Things You Should Know About Whiskey

by Rhett Williams

I consider myself lucky to work in a bar frequented by so many knowledgeable drinkers. Many know not only what they want, but exactly how they want it made and are quality-checking my every move. On the other hand, many have no idea what they want, so my responsibility is to find something new and exciting, thereby encouraging a little education. 

There are also those who know what they want, but know little about it. The best way to learn is by experiencing, but most of these customers will pick something they recognize off the backbar rather than asking for some advice. We trust what we know, but this can be limiting - usually to products that care more about being recognized than being good-quality!

Whiskey is my drink of choice, so I feel compelled to share some general knowledge for those who are interested but can use some facts along with their dram. These are common questions and what I consider important information.

What is it?

Whiskey by definition is fermented and distilled grain. There are numerous sub-categories defined primarily by geography and the grains and production methods used. These categories are legal definitions, some very simple and loose (ex. Canadian), and some very strict and specific (ex. American). Here are the most common types and their general definitions (I am, of course, paraphrasing): 

Scotch: whisky (no “e”) produced in Scotland from malted barley (and often other grains), aged in wood barrels, and can contain colouring. Scotch has a wide range of flavours, many being earthy and smoky due to the burning of peat to dry out the malt. It also has a range of quality, with “single malt” regulations guaranteeing a good product, and “blended” guaranteeing nothing.

Bourbon: produced in the U.S. (not specifically Kentucky) from at least 51% corn and aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon produced in Tennessee including the extra step of filtering through maple charcoal after distillation. Bourbon is fuller-bodied, sweeter, and more approachable than most whiskies. 

Rye: produced in the U.S. from at least 51% rye and aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Rye tends to be dry, light, and spicy. It was the most commonly used whiskey in classic cocktails (bourbon came much later). 

Irish: produced in Ireland from any number of grains and blends (though often malted and unmalted barley) and aged in wood barrels. These whiskies tend to be more soft and subtle than Scotch with no smokiness.

Canadian: produced in Canada from any grain, aged in any barrel, and can contain colouring and flavouring. Despite being called and labelled “rye” for historical purposes, most Canadian whiskies are made from corn and contain no rye at all. This lack of regulation is why Canadian whisky is typically poor-quality. They tend to lack flavour, and with a couple exceptions should be avoided altogether.

I am often asked questions like “what’s the difference between Scotch and whiskey?” or “can you make my Whiskey Sour with bourbon instead of whiskey?” So, let the above be the lesson. These are all types of whiskey. 

While Scotland, Ireland, and the U.S. have the most history and reputation, many other countries around the world are producing great products, including Japan, New Zealand, England, India, Australia, and Belgium, just to name a few. Their production methods and regulations vary, but we won’t get into that now as you won’t encounter them as often. 

How are they labelled?

Most producers only reveal what they have to on a label, which varies by country. There are certain words to look for, like “straight” with American whiskey, which legally claims it has been aged for at least two years, and “single malt” for Scotch, claiming it has been produced only from malted barley at one distillery. The word “blended” refers to the whiskey being a combination of multiple products, usually from multiple distilleries. Having words like “bourbon” or “Scotch” on a label is verifying a certain level of quality - by law - whereas “Canadian Straight Rye Whisky” means basically nothing. That’s where category knowledge will help you out.

Age labels refer to the youngest whiskey in the bottle. This is to stop producers from adding a drop of 20-year old whiskey to 3-year old and labelling it as the former.

What does “blended” mean? Should I avoid it?

Blended whiskey just refers to the product being a combination of multiple distillations. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, basically all whiskies are blends unless specifically labelled “single barrel” or “single cask.” Whiskey can be a blend of multiple barrels, years, grains, or even distilleries. When discussing, “blended” usually refers to Blended Scotch Whisky, which is made up of 50-90% grain whiskies (ones made from individual grains) along with single malts. Blends make up for about 90% of Scotland’s whisky production, and are some of the top-selling spirits in the world (including the #1-selling whisky, Johnnie Walker). Like everything else, there are good and bad ones.

If I don’t like one brand, should I avoid everything they make?

No! Basically every distillery has multiple products made in multiple ways. Just because you don’t like one particular product doesn’t mean that the single barrel or sherry-casked version isn’t much better. For example, Johnnie Walker Blue, Black, and Green are all considerably higher quality than Red. For a broader example, Jim Beam White Label is produced by the same company as Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek, which is a diverse range of bourbon.

How should I be drinking it?

There is no “right” way to drink it. It’s your drink and you can enjoy it any way you please. Just know that diluting it too much or chilling it will both reduce aroma and flavour. Lowering the temperature of your mouth essentially numbs the palate, so you will experience less if you have it on the rocks or with a chilled whisky stone. (I’m sure I don’t need to mention that adding any kind of soda or mixer will mask the flavour of the whiskey entirely).

There’s nothing wrong with adding a little water. In fact, it can often enhance flavours by lowering the proof, allowing your smell and taste receptors to find more behind the ethanol. However, it’s best to only add a little and to always use distilled water rather than tap or sparkling, both of which can affect flavour. (Many whisky purists insist on adding regional spring water, but if you’re unsure or unable, just go with distilled). Spirits over 50% ABV will benefit from a little water.

Also, a quick rule for bartenders: no one should water another’s whisky - always serve water on the side. 

And of course, if you’re in the mood for a cocktail, a properly-made Old-Fashioned (spirit, bitters, sugar, water) is the simplest, purest, and oldest drink there is. It’s the best way to enjoy your whiskey if you want to mix it, with the Manhattan and Sazerac to follow.

Does higher price mean higher quality?

No - though this is a better bet than a lot of other spirits (particularly vodka and brandy). A general rule is that the product price should match the difficulty of its production. That is why whiskies produced in small volumes or old-ages cost more than young whiskies mass-produced across multiple distilleries. Some companies slyly take advantage of this and market their products as “premium” or “top-shelf” and price them higher, when they’re actually just selling average (or sometimes poor-quality) spirits. Trust your taste-buds before you trust a price-tag!

Bigger reputation doesn’t mean better quality either. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The brands that advertise the most should make you wonder why they’re not spending these resources on developing and improving their products. If you’re not sure where to start, get some advice from a bartender, friend, or do a little research on your own. Don’t just choose what you recognize on a shelf. 

Who should enjoy it?

Everyone! Whiskey isn’t “an old man’s drink” (In fact, no drink should be gender specific, but that’s another rant altogether.). It’s not always harsh and dark brown and high-proof. In fact, many whiskies are soft, approachable, and sweet. A bad product or bad experience can be off-putting, but remember that there is a lot of diversity by type, style, region, and quality. Some whiskies taste like you ate the remains of yesterday’s campfire, some taste like honey and tree fruit, and some taste like buttery toast and vanilla. Try every style you can and find what you like.

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