Sunday, July 19, 2009

Whiskey primer

I am a big fan of the taste of whiskey, but a relative novice to the sub-culture. To help familiarize myself, I created a brief “cheat sheet” of all of the key terminology. Today, I share it with you. Enjoy...


Since before recorded history, people have been making alcoholic beverages by fermenting things like grapes (wine) and grains (beer). Europeans first began to make distilled alcoholic beverages – also known as “spirits” or “liquors” – around the time of the Renaissance.

There are many varieties of spirits. Some are made by distilling a beverage only until it reaches its final alcohol content: in this way, brandy is produced from wine or fruit-based alcohols, rum is produced from sugarcane, tequila is produced from blue agave, and whiskey is produced from various cereal grains. Vodka can be made from any source, but it is distilled repeatedly until it is almost pure alcohol, and is then cut with water. Gin is produced similar to vodka, but is infused with juniper berries and other botanicals for flavor before being distilled a final time.

Additional terminology: A liqueur is any alcoholic beverage to which flavorings and sugar are added. Moonshine is any spirit made illegally in an unlicensed still.


Whiskey originated among the Celtic people of Scotland and Ireland, and the term is derived from from uisge (or uisce) beatha, "water of life." If produced in Scotland, it is always spelled “whisky” (without an e). Originally, the Irish spelled it that way too, but in the late 19th Century, they changed the spelling to “whiskey” (with an e) to distinguish their product from the flood of low-quality Scotch then on the market. In the rest of the world, there is no set rule, although “whiskey” dominates in the U.S. (for the same reason as in Ireland), while “whisky” is most common in Canada, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.


The appearance, aroma and flavor of a particular whiskey can be attributed to any number of factors. Some of the key ones include the types and proportion of grains used, the soil and overall growing environment of the grain, whether or not the grain is malted, whether or not the malt is peated, the kind of water used, the kind of yeast used, the distillation method (e.g., pot still vs. column still), filtering, the kind of barrels used to store the whiskey during the aging process, the environment of the aging warehouse, how long the whiskey is matured in the barrel, and whether and how the whiskey is blended before bottling. Each of these variations produces differences in the character of the whiskey, just as one would expect from different types of wine.


Barley is the only grain used when producing Scottish malt whisky, and is heavily used in other types of whiskey as well. There are many different varieties of barley, and new ones are constantly being developed.

Barley is often malted, a careful process in which germination is begun (the barley begins to sprout) and then halted at just the right stage by heating and drying the grain. Malting releases extra starch from the grain, as well as enzymes that help convert that starch into fermentable sugars. It also adds sweetness and cookie overtones to the flavor of the resulting whiskey.

In Scotland, the germinated barley is sometimes dried with smoke from burning peat. Peat is densely packed earth that forms in boggy areas. It is comprised of plant matter (such as mosses and heather) that has not fully decomposed, and once dried it can be burned just like wood. The smoke from the burning peat infuses the malted barley and imbues it with rich, earthy aromas and flavors, which vary based on the environment and plant life in the area it was taken from. (Despite an abundance of peat in Ireland, Irish whiskey is rarely peated.)

While the famous Scottish malt whiskies are made entirely from malted barley, many other kinds of whiskey utilize barley, wheat, rye and corn in varying proportions. “Grain whiskey” (made from unmalted grain) is lighter and crisper than full-flavored malt whiskey and comes with its own palette of flavors. Unmalted barley imparts a nutty flavor. Wheat adds a sweet, honeyed taste and a mellowness that balances other flavors. Rye is a versatile grain that can add spicy, minty or dried fruit flavors. Corn can make the whiskey creamy or even oily. In young whiskeys, the corn’s flavor (sweet, spicy and husky) can overwhelm other, more subtle flavors, but it mellows the longer it ages in the barrel.


Scotland is the epicenter of whiskey production, and any whiskey distilled and matured in Scotland is labeled “Scotch.” There are four historical whiskey producing regions in Scotland: the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and the Highlands. The Speyside region was traditionally part of the Highlands, but is now considered its own region. It contains by far the greatest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. The Highlands area also includes several islands (including Jura, Skye, Mull, Orkney, etc.), which each have their own character collectively are sometimes unofficially considered a separate region.

Each of Scotland’s whiskey-producing areas contains several different distilleries. A malted whiskey is called a “single malt” if it comes from just one distillery. (Note that a single malt may be “vatted” – combined from several different barrels from the same distillery – to achieve a consistent taste.) These single malt Scotches are bursting with character and have a smooth, full flavor that is prized by many whiskey lovers, but their complexity can sometimes present difficulties for novices.

However, Scotland also produces blended whiskeys, which combine various malt and grain whiskeys for a lighter, more consistent experience. Blended whiskeys like Johnnie Walker account for the vast majority of Scotch sales, and some of these blends are also very highly regarded.

Like Scotch, Irish whiskey is primarily made from barley, but rather than just using malt barley, the Irish traditionally add some unmalted barley before fermentation and distillation. Irish whiskey is also typically triple distilled, giving it a lighter flavor. The end result is a distinct but easy to drink whiskey, whether traditional “pure pot still” or blended with grain whiskey.

In North America, several new styles of whiskey have developed from a combination of grains. The traditional Canadian style blends malted rye whiskey with corn and other whiskeys and neutral spirits. The result is softer and sweeter than many other whiskeys, but with the characteristic bittersweet spiciness of rye.

The dominant style in the U.S. is bourbon, which is whiskey made from between 51-80% corn, with rye and malted barley typically accounting for the rest. (Some “wheated bourbons” like Maker’s Mark substitute winter wheat for the rye, and a few rare bourbons use both.) Tennessee whiskey, made famous by the Jack Daniel’s brand, has much the same ingredients as bourbon but is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before it is matured, significantly altering the character of the whiskey. American straight rye whiskey contains a minimum 51% rye, while straight corn whiskey contains at least 80% corn. (In recent years, other whiskey varieties have appeared in the U.S. as well, including straight wheat whiskey and various types made primarily from barley.)


Immediately after being distilled, whiskey is called "new make" and is clear as water. Although it is sometimes bottled at this point, nearly all whiskey is put into oak barrels to mature. To be called “straight bourbon,” for example, the whiskey must be matured at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels. (Flame is used to bend the oak when making barrels, but the charring also helps open up the oak, so that its character infuses the whiskey.)

By law, Scotch must be matured for at least three years. For single malt Scotch, this is usually done in barrels that have previously held American bourbon or Spanish sherry (a type of fortified wine) – although other kinds of barrels are also sometimes used. In practice, most bourbons are matured at least four years, and most single malt Scotches for at least ten.

The amber color associated with whiskey is gained while it ages in the barrel. (Occasionally this effect is enhanced by adding caramel coloring.) The long interaction with the wood also profoundly affects the flavor. Once the whiskey is removed from the cask and bottled, the maturation process ends; whiskey does not continue to age in the bottle in the same way as wine.


There are many ways to drink whiskey: neat (plain), straight up (shaken with ice then strained), on the rocks (with ice), with water or soda, or as part of a mixed drink. While some prefer to drink whiskey neat, at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), the burn of the alcohol often dulls the taste buds, so you may want to cut the whiskey with a little bit of water. Even many seasoned whiskey drinkers add a drop or two, as a small amount of water does a wonderful job of bringing out otherwise hidden flavors and aromas.

Likewise, adding ice can sometimes over-chill the drink and dull the flavor. As a general rule of thumb, I like to treat single malt Scotches and premium blended whiskeys like fine red wines and sip them at room temperature or slightly chilled. American whiskeys and standard blends, on the other hand, are more like soda, and I am just as likely to drink them on the rocks or mixed with water or soda. Either way, whiskey is best when sipped slowly and savored.

Tasting whiskey is an immersive sensory experience. After you pour yourself a dram (small amount), observe the color: each whiskey's unique hue tells a story about its time spent in the cask. Then hover your nose just a fraction above the glass (not deep in the glass, as with wine), and take in the “nose” (aroma) of the whiskey in small, gentle whiffs. This will give you a first impression of the whiskey – sweet, smoky, salty, floral, etc. – which will continue to evolve throughout the tasting experience.

Next, take a small sip – maybe 1/5 of a mouthful – and “chew” it to move it all around your mouth. You will notice two things as you do. The first is the “mouth feel” of the whiskey, which might be soft, creamy, slippery or any number of other sensations. The second is the whiskey’s initial taste. No two whiskeys taste the same, and the best have complex flavor profiles that layer various different notes: earthy, fruity, spicy, oaky, etc.

Once the whiskey’s taste peaks in your mouth, it continues to evolve; this is called the finish. Some whiskeys have short, crisp finishes while others are marvelously complex and have long finishes that continue to reveal new dimensions long after the whiskey has left your mouth. A whiskey that contains a wide variety of flavors in good proportion is said to be well balanced.

Take your time, and don’t forget to cleanse your palate with water between sips.

As a final note, for Celiacs like me, the distillation process removes the highly poisonous protein known as “gluten” from the grain and makes whiskey the only sensible way to consume wheat, rye or barley.

Of course, one should always consume responsibly!

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