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Whiskey 101

From Irish and Canadian to single malt and blended, we’ve got all the education you’ll ever need

Photo: Photographs Top row l-r: Michelle Gienow, J.M. Giordano, Josh Sisk. Middle row l-r: Sam Holden, Christopher Myers, Sam Holden. Bottom Row l-r:: Rarah, Jim Burger, Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Photographs Top row l-r: Michelle Gienow, J.M. Giordano, Josh Sisk. Middle row l-r: Sam Holden, Christopher Myers, Sam Holden. Bottom Row l-r:: Rarah, Jim Burger, Jefferson Jackson Steele


Single Malt Scotch

This is the pricey stuff made in Scotland by a single distillery using only malted barley and a pot still. It has to spend three years in wood barrels to qualify as Scotch, but most malts spend 10 or more years aging (and flavorizing) in wood. Highland, Speyside, and Islay are among the geographic tags of origin used to categorize malts, and they may also suggest a flavor profile. Speysides tend to be fruity; Highlands, floral; malts from the island of Islay (EYE-luh) are known for their smokiness or peatiness, from the peat fires used to dry the barley. Secondhand bourbon barrels are frequently used for aging, but distillers can tweak flavors by “finishing” whiskeys in vessels that previously held other wines or spirits, such as sherry or port. Despite the tongue-twisting Gaelic names and imagery of quaint, aged distilleries, many single malt Scotch brands are owned by international beverage conglomerates today.

 

The Glenlivet 12 - A best-selling Highlander with peach and vanilla tones.

Lagavulin 16 - A peat-powered Islay offering not for the faint-tongued.

Highland Park 12 - A balanced dram from Orkney Island that’s a little bit sweet, a little bit smoky.

Balvenie Double Wood - A 12-year-old aged in both bourbon barrels and sherry casks.

Blended Scotch

Despite its worldwide reputation for single malts, Scotland actually produces mostly blends of malt and grain whiskeys—a market-driven effect of the refined challenge single malts present many drinkers, who, in true pedestrian fashion, seek “smooth” and “clean” over “robust” and “complex.” Thus, Scotch whisky drinkers often have enjoyed drams of Teacher’s Highland Cream, Johnnie Walker, and Cutty Sark more than, say, 25-year-old GlenDronach.

The Famous Grouse - The Scottish drink more of this than any other whiskey, and it lacks the peat the country’s known for but gives out plenty of smooth, sweet, malty toffee flavors.

Chivas Regal - Found on liquor store shelves everywhere and generally disdained by reviewers, this 12-year-old has a wee bit of peat smoke to go with its notes of apples, vanilla, and nuts.

Dimple Pinch - Sweet and easy, what this lacks in complex flavors it makes up for in sales.

Sheep Dip - With no grain whiskeys, this blend comprises only various aged malts from Scotland’s four major whiskey-producing regions. Somehow, it’s not very peaty—though it does bring on some citrusy melon flavors.

Dewar’s White Label - Founded in 1846 by John Dewar Sr., the Dewar’s brand is now owned by Bacardi and its White Label is among the most popular blended Scotch whiskies.

Irish Whiskey

It seems the Irish regularly attach the phrase “mother’s milk” to their libations but most commonly to their whiskeys—and as the first country to elevate whiskey-making to an industrial enterprise which boasts the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world (Old Bushmill’s, 1608), there’ve been many generations of mums whose milk was likely spiked with the stuff. Peat is generally eschewed in the malting process here, so their whiskeys tend to lack the burnt-swamp flavors that make Scotch whisky so distinctive. Like Tennessee and Canadian whiskeys, “smooth” is the preferred adjective here—though that might be relative to its initial bite.

Jameson - The heat of the first taste recedes with haste, leaving behind pleasing hints of mint, honey, and lemon to raise one’s spirits.

Bushmill’s Original - Quite bourbon-esque with its strong, honey-coated tones of vanilla and oak, and a clean lack of smoke.

Powers Gold Label - Erin’s top-selling Irish whiskey is a dry, full-bodied affair that heals the first-scorched tongue with buttery reminders of honey-spiced apples.

Locke’s Single Malt - Rises to the single-malt challenge with a dry, oaky offering that leaves the smoky peat far in the background while bringing forth a peachy freshness.

Rye

Rye fanciers savor their drink with a dash of history. America’s original whiskey, especially prevalent in the mid-Atlantic colonies, rye fomented the Whiskey Rebellion of tax-resisting distillers in the 1790s. After suppressing that revolt, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon—and promptly became one of the country’s largest rye producers. The rebels scattered to the lawless frontier of present-day Kentucky, where corn became the distillers’ grain of choice. Thus was bourbon born. With spicy, peppery, sometimes grassy flavors, rye can prove pretty assertive. It’s neither as sweet as bourbon nor as smoky as Scotch, but defining rye by what it isn’t does it an injustice. The contrasting tastes of breads made from wheat, corn, barley, and rye carry some parallels in the spirit world. To its fans, rye’s got an edge that elevates it over other whiskeys.

Pikesville – No longer (sadly) your father’s local rye, Pikesville nonetheless rises above its down-market classmates.

Rittenhouse 100 - A darling of au courant barkeeps, flavorful with eminent mixability.

Bulleit 95 – “95” reflects the high percentage of rye in the recipe, explaining this bottle’s enthusiastic following among rye purists.

Russell’s Reserve – A savory-sweet sipper from Wild Turkey’s master distiller.

Bourbon

No, bourbon is not whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Truth is, while some 95 percent of bourbon is made in the Bluegrass State, there are no distilleries in today’s Bourbon County (a shrunken version of a once mighty land). Bourbon, in a nutshell, is whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn that is aged in charred, new oak barrels. It is America’s most notable offering in the world of whiskey—our native spirit. Indeed, U.S. law mandates that, if the label says “bourbon,” the contents must be from these shores. When a bourbon spends two years in the barrel, it can legally be called “straight whiskey” and most of your better brands are this old at least. Bourbon tends to be sweeter than other whiskeys, and you can thank the corn for that. The minority grains used—they can be a combination of wheat, rye, or barley—are what tend to tip the taste profile one way or another. Bourbons with more rye in the mix are sharper or spicier, while those with more wheat trend mellow or soft.

Jim Beam - The basic bestseller.

Maker’s Mark - Known for its red wax-sealed bottles and wheat-derived smoothness.

Woodford Reserve - Rye ups the taste while extra years in oak takes off the corners.

Elijah Craig - A 12-year-old sipper named for the Baptist minister dubbed the “father of bourbon.”

Tennessee Whiskey

“You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey,” world-champion drinker and hitmaker George Jones sang in the early 1980s. That smooth reputation comes from charcoal-filtering the corn-based spirits before barrel-aging, a process that strips out flavor-making, hangover-inducing impurities. Since Tennessee whiskey is really just bourbon made in Tennessee, the filtration also adds distinction. A 2009 law to liberalize the Tennessee distillery industry is expected to birth more brands, but for now there are four.

Jack Daniels - The “Old No. 7” is perhaps the Platonic ideal of American whiskey, and, like country music, it’s simple, predictable, and easy to take. Big vanilla flavor toned with wood, smoke, and toffee.

George Dickel - “Superior No. 12” doesn’t shy away from its corn foundation, with hints of honey, butter, and brown sugar rounding out the sweet effect. Like the Scottish, Dickel spells it “whisky.”

Collier and McKeel - This young distillery’s hand-crafted hooch, for now, is aged quickly in small barrels. The result: Critics describe it as “raw.” Given more years and bigger barrels, dedication to craft still may pay off.

Prichard’s - Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee whiskey is pot-stilled—and as bourbon-esque as it gets since it isn’t charcoal-filtered. Ten years of aging pays off with layers of caramel, black pepper, and vanilla.

Canadian Whiskey

In Canada, a mishmash of whiskey-distilling traditions are bound together by one simple fact: It’s made in the True North. Rye whiskey and Canadian whiskey are considered the same thing there, as their distillers tend to include the flavorful grain in their mashes and blends, which are usually corn-based but also can include wheat and barley. The bullish ones with backbone stand out, since, as a whole, Canadian whiskeys are politely considered light and smooth (more bluntly: brown, flavorless vodka). For those willing to taste honestly, though, Canadian whiskeys can pay off royally, since the Canucks’ long distilling history means they know their way around whiskeys.

Canadian Club - The six-year-old standby is as ubiquitous as Jack Daniels, and for good reason: It’s affordably delicious.

Forty Creek Barrel Select - Corn, barley, and rye are distilled and aged separately, then blended and aged a little more—a detailed process that bears fruit. Complex yet smooth, with a little nip.

Corby Royal Reserve - An old-fashioned, staid whiskey that starts out sweet, then the rye and oak come out to bite.

Crown Royal - Possibly Canada’s gold standard of whiskey, it comes in a blue velvet bag that, in its afterlife, is a handy Scrabble tile-holder.


Stay Warm... Drink Whiskey

Stay Warm Drink Whiskey | Whiskey 101 | Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar
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