Whiskey

   The first time someone walked up to my bar and said, “I’ll have a whiskey and soda, bartender,” I was stumped. Does he want Irish and soda, scotch and soda, bourbon and soda, rye and soda? At first I would ask for clarification, but finally I realized only the English ask for whiskey and soda, and they always mean scotch. (Now I just listen for the accent.) The bourbon drinker, on the other hand, never takes a chance; he or she always orders by brand, or at least specifies bourbon.

 

   Irish and Scotch

 

   All whiskey drinkers have their loyalties, but we must pay tribute to our Irish and Scottish brothers who invented the stuff. Lore has it that whiskey of some sort has been made in Scotland and Ireland for seven hundred years. Before the “whiskey missionaries” migrated to the New World and discovered corn, whiskey in Ireland and Scotland was made from barley, wheat, rye, and even oats. Two grains in particular, barley and sometimes rye, are malted, or encouraged to germinate, to produce a chemical change that helps turn the starch in the seed to sugar, which is converted to alcohol. The germination process has to be stopped in the malt to prevent the total loss of the starch. This is done by drying the malt in a kiln. This is where scotch and Irish diverge.

 

   In the case of scotch, drying is the stage in the process that adds the flavor characteristic that separates scotch from all the other whiskies of the world. Part of the drying process takes place over a peat-fueled fire, with the peat smoke coming in direct contact with the drying malt. Later, during fermentation and distillation, the smoky flavor of the burned peat is carried along as “baggage” with the alcohol molecules to the final product. Irish whiskey, on the other hand, has no smoke flavor, even though it is partly pot-distilled malt, because the malt is dried in a closed kiln that is fired by coal or gas, and no smoke comes in contact with the malt. Irish whiskey has a subtle sweetness from the corn-based grain whiskey and a honey, toasty flavor from the barley and barley malt. Both scotch and Irish whiskey, however, have to be distilled at low temperatures in a pot still to avoid breaking the flavor links that provide their distinctive characters. Malted barley is important to all whiskey, and a certain amount of it is added to the mash of most whiskies around the world to get the fermentation process going.

 

   American

 

   On this side of the Atlantic, whiskey falls into two categories: straight or blended. Straight must be made from at least 51 percent of a grain, must not exceed 160 proof, must be aged in oak barrels for two years, and may only be diluted by water to no less than 80 proof. Blended whiskey is a combination of at least two or more 100-proof straight whiskeys blended with neutral spirits, grain spirits, or light whiskeys.

 

   Straight whiskey is made in three styles: Bourbon, Tennessee, and Rye. Bourbon, which takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, is made with a “mash” of grain that is ground or crushed before it’s steeped in hot water, and then fermented. Two types of mash are used in bourbon: sweet mash, which employs fresh yeast to start fermentation; and sour mash, which combines a new batch of sweet mash with residual mash from the previous fermentation. Within the bourbon category, there are two distinctive styles: wheat and rye. Bourbon is made primarily with corn (up to but no more than 80 percent; higher than that and it must be labeled “corn whiskey”), but the remaining grain in the mash is either rye or wheat (and a small amount of barley malt to get the fermentation going). There is often great debate among bourbon makers over the question of which is better. If you’re curious, sip Maker’s Mark (wheat) and Jim Beam (rye) side by side. I am a wheat guy personally, but not to the extent that I would ever turn down a glass of good bourbon no matter what school the maker prefers.

 

   Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon in almost every way, with the exception of the filtration process. Before the whiskey goes into the charred barrels to mature, it is slowly filtered through ten feet of sugar-maple charcoal. It takes from ten days to two weeks for a batch to pass through the charcoal, drop by drop. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are two leading Tennessee sour-mash whiskies.

 

   Rye is similar in taste to bourbon, but it possesses a decidedly spicy and slightly bitter flavor profile—like biting into a rye seed in rye bread. Though wheat and barley are commonly used to make rye whiskey, U.S. law mandates that it be made with a minimum of 51 percent rye.

 

   Blended Versus Straight

 

   Until the middle of the nineteenth century, whiskey was a straight unblended spirit with only water added to lower the alcohol strength. Sometimes it was bottled, but most often it was served right out of the barrel. At that time, whiskey consumption was confined to Ireland, Scotland, and the United States; in England it was considered the poor relation to fine French brandy, and the English found the malt scotch too strong in every way. All of that changed, however, when the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out Europe’s grapes devastated Cognac in the 1880s. Scotch whiskey stepped up to the plate with the help of the Coffey still, which was able to produce a light, high-proof mixed-grain whiskey cheaply, and of Andrew Usher, a distiller from Edinburgh who figured out a solution to the “too strong” complaint. Usher blended the light grain whiskey with the heavy malt whiskey to achieve a blended whiskey that had the good qualities of both spirits and could be produced with consistency at a very good price. Blending was further enhanced around this time when the grain-whiskey producers in Scotland discovered the sweetness of corn from their American cousins and started using it, too.

 

   Blending in American whiskey was a result of Prohibition. Aged, straight whiskey inventory was nonexistent in the United States after Prohibition, and young whiskey was blended with older Canadian stocks until the production of aged straight whiskey could catch up to the market.

Value Brands

BLENDED SCOTCH

* Ambassador

* Black and White

* Grant’s

 

SINGLE MALT SCOTCH

* Deanston 12 year

* Aberlour Glenlivet 10 year

* Bowmore Legend

 

BOURBON

* Old Forester 

* Ancient Age

* Jim Beam

* Benchmark

 

BLENDED AMERICAN

* Calvert

* Four Roses

* Fleischmann’s Preferred

 

RYE

* Jim Beam

 

CANADIAN

* Canadian Mist

* Black Velvet

 

TENNESSEE

* George Dickel #8

 

IRISH

* Clontarf

* Powers

* Murphy’s

Premium Brands

BLENDED SCOTCH

* Dewars

* Cutty Sark

* Johnnie Walker Red & Black Label

* J & B

* Famous Grouse

* Chivas

 

SINGLE MALT SCOTCH

* The Glenlivet 12 year

* Glenfiddich 12 year

* Highland Park 12 year

* Macallan 12 year

 

BOURBON 

* Wild Turkey 101 proof

* Maker’s Mark (Small Batch)

* Old Forester Bonded

* Old Rip VanWinkle Family Reserve 13 year

* Jim Beam Black Label

 

BLENDED AMERICAN

* Seagram’s Seven

 

RYE

* Wild Turkey Rye

* Old Overholt

CANADIAN

* Canadian Club Classic 12 year

* Seagram’s VO

* Crown Royal

* Tangle Ridge 10 year

 

TENNESSEE

* George Dickel Old #12

* Jack Daniel’s Black IRISH

* Bushmills

* Jameson

* Tullamore Dew

Super-Premium Brands

BLENDED SCOTCH

* Johnnie Walker Gold and Blue Label

* Chivas 18 year

* Ballantine’s 30 year

* J & B Ultima 86 proof

 

MALT SCOTCH

* Glenlivet 18 year

* Macallan 18 & 21 year

* Bowmore 30 year

* Bunnahabhain 1979

* Springbank Campbelton 1967

BOURBON

* Booker’s Small Batch 125.3 proof

* Blanton’s Single Barrel 93 proof

* Pappy Van Winkle’s Special Reserve 20 year 90.4 proof

* Woodford Reserve Single Barrel 90.4 proof

* Baker’s Small Batch 107 proof

* Distiller’s Masterpiece 18 year 99 proof

 

RYE

* Old Potrero Single Malt 123.5 proof

 

CANADIAN

* Crown Royal Special Reserve

 

TENNESSEE

* Gentleman Jack

* Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel 90 proof

* George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve 86 proof

 

IRISH

* Black Bush

* Bushmills Malt 16 year Triple Wood

* Jameson Gold

* Tullamore Dew 12 year

* Midleton Very Rare

* Midleton 26 year

DeGroff, Dale. The Craft of the Cocktail (Kindle Locations 470-521). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. 

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