What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a variety of grains, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. After distillation, it’s then aged in wooden casks for several years. It's important to note that whiskey does not age in the bottle. So the “age” of a whiskey accounts only for the time spent in the barrel.
The first whiskey was distilled in Scotland by monks in the 12th century. Whiskey then made its way to the United States when Irish, English, and Scottish immigrants made the journey west. Since then it’s now distilled all over the world, mainly in Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Canada, and Japan. As to the difference between whiskey and whisky: whiskey commonly refers to the liquor made in Ireland and the United States, while the term whisky is used in Scotland and Canada.
Main blends of whiskey
Whisky made from malted barley. When it's made in a single distillery it’s referred to single malt whiskey. The most known type is the single malt scotch (single malt whiskey made in Scotland). If other malted grains are used alongside barley the grain must be specified e.g. rye malt whiskey or buckwheat malt whiskey.
This refers to any whiskey made from grains other than malted barley. These include corn, wheat or rye. Most American and Canadian whiskeys are grain whiskeys. For example, rye whiskey is made with at least 51% rye. Because of its high percentage of rye, this style of whiskey has a bold, spicy character.
This refers to any whiskey that is a blend of various whiskeys that are already aged. Typically, it includes whiskeys distilled from different types of grains. For example, a blended scotch whisky is a blend of one or more single malt scotch whiskeys with one or more single grain scotch whiskeys from different distilleries. Almost all Canadian Whisky is a blend of various grain whiskeys of different ages.
The difference between Scotch whisky and Bourbon Whiskey
Scotch whisky is made from malted barley. It’s then aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Entirely made in Scotland, Scotch has an earthy and smoky flavor. There are two main types, single malt and single grain. Single malt Scotch whisky is made from only water and malted barley at a single distillery. Single grain scotch is also produced at a single distillery but can be made using other grains other than malt. A blended malt scotch whisky is a blend of two or more single malt scotch whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery.
Bourbon, though mostly made in Kentucky, can be made anywhere in the United States. But it must be made within the U.S. Federal laws regulate what can and cannot be called bourbon whiskey. Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, distilled at 160 proof or less, put into the barrel at 125 proof or less, aged in new charred oak barrels and must be bottled at 80 proof or more. There is no minimum period for bourbon whiskey to be aged, but any variety aged for less than four years must have the age stated on the label. On the other hand, straight bourbon must be aged for at least two years.
How to drink whiskey
There is no wrong way to drink whiskey. However, some techniques can heighten the experience of drinking whiskey, making it even more pleasurable.
- First, enjoy the aroma of the whiskey. Every whiskey has a distinct aroma and flavor. The scent of whiskey may be overpowering on the first sniff. So do it a couple of times to better notice the aroma and other notes of spices, wood, etc. Also, open your mouth as you inhale to let the alcohol fumes escape so you can better discern other flavor notes.
- Don’t just gulp the whiskey down. Take a small sip and move it around on your tongue. After you swallow, wait for a moment before taking another sip so you can appreciate the aftertaste.
- Add a splash of water and swirl with a straw. A few drops of water to your whiskey can bring out other more subtle flavors as the liquids combine.
The simplest way to enjoy your whiskey is neat, without ice, or mixer and is served at room temperature. It's often served in an old-fashioned cocktail glass. The higher-end whiskeys like specialty bourbons are often enjoyed neat. You can cleanse your palate with cool water in between sips.
On the rocks
The whiskey is poured over ice cubes into a rocks glass. This is great for some whiskeys like blended Scotch and high-proof Bourbon. The chilling and dilution open up the whiskey’s flavor and aroma.
Whiskey can be found in countless cocktail recipes. Some of the most popular whiskey cocktails are:
- Whiskey sours (we have a whole post on whiskey sours. Read it here)
- Manhattan (we have a whole post on Manhattan. Read it here)
- Mint juleps
- Whiskey highballs (served in a highball glass)
More and more whiskey is being produced in countries not typically known for doing so. This is certainly something for whiskey connoisseurs to be excited about because it gives us new whiskeys to explore.
Whiskeys are versatile. Try a new bottle out in your favorite cocktails and see how that goes.