Monday, March 21, 2011

Let’s talk about Scotch, bourbon, and whiskey

There are a lot of different whiskies distilled around the world, prepared in slightly different ways, from slightly different ingredients that make them unique in their own way.  I received a great suggestion to try to highlight some of these differences:

  • Scotch whisky – Made only from malted barley, the distillation and maturation (at least three years worth) must take place in Scotland.
    • Malting refers to the steeping of a grain in water, allowing it to get just to the point of germination.  At that point, it is dried using heated air (this is where the peat comes in to play)
    • All scotch is distilled twice, except for Auchentoshen, which is triple distilled (it’s a nice whisky too, if you’re interested in something smooth and lowland light, but I digress)
  • Single malt scotch – the whisky used in a single malt scotch comes from only one distillery
    • Cask strength whisky comes from a single barrel or “cask” from a distillery and typically contains a higher alcoholic content than most single malt scotches (cask strength whiskies will be labeled as such)
  • Blended scotch whisky – the whisky used in blended scotch whisky comes from multiple distilleries
    • Blends sometimes get a bad name.  And it’s true that there are many lower priced blends out there.  But keep in mind that Johnny Walker Blue Label is a blend.  Blends are what sustained the whisky industry for most of the 20th century.  Just think about the blender’s challenge as well – distilleries open and close every year.  Single malts’ taste change slightly from year to year, and even cask to cask.  Yet the master blender must balance all of those variables, and the changing ingredients at their disposal to create a consistent expression.
  • Irish whiskey – conversely to Scotch, Irish whiskey must be distilled and matured in Ireland for three years.  Irish whiskey contains some unmalted barley, is distilled three times, and is rarely peated.  Better varieties of Irish whiskey are typically smoother than its Scottish cousin.
  • Bourbon – must be made in America and is made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.  There is no aging requirement for bourbon, but it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
    • Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are well known bourbons
  • Tennessee whiskey -  Bourbon produced in Tennessee is called Tennessee whiskey.   It typically goes through an extra step where it is filtered through maple charcoal before going in the barrel for maturation
    • Jack Daniel’s is the most well known Tennessee whiskey
  • Canadian whisky – has the same location requirements of the other spirits, without the grain requirements.  Historically, Canadian whisky had some rye grain added to the mash to add flavor.  While that rarely occurs in great quantity anymore (the primary grain is corn), Canadian whisky is still often referred to a “rye”.
    • Crown Royal and Canadian Club are two common examples

I hope this quick outline helped highlight some of the differences and similarities among major whiskies of the world.  But there’s no substitute for trying them yourself!

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