The world of Whiskey can be as intimidating as that first shot of Bourbon shoved beneath your nose at a party - but with a little bit of patience and an open mind, it won't be long before you are a fine spirits connoisseur.
First of all, Whiskey is a type of spirit fermented from malted grain (like beer) then concentrated through a process known as distillation (unlike beer). Finally, the spirit is rested in wood, a process called maturation, before being bottled, often years later.
From this base process comes all of the variety of Whiskey in the world, only differences in ingredients used, methods of distilling and the ageing process result in variety. With time and practice, the strengths and qualities of each will become a new, exciting journey of taste to explore with each new bottle you come across.
Yes, all Scotch is Whiskey... but not all Whiskey is Scotch. Of the styles, none carries such a bold array of flavor and as strong an association with luxury. The spirit is also the best selling style of whiskey in the world, with flagship brand, Johnnie Walker, grossing more annually than any other seller of liquor. Synonymous with wealth, manliness and style, Scotch is almost as complex as wine, though not nearly as accessible to the palate.
Scotch Legally Must:
Beyond this, the spirit gets quite complex, quite quickly - and it would take a lexicon of articles on this topic alone to give it the proper due. For now, remember the simple stuff - it has to come from Scotland, it's made from Malted Barley (instead of corn, like Bourbon, or Rye, like, *ahem,* Rye), and it has been made into a luxury item for the last century and a half - most would say for a good reason.
Scotland's climate is cool and gentle all year, its water is rich, unique, full of minerals, its landscapes are misty and intensely varied --- Not to mention the distilling traditions there that go back decades, if not centuries.
In short, it's a great friggin' place to make and age Whiskey, and they've been in search of quality the longest - making Scotch one of the most complex and sought after spirits in the entire world.
The next most popular style of Whiskey in the world is known as America's Spirit, Bourbon. Often carrying a little more heat, oak and sweetness, and currently enjoying a massive surge in popularity across the U.S. and abroad, the spirit is in the midst of a Renaissance, with more and more local distillers producing it every day.
Bourbon Legally Must:
Just as Scotch 'must' hail from Scotland, so too, 'must' Bourbon come from the United States of America - more specifically, it is associated with Kentucky - though folks aren't quite as strict about its origin as they are about Scotch. Notice, too, that the spirit must be made from a majority of Corn, rather than from Barley, something else that makes it awfully American, and results in a sweeter product.
The most defining characteristic of bourbon, however, is one simple thing - the barrels in which the spirit is aged must be of new, charred oak.
What does that mean, exactly? Well it means exactly what it sounds like - that the interior of the barrels used in ageing are blackened using some source of open flame prior to ageing. This is common in whiskey production worldwide, but it has its origin with Bourbon, and must occur in its production.
Scotch, Irish, even Wine is often made with barrels that have already been used once or more. Not so, never so, with Bourbon - and its new oak flavor is absolutely its hallmark as a result.
Combine that with no minimum aging requirement and a tradition of bottling at a higher proof, and a warming spirit with a sometimes harsh reputation is the result.
Where bourbon can get complex is in its "Small Batch," "Kentucky Straight," "Bottled in Bond," "Tennessee Whiskey" and "Single Barrel" designations.
What's With Rye?
Rye whiskey has gained a great deal of popularity in recent years, and it is manufactured as the name suggests - from a grain mash heavy in rye (51% or more, in fact). Similar to bourbon, Rye is aged in charred oak, & comes from the U.S.A., though folks will say the Rye mash gives the final product more spice and bite.
The "fruity bite" of Rye is often called for today in classic cocktails such as Sazeracs & Manhattans.
Irish whiskey is also one of the most common and popular whiskeys in the world, with flagship brand Jameson barely falling below Johnnie Walker & Jack Daniels in sales worldwide - though sales have been climbing since the 90s.
All of these qualities combine to make a shootable, whiskey-ginger perfect spirit, though many whiskey connoisseurs will lament its lack of complexity in sipping.
Similar to Scotch in its meticulous manufacture, lengthy aging process & its style, Japanese Whisky is the hot new kid on the block, only joining the international scene as recently as 2001 when the single malts of Nikka distillery held their own against their Scottish counterparts. Since that time, contrary to the widely held belief that any "Scotch" manufactured outside of the country of Scotland could not possibly stand up in quality, various Japanese single malts have won high honors on the international Whisky stage - even over some of the finest, and oldest, Scotch distillers in the world.
And why not? What Whisky drinker isn't excited to have a whole new island of spirits to explore after bourbon & scotch have dominated the whiskey world for the past century?
Josh & Christine host Whiskey Talk, a podcast in which they explore the world of Whiskey one question of Philosophy at a time.
...resides in Philadelphia, where he holds down a working actor & writer's career between stints behind the bar.
Also resides in Philadelphia when she is not touring the country with her fire performing troupe, Adamo Ignis, or making handmade soap on behalf of her shop, Najjarian Bath & Body.