“Many people you wouldn’t think would order whiskey are ordering it,” says Michael Garran, manager of d.b.a., which also has a Manhattan location. “A couple attractive women come in, and you think cosmo, but they want a peaty single-malt.”
With a number of countries distilling it (see also our Japanese Whisky Primer) and a name that’s spelled two different ways, trying whiskey can be daunting. Let our primer be your cheat sheet, and get tasting. There’s a lot out there to try.
Note on Spelling
Scotch whisky is never spelled with an e, while Irish whiskey almost always is. Bourbon is usually whisky, though it doesn’t have to be, while rye is often whiskey. Canadian is mostly whisky, while Tennessee swings both ways equally. The word itself comes from the Gaelic uisge, a shortened form of uisge beatha, which is a translation of the Latin aqua vitae (“water of life”), a term used in ancient and medieval times to describe distilled spirits.
How Whiskey Is Made
Whiskey requires only four ingredients: water, grain, yeast, and time. It can be made from any kind of grain, but barley, corn, and rye are the most common. Barley and rye are usually malted before fermentation, meaning that they are allowed to germinate in order to release their sugars, then are dried to stop the growing process.
The grain is mashed up with water and mixed with yeast, then allowed to ferment, creating a frothy mixture similar to beer called wash, which is distilled.
Out of the still, the whiskey-to-be is essentially moonshine—clear and 60 to 80 percent alcohol. At this point it is placed in oak barrels and aged. (American law allows for two years, but almost no producers do less than three). The whiskey gets its color from the barrel, and many distilleries reuse wine, port, sherry, or bourbon barrels for distinctive flavor. Whiskeys aren’t aged more than around 30 years, because they take on so much wood flavor that they lose their individuality. After aging, the whiskey is diluted with water to 40 or 43 percent alcohol and bottled, though some whiskeys are bottled at “cask strength.”
The first known reference to distilling in Scotland dates to 1494, and many Scotch distilleries have been in continuous operation for well over a century. The oldest that is still in production, Oban, was founded in 1794.
A single-malt whisky is required by law to be made from 100 percent malted barley in a single distillery. To be called Scotch, it also has to be distilled and aged for at least three years, entirely within Scotland.
There are multiple Scotch regions, but the most important thing to know is whether the whisky is from the highlands or the islands. The most prolific of the islands is Islay (ee-luh), 25 miles long and home to seven operating distilleries. Because of the cold, rainy climate of the islands, malted barley used in their whisky is dried with the smoke from burning peat, the layer of partially decomposed vegetation found in bogs and swamps in rainy areas. This gives island Scotches smoky flavors and aromas that can include seaweed, pepper, and bacon. Highland whiskies, like those from Speyside, Scotland’s largest whisky region, do not use peat, so they are sweeter and softer.
Beside single-malts, there are also blended Scotch whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker. These are made from a blend of single-malts plus Scotch whiskies made from other grains. Their taste is less intense than single-malts, without the smokiness of an Islay.
Bowmore 12-Year-Old: Chocolate and pear notes without too much smoke. A good beginner’s Islay. About $40 a bottle.
Laphroaig 10 year old: When you’re ready to try maximum smokiness, this delivers with a strong woody nose and a salty-sweet balance. About $30 a bottle.
Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old: Sweet, nutty, and smooth. About $35 a bottle.
The majority of Irish distilleries make blended whiskeys, in which Irish single-malts are mixed with whiskey made from barley, wheat, or rye. They also never use peat and thus are very smooth but somewhat less distinctive than Scotches. Irish blends are a little rougher and coarser. There are also some single-malt Irish whiskeys, but they’re expensive and rare.
Jameson: A classic blended Irish whiskey that’s smooth, mellow, and sweet, with some floral notes. About $20 a bottle.
Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt: Notes of nougat, chocolate, oak, and vanilla. About $40 a bottle.
After the American Revolution, Congress passed a tax on whiskey, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The result was that homesteaders in Kentucky and Tennessee were allowed to make their whiskey tax-free. That’s why most American whiskeys come from those two states.
According to lore, in the 18th or early 19th century, a Baptist preacher and distiller named Elijah Craig charred the inside of some old fish barrels so that he could age whiskey in them. His liquor, stamped with the Bourbon County location of his distillery, became so popular that people began asking for Bourbon whiskey. A true American liquor was born.
To legally be called bourbon, a whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent corn. The rest is usually a combination of rye, wheat, and malted barley. It also must be aged a minimum of 2 years in charred, new white oak barrels. The charring process opens tiny cracks in the wood, creating a larger surface area for the bourbon to react with, and thus accelerates the aging process. Therefore, bourbon is best aged 4 to 8 years instead of the 10 to 16 typical of Scotches. The layer of charcoal in the barrel also filters out some impurities as the whiskey moves in and out. Most bourbons are made in Kentucky, but there is no legal requirement that they must be.
The best bourbons have high proportions of corn and rye content along with some barley. The rye adds a cherry-wood flavor and deep, fruity richness with a long finish that characterizes great bourbon. Wheat makes for a softer, mellower product. Bourbon cognoscenti seek out rare and expensive small-batch and even single-barrel bourbons.
Maker’s Mark: An inexpensive, well-balanced bourbon with notes of vanilla, honey, oranges, and spice. About $20 a bottle.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon: A small-batch, rare, and expensive bourbon with a vanilla and caramel nose, and notes of tea, mint, and apple. About $45 a bottle.
Like bourbon, rye whiskey must be aged for at least two years in charred, new white oak barrels, but it must contain at least 51 percent rye instead of corn, with corn and malted barley usually making up the rest. It’s the oldest form of American whiskey—George Washington distilled rye at Mount Vernon, and it forms the basis of the famous Sazerac cocktail. Prohibition nearly erased it from existence. It’s now enjoying something of a renaissance.
Old Overholt 4 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey: Smooth, with flavors of ginger and spice. About $19 a bottle.
Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old: Intense spice notes balanced with toffee, oak, and molasses flavors. About $45 a bottle.
Tennessee whiskey is made in exactly the same way as bourbon, except that it must come from Tennessee and must be charcoal filtered before aging, a flavor-mellowing process that some purists say ruins the whiskey. There are only two producers: Jack Daniel’s and George A. Dickel & Co.. The George Dickel distillery closed in the mid-’90s and reopened in 2003, bringing renewed interest to it.
Canadians don’t have any special rules about whisky. Some is made from corn and some from rye, and there is even one Canadian single-malt, Glen Breton Rare. Most of the well-known Canadian whiskies, like Canadian Club and Canadian Mist, are blended. As a result, there is no unique flavor profile.
Crown Royal Extra Rare: A blend of the last whiskies made at Crown Royal’s old Waterloo, Ontario, plant, which was closed in 1992. They’re not kidding about the “extra rare.” About $150 a bottle.
Photographs by Jen Siska.