which tend to give the most flavour and a deeper, richer colour.
Rye is a grain that grows in the harsher North American climates, so in the early days of European settlement history, producers started using rye when making whiskey. Rye adds spicy notes. Just as bourbon must have that fifty-one percent corn ratio, an American rye has the same stipulation for rye in its recipe.
Legally, these American spirits need to come in contact with wood to be called a whiskey. “Straight whiskies” such as straight rye or straight bourbon means they must be aged for a minimum of two years. Generally speaking, any American whiskey with “straight” in the title is higher quality and follows a stricter set of rules in aging than a brand with the label of just “whiskey” alone. While American whiskey can be inexpensive, the more expensive bottles from the United States are amongst the top whiskies in the world.
Scotch & Irish Whiskies
This may seem a little basic, but Scotch is whisky from Scotland. You’d be surprised by the number of people that don’t know that. Whilst many people strongly asscociate whisky with Scotland, the actual credit for its invention should really go to Ireland. Scotch has become the master of all whisky because of American Prohibition. Irish distilleries refused to engage in illegal smuggling with US bootleggers, a decision that decimated the Irish whiskey industry. Scotland had no such qualms, and now there are over a hundred distilleries in Scotland.
The Scottish climate of harsh winters and strong winds has greatly affected its tradition. With the cruel winds, trees don’t grow in abundance. So, with oak being a rare local resource, Scotland re-used whiskey barrels from the U.S. and sherry barrels from the European continent. The harsh, often bare terrain is also why Scottish whisky has the reputation of being smoky. In the early days of Scotch production, there weren’t enough trees to make fires, so peat was used instead. Peat, a partially decayed vegetation common to Scotland, was regularly used instead of wood when cooking. Peat was also used as the fuel source when drying malted barley. The smokiness imparted is apparent, and for many is a beloved feature in the final product.
Single malt Scotch is made of one hundred percent malted barley. Unlike corn and rye, malted barley is a subtly sweet grain when distilled. When matured in re-used oak, the flavours tend to be more delicate compared to bourbon or rye.
Blended Scotch is made from a mixture of multiple expressions from malted barley, and other grains, such as corn. While single malts have the reputation, blended Scotch is the best-selling whisky variety in the world.
Scotch drinkers typically enjoy a more complex drink that’s not as forward on flavour. For this reason, they often talk about the finish – the way the drink tastes ten or twenty seconds after a sip.
Scotch whisky is seen as the gold standard. Partially for this reason, Irish whiskey, sharing a similar climate and history, is also typically made in re-used barrels with a focus on malted barley.
Seen by many as the new boy on the block, less than a century old and with only a handful of distilleries, Japanese whisky has moved quickly to develop its own unique style and has been met with growing acclaim in recent years. From light and precise to smoky and fat, its malts and blends offer a world of whisky in miniature.
What developed was a multiplicity of styles thanks to an eclectic collection of still shapes and sizes, plus a range of peated and unpeated barley, different yeast strains, fermentations, cut points – not to mention a number of cask options including the distinctive mizunara, or Japanese oak.
As in Scotland, distilleries in Japan have a prestige all their own. In particular, the unique style of Karuizawa – rich, resinous, matured in small ex-sherry casks – has gathered a cult following. Meanwhile, newer distilleries such as Chichibu are now attracting more and more attention.
Japan’s early debt to Scottish techniques can mask the innovative streak that runs through the country’s whisky industry – a characteristic perhaps most readily appreciated in its blends. Blends such as Hibiki and Nikka are rightly lauded for their quality but Japanese blends are equally remarkable for their experimental side, from different peating levels to the use of Japanese oak and plum wine cask finishes.
These brief overviews merely scratch the surface of the intricate world of whisky, but I hope they can point you in the right direction on your distilled discovery. I’ve always believed that to know something is to explore it; try as many whiskies as you can from around the globe, experiment with ice or water, or have it neat. Try the blended and the single malt, sample the different ages, or tour a distillery. Just please don’t mix it coke or lemonade, whatever you do, as I doubt we will be able to be friends afterwards. I leave you with the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw “whisky…it’s liquid sunshine”
Image by Sonja Pieper