” I wish to live to 150 years old, but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.” -Ava Gardner
And it’s not just Ava. Over the past few years whiskey has surpassed vodka as the highest selling spirit in the US, and demand is so high worldwide that brand after brand sells out while distilleries wait to have more whiskey ready for the market.
So, what is this nectar, this “whiskey”?
Whiskey must be distilled from grain (Remember distillation? We talked about it in our post titled “Stealing the Limelight from Beer and Wine”).
Whiskey is almost always aged in a wooden barrel.
There are many sub-categories of Whiskey.
Whiskey is made all over the world.
The most commonly used grains are barley, corn, rye and wheat; but any grain can be used. Millet and oat whiskies are easy to find these days, and distilleries are experimenting with anything they can get their hands on, including quinoa and sorghum among others. For the most part in the US if a label says the name of a grain (“rye” for instance) the whiskey must contain at least 51% that grain. Corn whiskey is an exception to this, it must contain at least 80% corn.
Most whiskey definitions require barrel aging. That time in a barrel imbues the whiskey with notes of vanilla, baking spice, coconut, toast, and dill. These aromas/flavors help make whiskey taste like whiskey.
The barrel aging also makes whiskey look like whiskey. The beautiful rainbow shades of brown, copper, gold that whiskey comes in are mostly the result of that time (some whiskey regulations also allow for caramel color to be added). There are distilleries that make a clear “Corn Whiskey”, which according to US regulations does not have to be aged. There are also distilleries that make a clear, “Moonshine” or “White” whiskey. This generally is still aged in a barrel, but it will only be in for a very short amount of time; a couple weeks, a couple days, even just a couple hours. This amount of time allows the barrel to help the whiskey mellow out a bit but doesn’t add color or enough flavor to be readily apparent.
The overarching category of whiskey has developed into many sub-categories of whiskey produced all over the world. Some of these categories are legally defined in their country of origin (Bourbon and Scotch for example), some have no legal definition (Japanese Whiskey is one of these).
Scotch and Bourbon are the most popular whiskeys, but both Ireland and Canada produce a great deal as well. Japanese whiskey has become incredibly popular over the last decade. In many other countries, from Argentina to New Zealand, whiskey connoisseurs are seizing the opportunity to make the beverage they love.
The laws regulating whiskey can get a bit convoluted, what follows are the basics necessary for understanding the whiskeys.
To call a whiskey a Bourbon it must be made in the US (not just Kentucky, despite what many people think), it must be at least 51% corn, and it must be aged in new, white oak barrels. Kentucky is the center of Bourbon production, but there are many Bourbons made at craft distilleries all over the country. Bourbon tends to be fuller bodied, with more barrel flavors and sweetness than many other whiskeys. It’s a great accompaniment to spicy barbeque. Four Roses Single Barrel is a great Bourbon to start with.
To give a brief summation of a complicated category, a Scotch Whiskey must be distilled in Scotland, it must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, and it must be 100% malted barley. Single Malt Scotches are more highly regulated, and often have a strong peat aroma. Peat is a traditional fuel used in Scotland, providing a pleasing medicinal quality (yeah, I said pleasing AND medicinal, that's a real thing). Scotch comes in many different styles, so it can be paired with many different foods. Cheese boards can be a good combo, especially if they are garnished with fresh fruit and honey comb. I would recommend starting with a blended Scotch. Compass Box Asyla is a delicious one.
Irish Whiskey must be made in Ireland. It also must contain barley and be aged in wooden barrels (any kind of wood will do) for a minimum of 3 years. Broadly speaking, Irish Whiskey tends to be a bit softer than many other whiskies. This can make it a good place to start for the whiskey newbie. Chocolate and Irish Whiskey are a great combo. My favorite in the introductory price range is Red Breast 12 yr.
Canadian Whiskey is quite loosely regulated. It must be made in Canada and it must be aged in wooden barrels for at least three years. It may contain flavoring. Due to the lack of regulation, there is huge variety among Canadian Whiskeys, making it impossible to identify typical traits. There are many new Canadian Whiskeys on the market. I encourage you to get out there and try them!
Though it has zero regulations, Japanese Whiskey is largely inspired by Scottish Whiskey. The most common practice is to use barley; but rice whiskey is being produced as well. Distilleries often buy whiskey from other countries for blending. Many types of wooden barrels are used for aging. As with Canadian Whiskey, there are many styles of Japanese Whiskey. The Akashi White Oak is a great example of a Japanese blended malt and grain whiskey.
With all this selection, I bet Ava would have wished to live for 500 years.