Whiskey 101

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Understanding Whiskey

by John Hansell, Publisher & Editor, Whisky Advocate magazine

Whisky GlassesWhiskey isn’t the easiest drink to embrace. Its alcohol level is much higher than beer or wine, and some of the names, like those of Gaelic-rooted Scotch whiskies, can be difficult to pronounce. Whiskeys, though, are rich and diverse in flavors—more than any other distilled spirit. At their extreme, the really smoky, peat-infused Scotch whiskies can be downright challenging.

But many of life’s great pleasures are acquired tastes and worth the pursuit. For many, whiskey is just as much an adventure as it is a drink. It invites you to explore and indulge in its diversity. Each country traditionally produces its own style of whiskey, but even within that style there is an incredible range of whiskeys to choose from.

So What Is Whiskey?

Whiskey is made from grain. This is what distinguishes it from other distilled beverages like brandy, which is made from grapes, and calvados, which is made from apples.

Simply speaking, whiskey is nothing more than distilled beer. Like beer, malted barley and other grains are the source of the sugars necessary for fermentation. The sugars in the grain are released by steeping it in hot water. This sweet liquid, known as “wort”, is cooled down. Yeast is added and converts the sugars to alcohol, creating beer.

GrainThe major difference between the “beer” that whiskey-makers produce (often called “wash”) and the beer that brewers create is that the brewers also add hops to their beer. Hops, the flowering cones of a climbing plant, are bitter and help balance a beer’s sweetness. They also act as a preservative to stabilize the beer’s flavor. Distiller’s beer doesn’t need hops. Oak aging balances the whiskey’s flavors, and distilling increases the alcohol level, which preserves the whiskey.

To make whiskey from beer, it must be distilled. Distilling captures and concentrates the beer’s more volatile components, which include alcohol. The distillers use either continuously-operating column stills (as with most bourbons) or copper pot stills (as with single malt scotch), one batch at a time. This spirit is then aged in oak barrels, where it matures and becomes whiskey. The types of grain used, the distillation method, and the casks chosen for aging are what make each whiskey taste different.

Scotch

Scotland has more distilleries than any country, with close to 100 of them peppered throughout the land. The most distinctive Scotch whiskies are the single malts. In addition to being distilled and matured in Scotland for a minimum of three years in oak barrels (a requirement for all Scotch whisky), single malt scotch is produced at one distillery (“single”), using only malted barley as the grain (“malt”), and distilled in copper pot stills. It is an expensive process but produces a richly flavoured whisky and, because it’s not blended with whiskies from other distilleries, very individualistic. This is why single malt scotch is generally more expensive than blended scotch and coveted by aficionados. It’s also the reason why single malts are so much fun to drink and explore.

Single malts are diverse in flavor, ranging from the gentle and subtly complex whiskies of the Scottish Lowlands, to the firmer, sometimes spicy whiskies in the Highlands, to the briny and often smoky whiskies from the Scottish coastlines and islands. The heart of Scottish distilling is an area known as Speyside, where nearly half of Scotland’s distilleries are situated on—or near—the Spey River. Some Speyside whiskies, like Balvenie and Macallan, are full-bodied and rich. Others, like the Glenlivet 12 year old, are very elegant.

Peat

Even with all these great single malts, blended scotch still outsells them by a wide margin. Single malt enthusiasm is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining popularity over the past two decades.
Blended scotches, like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas, and Cutty Sark, are marriages of several, if not dozens of different single malts. The advantage of blending is that it smoothes out the rough edges and fills in the missing gaps of a whisky’s flavour profile.

Probably the least known fact about blended scotch is that the majority of the blend is not single malt scotch at all, but rather grain whisky. Grain whisky is made from various cereal grains and distilled in continuous column stills, similar to the way vodka is made. It produces a less expensive, lighter flavoured whisky. Some blends are incredible products, but are generally lighter in flavour and less expensive than single malts.

Many people think all Scotch whiskies are smoky, but only a handful of them really are. The smoke flavour comes from using malted barley that is dried over a peat fire. Peat was, at one time, the only practical fuel source for many distilleries. These days it’s an optional flavour enhancement that, by the way, is very much in vogue right now.

Irish

In contrast to Scotch whisky production, there are only a handful of working Irish distilleries. The small number of Irish distilleries explains the disparity between the amounts of Scotch whiskies on the market when compared to the number of Irish whiskeys.

When comparing the differences between Irish whiskey to Scotch whisky, people will often say that the difference is that Irish whiskey is distilled three times (producing a lighter flavor), while scotch is only distilled twice. The other argument is that Irish whiskey is not smoky, and Scotch whisky is. These generalizations are accurate for many whiskeys, but not all of them.

Irish whiskeys, like Jameson, contain “single pot still” whiskey. Single pot still whiskey is unique to Ireland. Unlike single malt scotch that is made from malted barley, single pot still whiskey comes from malted and unmalted barley that gives many Irish whiskeys their distinctive flavour.

American

The most well-known style of whiskey produced in the United States is bourbon. It is so popular now, both in the United States and abroad, our distillers can’t make enough of the stuff. Bourbons, like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Maker’s Mark, fit in a category known as “straight whiskeys,” and if you look closely enough on a bourbon label, you’ll see it identified that way.

A straight whiskey must meet strict requirements. It has to be made in the United States (and while nearly all straight bourbon is made in Kentucky right now, it doesn’t legally have to be), and its grain formula, known as the “mash bill,” must contain at least 51% corn. It can’t be distilled higher than 80% alcohol (by volume) or go into the barrel for aging higher than 62.5% alcohol, and has to be aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years. These requirements are designed to maintain the quality and consistency of bourbon.

Other straight whiskeys, like straight rye whiskeys and straight wheat whiskeys must meet similar requirements. The only difference is that rye or wheat is the main grain (respectively), rather than corn.

If you walk into a bar and ask for a bourbon, there’s a good chance you’ll get Jack Daniel’s. This is probably the biggest misunderstanding in the world of whiskey. It’s a Tennessee whiskey and made just like bourbon—except for one additional step in the process. After the spirit is distilled, and before it is put into charred oak barrels for aging, it is charcoal mellowed through vats of sugar maple charcoal. This changes the flavor profile of the whiskey—which some describe as mellower, gently sweeter, and slightly sooty when compared to bourbon—making it distinctly Tennessee whiskey.

While bourbon has to be made from a mash of at least 51% corn; in reality, it usually is made with 70-80% corn. The remainder consists of rye and malted barley. You can think of rye as the “spice” ingredient of bourbon. It doesn’t have to be used, but it has a significant impact on the flavor profile. If you’ve ever tasted rye bread, then you understand rye’s contribution to bourbon.

But some bourbon producers replace the rye with wheat. Wheat changes the flavor profile in its own way. “Wheated” bourbons, like Maker’s Mark, are less bold and more approachable. Some drinkers like the easy-going style of wheated bourbons, while others enjoy the boldness of more traditional rye-spiced bourbons.

Canadian

Canadian whisky is the lightest example from the major whisky distilling countries. That’s because Canadian whisky traditionally consists of a blend of two components: a base whisky and a flavoring whisky. The base whisky, usually made from corn, is very light in flavor and comprises the large majority of the whisky’s make-up. The flavoring whisky, often one with a high rye content, makes up the rest.

Ironically, Canadian law allows Canadian whisky to be called Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky, or Rye Whisky, even though the actual amount of rye in the grain mixture is usually very small, and much less than corn. There is a huge difference between Canadian “rye” whiskies and American “straight rye” whiskeys. The straight ryes produced in the United States are considerably bolder and more challenging. Canadian “rye” drinkers are often confused and overwhelmed by the intensity of the straight rye whiskeys from the United States, where the largest ingredient must be rye.

Canadian whisky’s lighter style makes it appealing year-round, even in the warm summer months when other whiskeys might be too heavy. While most people think of Canadian whiskies as mixing whiskies, something to be drunk on the rocks or with soda, there are also some fine Canadian whiskies that you can sip neat, like Crown Royal Reserve or Wiser’s 18 year old, both of which are worth seeking out.

Appreciating Whisky

If you’re drinking whiskey just for fun, and aren’t interested in learning more about your whiskey, then go ahead and drink it however you like. You paid for it and you earned that right. However, if you want to capture as many aromas and flavors as possible, then try to understand that whiskey expresses itself best at room temperature. I know you are tempted to just go ahead and drink the whiskey, but don’t. Not just yet, anyway.

Look

Before you do anything, look at the whiskey. You can learn a lot about your whiskey by its color. Generally speaking, the darker the whiskey, the older it is, because whiskey gets its color from being in contact with the oak barrel during aging.

The type of barrel also matters. For example, if a Scotch whisky is being aged in a bourbon barrel that has been used several times over, it’s not going to pick up much color from the barrel. However, if that same whiskey was put in a cask that contained sherry or port wine, it will pick up some of the colors of the wine, in addition to those of oak barrel.

I must also warn you that some whiskeys (particularly those that are younger) contain caramel coloring to make them look “the way we think whiskey should look”, because young whiskeys haven’t had enough contact time with the oak barrel, and will appear lighter in color.

Smell

Realize that you can smell more from your whiskey than you will ever be able to taste. In fact, all the master blenders work primarily by nosing, not by tasting. So do yourself a favor and smell your whiskey before you taste it. Don’t thrust your nose into the glass, because the alcohol will be too dominant. Gently raise the whiskey up to your nose until you begin capturing its aroma.

Think about what you smell. Often, but not always, a whiskey’s aroma will be a good indication of how it will taste.

WaterTaste

Now go ahead and taste the whiskey. Make sure you coat your entire tongue and let it linger on the palate for a little while before swallowing. Is it thick on your palate or thin? What flavors do you taste? Does the whiskey taste the same way it smells? Do the flavors evolve on the palate or just stay the same? After you swallow, does the flavor fade away quickly or does it linger on the palate? Most importantly, did you like it?

For many of you, the alcohol will just be too intense to fully appreciate the whiskey. I recommend that you add a little water to your whiskey, then nose and taste the whiskey again, I suggest that you add a little bit at a time (a few drops) and keep adding until you find your comfort zone. Adding water brings out more of the whiskey’s aroma. It also lowers the alcohol level, reducing its numbing effect on the palate.

Reading the Label

Reading a whiskey’s label can be very daunting. This guide will help you understand what’s inside the bottle, what it means to you, and help you find a whiskey you will enjoy.

To “e” or not to “e”?

Depending on the country of origin, “whiskey” is spelled with or without an “e.” American whiskeys, like bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey, usually spell their whiskey with an “e.” Irish whiskeys also retain the “e.” Scotch and Canadian whiskies are spelled without the “e.”

What is “finishing”?

Many whiskeys spend most of their lives in one cask, but then are put into a different type of cask for a brief time before bottling. This practice is known as “finishing,” and you will often see this identified on the whiskey’s label. Finishing is used to a great extent with Scotch whiskies. Most scotches are initially aged in used bourbon barrels. Finishing them in a wine cask, like sherry or port, or perhaps even a used rum cask, will add new dimensions of flavors. It is also a quick way, from a marketing standpoint, for a distillery to introduce a new whiskey to the market.

Is it from a single cask?

When a distiller bottles a whiskey, it generally comes from a marriage of casks produced at that distillery. This ensures consistency of flavors. Only a small percentage of whiskeys are bottled one cask at a time, and they are usually identified on the label as such. Since each barrel of whiskey tastes different (even when from the same distillery), single cask bottlings are most individualistic.

How old is it?

If a whiskey has an age statement on the label, then all the whiskey in that bottle must be at least that old. For example, if a distillery combines 12, 15, and 18 year old barrels of whiskeys, the age statement on the label can’t be more than 12 years old. Remember: whiskey only ages in the barrel, not in the bottle.

What’s its strength?

All whiskeys must contain at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), or 80 proof (proof is twice the alcohol level.), though there are whiskies on the market that are over 70% ABV (140 proof)! Usually, after whiskey is taken from the barrel, water is added to bring it down to the strength that the producer wants to sell it at. Sometimes a whiskey is bottled at the same strength it came out of the barrel. This is often referred to on the label as Barrel Proof or Natural Cask Strength.

Is it chill-filtered?

A whiskey will get hazy or cloudy if its temperature is lowered (e.g., if ice or cold water is added). Most whiskey companies think cloudy whiskey is unappealing and will hurt sales. To prevent this, before the whiskey is bottled, they chill it down and filter out the components that make it cloudy. Unfortunately, those components (known as congeners) also contribute to a whiskey’s flavor. Some producers bottle the whiskey without chill-filtering, and this is usually identified and explained on the label.

New Trends

The whiskey industry is more dynamic now than any time in the past 50 years. Here’s what’s happening, what you can learn from it, and how you can benefit.

Eliminating age statements

The whiskey in a bottle can’t be any younger than the age on the label. Many distillers are now shunning age statements on their labels. This is significant right now, given that many young whiskeys will be entering the market over the next several years due to recent increases in production levels. Distillers will be blending barrels of young whiskeys with older whiskeys, and they don’t want to be forced to put a young age statement on the label. Instead of an age statement, look for the whiskey to be given a creative name instead.

Going natural

Many whiskeys are caramel colored. Why? To make young whiskeys look old, and also to maintain a consistent color from one bottling to the next. The problem is, most experienced whiskey tasters swear they can taste this additive and that it masks some of the whiskey’s true flavor.

Additionally, most whiskeys are “chill-filtered.” This prevents the whiskey from getting cloudy when you add ice or cold water to it. What’s wrong with this? Well, the components that are being removed also contribute to the whiskey’s flavor.

Some distilleries are now eliminating caramel coloring and chill-filtering to ensure that the whiskey tastes the best it possibly can. Your clue? The whiskey might be very light in color, and it may look hazy—or even a bit cloudy. The distiller often notes on the label that the whiskey is not chill-filtered (or caramel colored).

Artisan distilling

Do you remember the evolution of the craft beer movement in the 1980s and 1990s? Well, we are now experiencing the whiskey version of this. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of small artisan distillers making whiskey. Many of these new startups were originally breweries. Some distillers are actually buying their “beer” from brewers, thus focusing their efforts primarily on distilling and aging. Because this industry is still young, so are many of their whiskeys.

New distilling countries

Until the past decade or so, nearly all the world’s whiskeys were produced in Scotland, the United States, Ireland, Canada, or Japan. Now, high-quality whiskeys are being produced worldwide – including India, Sweden, Wales, Australia, and a majority of European countries. Most resemble the “scotch” style, but put their unique signature on their whiskey by tweaking the whiskey-making process with something different (e.g., aging in unusual casks or using non-traditional grains).

“Designer” whiskeys

Some distillers are making very small quantities of time-intensive, high-cost, high-quality whiskeys. They’re using the finest wood, the best barley, the purest water, etc., and carefully monitor them through each phase of their production life.

Imagine a child growing up in the best surroundings, with the most loving parents, the best clothing, first-class health care, and the finest education. This is the whiskey equivalent (with a price tag to match).

Blends of malts

As I mentioned above, Scotch whiskies are usually either single malt or blended (containing combinations of single malt and grain whisky). However, there’s a tiny, emerging, and often misunderstood category of whiskies made only from single malts from different distilleries, with none of the lighter grain whiskies added. They are richer and more flavorful than blended whiskies. (They have, in the past, been referred to as “pure” malts or “vatted” malts.)

If you ever see a Scotch whisky being described as a “blended malt” or “a blend of malts”, you’ll now know what this means.