Are you scared of whiskey? Do you saunter up to the bar with a song in your heart and a wink in your eye, prepared to order something strong and bold and smoky, but panic and retreat to your table every time, clutching a sweaty vodka soda? Do you want to be the kind of person who can authoritatively state the difference between rye whiskey and Tennesee whiskey, and order with confidence, flair and rakish adventure? If the answer to any of these questions is even a half-shrugged “yes”, then read on for our breakdown of whiskey types.
What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash. The name is an Anglicized version of the Gaelic, meaning “water of life.” This is the most basic definition of the spirit, but there are multiple variations. Irish whiskey differs from American whiskey, which is also different from scotch, bourbon and rye.
How do you make it?
Like the other fermented, grain based alcohol, beer, whiskey is born from a grain mash, which is basically just warm water and grain. The liquid that results from this is fermented, then distilled, and finally, aged in wooden barrels. There are a wide variety of ways to tailor this process to the kind of spirit you want to make, and there are countless rules and regulations that govern what can be labelled whiskey.
Great. I now possess a rudimentary understanding of how this magic elixir is created. Please tell me some of the different kinds of whiskey, so that I might impress friends and enemies at the bar later tonight.
The process outlined above lays out a basic blueprint that lends itself to a wide range of varieties. There’s rye whiskey, malt whiskey, bourbon whiskey, corn whiskey, Scotch whiskey. The key difference in all of these different varieties is the type of mash used.
I thought rye and whiskey and scotch and bourbon were all the same thing! These “differences” you speak of, tell me more.
It’s kind of simple, if you think about it. If you already know that whiskey is made from a grain mash, the type of grain used is one of the things that distinguishes different varieties. Rye whiskey is distilled from a mash that consists of at least 51% rye. For a whiskey to be Scotch whiskey, it must be made in Scotland and is generally distilled twice. Irish whiskey is made from cereal malts, and is treated to a triple-distillation process, making for an exceptionally smooth and neutral taste. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys are American inventions, both made from a 51% or more corn mash, aged in charred, white oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is a “straight” whiskey, meaning that the spirit created as a result of the distillation process does not exceed 80% ABV and is aged for at least two years.
All of that information is fantastic, but what I care about is how it tastes.
The three main whiskeys that most people are familiar with are rye, scotch and whiskey. Rye whiskey is known for being spicier or fruitier than Irish whiskey or bourbon, and is the star spirit in your Mad Men viewing party cocktails, like the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan. Irish whiskey is distilled three times, which imparts an overall smooth flavor, less of the smoky, peaty notes and more of a pleasant warmth. Scotch whiskey, which is traditionally distilled twice is smoky, moss-y, peaty — all adjectives that conjour up the windswept, heather Highlands where this stuff was made. Irish and Scotch are best enjoyed over ice, or straight, but you can live your life however you see fit. Bourbon, on the other hand, is a purely American invention, and is noticeably sweeter than its European friends. Its natural sweetness lends itself nicely to drinks like a mint julep.
What are some cocktails I can make with these wondrous spirits?
All of the whiskeys can be enjoyed straight, or over ice, or with a dash of water. If you want to get fancy with it, here are some suggestions of what to do with each.
Bourbon goes great in your classic mint julep, but if you want to feel very “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”, pour yourself a glass over ice and sip it while staring into the middle distance on a sultry late-summer’s evening. Or, for something a little different, mix up a batch of Boulevardiers, which is basically a Negroni, minus the sharp dryness of gin.
Most people drink Scotch as is, all the better to experience its smoky woodsiness, but try the classic recipe for the Rusty Nail, which packs a punch and uses the oft-neglected Drambuie.
Irish whiskey, like its Scottish friend, goes well on its own, but you really can’t go wrong with the classic whiskey ginger. Add a hearty squeeze of lime, and treat yourself to a ginger ale that’s a step up from Canada Dry.
You can make your Old Fashioned with bourbon, or you can level up and do it the way it should be done — with a nice, strong, spicy rye whiskey. Clink that ice in your glass and channel the calculating exasperation of Joan Harris after a long, misandrist day.
Follow Megan Reynolds on Twitter @mega_hurt