Thursday, August 19, 2010

Whiskey Decoded

Whiskey has become more of a hot seller in the past few weeks which, given the sticky weather, I would find odd if not for the return of AMC’S “Mad Men.” In the hit series about advertising executives, mostly men, in the 1960s, we witness the characters downing stiff drinks every time anything goes wrong – or right – at the agency or in their lives. The relationship of whiskey sales to “Mad Men” is purely a theory as there is no statistical evidence to back it up.  Nevertheless, I thought it a good a time as any to brush up on the mysteries of whiskey.

The Basics

Whiskey is an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grains. The two main factors that separate whiskey from other spirits are the use of grain and the fact that the spirit is aged in oak. Grains used include primarily barley, rye, wheat, and corn. After ageing, most whiskey, which must be distilled to 95% alcohol or less, is diluted with water to somewhere in the 40% alcohol range. Whiskey labeled “cask strength” or “barrel proof” has not been diluted and thus has a higher
alcohol percentage, somewhere around 60%. Although other countries produce whiskey, the main producers include Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Japan. There are many styles and strengths, and various approaches to ageing; it’s easiest to get a grasp on the different types of whiskey by discussing them by region.


Scotch Whisky (yes, without the ‘e’) is arguably the most sought after of the whiskeys and the country features distilleries that have been around for at least a century. You can spend a lot of time learning all the intricacies of Scotch but for the purposes of this introduction just know that there are single malt whiskies and blended whiskies out of Scotland. Single malts are made from 100% malted barley, which is barley grain that is made to sprout while being soaked in water and is then heated dry. Blended Scotch is made from a combination of single malt whiskies blended with whiskies made from other grains and can come from a succession of years. The flavors are generally more subtle in blends so it’s a good place for beginning imbibers to start. Johnnie Walker is a prime example of blended Scotch.

Single Malt Scotch varies widely from region to region. Without getting too in depth, there are a few guidelines to help you choose your favored style. Speyside Whiskies are generally refined, fruity, and subtle while Islay Whiskies are heavier and more powerful with marked peaty/charcoal flavors. The peat flavor common to Scotch Whiskies comes from one method of drying the barley malt, with burning peat, the vegetation that forms in the wetlands. The Highlands region is very large and so the styles are varied, however the whiskies tend to be more sappy, robust and rustic than the softer, gentler, fresh tasting whiskies from the Lowlands. Campbeltown Scotch commonly has a distinctive tangy, lightly smoky flavor and Scotch from the Islands a salty, smooth, slightly sweeter palate.

Some current favorites include Glen Grant (Speyside), Bowmore (Islay), Tomatin (Highlands), Glenkinchie (Lowlands), Springbank (Campbeltown), and Scapa (Islands.)


Irish Whiskey, aside from the different spelling, is distinct from Scotch Whisky in the way the barley is malted. The malted barley in Irish whiskey is not dried over peat fires, making the finished product smoother, rounder, and less “peaty.” In addition, most Irish Whiskeys are blended and include a mix of malted and unmalted barley. Bushmills Original and Jameson are examples of blended Irish Whiskey; there are a few Irish single malts available which specify the number of years of ageing on the label.

United States

American whiskeys can be made from either corn, rye, wheat, or barley, sometimes malted, sometimes not -- but nearly all of the best are made from a blend of corn and rye with a little barley. Most American whiskey comes from Kentucky and Tennessee. Whether it is made in Kentucky or not, if at least fifty one percent of the whiskey is made from corn it can legally be called Bourbon. If more than 79% of the grain mixture is made from corn it must be called Corn Whiskey. To be called Rye Whiskey at least 51% of the mix must be rye and these whiskeys normally have a spicier flavor than the silkier, sweeter Bourbons. Tennessee Whiskey is made in a similar manner as Bourbon but must be from Tennessee and is usually milder in flavor because it goes through a more rigorous filtering process before it is aged. Jack Daniel’s is an example of Tennessee Whiskey.

Some favorite American Whiskeys ― all Bourbons ―presently include Rock Hill Farms, Black Maple Hill, 1792, and Buffalo Trace.


Most Canadian Whisky is made from a mix of corn, wheat, rye, and sometimes barley or malted barley. When Canadian Whisky is referred to as “Rye” it is most likely in reference to the past tradition of using a high percentage of Rye

rather than the actual content of the Whisky. There are no rules governing the percentage of grains in Canadian Whisky and most are a blend of grain whiskeys aged for a range of years. These days rye makes up a relatively small percentage of the grain mixture in Canadian Whisky. This results in a lighter, more delicate spirit that, some would say, lacks distinguishing characteristics.

Pendleton makes a Canadian Whisky that is complex, unusually smooth, and well priced.


Believe it or not, Japan is second only to Scotland in terms of single malt whiskey production, although Japan produces blends as well. The vast majority of Japanese Whisky is made from 100% malted barley. Japanese Whisky is made in the tradition of Scotch Whisky but has a very distinct personality mainly due to the difference in climate and the inclusion of Japanese oak barrels in the ageing process. Japanese blends, as with other whiskeys, contain a mixture of malt and grain whisky. The grains used, however, may incorporate corn, millet, and occasionally rice and rarely include wheat or rye. Although some distilleries use a small amount of peat in the malting process, the effect is not nearly as pronounced as in Scotch Whisky. The end result is typically more subtle, smooth, and malty in comparison. Very few Japanese Whiskies are currently distributed in the United States but as they gain more attention this could (hopefully!) change.

Suntory products are distributed in the U.S. and the single malt Yamazaki (18 and 12 years), and the blended Hibiki 12 year are all divine.

Here’s to Ya

There is much to know when it comes to the world of whiskey but the best advice is to taste as many types as you can and get to know your own individual palate. A few bars in New York City where you can sample different whiskeys without making an outright commitment to a full bottle (yet!) are Brandy Library in Tribeca and Vintry Wine & Whiskey in the Financial District. Slainte, cheers, and here’s to ya!

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