Even if you’re a vodka-soda or gin-and-tonic type of person, every self-respecting drinker should know a little bit about whiskey. And that’s especially true now that whiskey sales are projected to exceed vodka’s this year for the first time since 2007, making it the most popular spirit in America. So we wanted to tell you everything you need to know about the variety of styles and regional influences on this fantastic spirit.
SO WHAT IS WHISKEY?
Whiskey is any distilled spirit made from grain, typically (but not always) aged in oak barrels. There’s a wide range of categories we’ll get to in a moment, but nearly all whiskey relies on the biochemical magic of malted barley: If you get barley grains wet and allow them to germinate (a process called malting), they produce enzymes that convert unfermentable starch into fermentable sugars. And if you cook the malted barley with other grains, those enzymes will break down their starches, too—that’s why there’s at least some barley in most whiskies’ recipes.
The name comes from uisge beatha, Gaelic for aqua vitae or “water of life,” the Latin term used to refer to any distilled spirit in medieval times. Oh, and most American and Irish whiskey is spelled with an e, while most Scotch, Japanese and Canadian bottlings spell it “whisky”. Nobody seems to know why, but that’s the way it is.
This all-American spirit (it must be distilled and aged in the U.S. by law) is made from a mix of grain including at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred American oak barrels. There are two major sub-categories, based on the secondary grain used—rye makes for a spicier spirit, and wheat makes for a sweeter one. The vast majority of bourbon comes from Kentucky (it’s named for the state’s Bourbon County, location of a popular early distillery), but there are plenty of brands from all around the country. Some connoisseurs love to seek out “bottled-in-bond” bourbons, which means they’re bottled at 100-proof and aged for at least four years in a government-supervised warehouse. (The category was created in the late 1800s to combat the adulterated whiskies on the market at the time.)
Brands to try (high-rye): Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Old Grand-Dad
Brands to try (wheated): Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller, Larceny
While bourbon is corn-based, rye is (duh) rye-based. You can think of the difference in flavor as like the difference between cornbread and rye bread: Rye is spicier and dryer than bourbon. The category was hugely popular before Prohibition, but it shrank considerably after Repeal, and it’s only in the last 10 years or so that it’s seeing a revival, but it’s a big revival. There’s been some rye controversy recently, as several popular brands have been less-than-forthright about the fact that they’re sourced from MGP, a large industrial distillery in Indiana. There’s nothing wrong with MGP’s product—there’s a reason those brands are popular—but we’re all for honesty in booze marketing. (Confusingly, Canadian whiskey is sometimes called “rye,” whether or not it’s actually made from rye grain.)
Brands to try: Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, Michter’s
There aren’t too many brands of Tennessee whiskey, but, one of them, Jack Daniel’s, is the best-selling American whiskey in the world. The stuff starts off exactly the same as bourbon—as a corn-based mix of grains—but after distillation, the liquid is filtered through charcoal before going into the barrel for aging. That process results in a milder, gentler flavor, with more caramel notes than spice.
Brands to try: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel
Scotch is made in Scotland. And, yeah, it gets more complicated after that. There are two main distinctions to know about: peated vs. unpeated and single malt vs. blended. After barley germinates in the malting process, it needs to be dried to keep it from sprouting. Some distilleries do this with plain old hot air, while other use the smoke from burning peat. Peated barley yields a whisky with deep flavors of things like barbecue, iodine and seaweed, while the unpeated kind has a sweeter, grainier flavor. Peated Scotches mostly come from Islay, an island off Scotland’s southwest coast, and unpeated ones from from the Highlands and Speyside regions in the northern part of the country. A single malt whisky is made from 100 percent malted barley at a single distillery, while a blended whisky is a mix of different single malts and whiskies made from other types of grain. Single malt’s flavor can vary from batch to batch, so creating a blend allows a brand to have consistent flavor. Scotch doesn’t have any rules about what kinds of barrels it’s aged in, so distillers mostly re-use barrels from other producers, including bourbon, sherry, port and wine casks, which each has a different effect on the finished product.
Brands to try (blended): Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal
Brands to try (unpeated single malt): Balvenie, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie
Brands to try (peated single malt): Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardbeg
OTHER SINGLE MALTS
The Scottish distilling tradition is pretty influential, and so distilleries all around the world are making single malt whisky, from America to Australia. These vary quite a bit—some are very much Scotch-like, while others embrace their differences.
Brands to try: St. George (US), Brenne (France), Amrut (India), Kavalan (Taiwan)
In the early 1900s, Hiroshima native Masataka Taketsuru enrolled at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and fell in love with the country’s whisky. After working at several distilleries, he brought his expertise back home, helping establish two different distilleries in Japan. As should be expected, Japanese whisky has much in common with Scotch and tastes quite similar.
Like in Scotland, distillers in Ireland mostly make blended whisky, a mix of barley spirit and those made from other grains. What sets the country’s whiskey apart is that it’s typically distilled three times (most Scotch and bourbon is distilled twice), which yields a smoother and less intense whiskey. (There are a handful of Irish single malts as well, along with single pot still whiskies, which are made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.)
Brands to try: Jameson, Kilbeggan, Tullamore DEW, Bushmills, Redbreast
Our neighbors to the north didn’t have Prohibition, so many Americans discovered Canadian whisky when it was smuggled across the border during the Great Experiment. Most Canadian products are blends of whisky made from corn, rye and barley. These are allowed to be distilled to a higher proof than American or Scotch whiskies, which means most of their flavor comes from the barrel rather than from distillation (this is especially true of cheaper bottlings). There’s no real dominant style, so Canadian whiskies have a lot of variation in flavor.
Brands to try: Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Wiser’s
When whiskey comes off the still, it’s crystal-clear; it’s the barrel that adds the color. So whether it’s made by a true backwoods outlaw or a huge global corporation, moonshine is just unaged whiskey. The fiery illegal stuff sold in Mason jars that most people think of is typically made from 100 percent corn, but there are many variations. (Several mainstream brands also sell unaged versions of their signature products, usually calling it “white dog” rather than moonshine.) Without the oaky, vanilla and caramel notes from the barrel, moonshine shows off whiskey’s grain character, smelling like a bin of seed corn at a feed store. (Moonshine is often flavored with fruit or sugary artificial mixes added after distillation.)
Brands to try: Ole Smoky, CatDaddy, Hudson New York Corn Whiskey
Barley, corn, rye and wheat may be the most common whiskey grains, but they’re by no means the only grains out there. Creative distilleries have been experimenting with everything from quinoa to millet to oats to make truly unique whiskies unlike anything else out there. Others are experimenting with distilling craft beers (after all, beer is just fermented barley) like stouts and IPAs.
Brands to try: Charbay R5, Koval, Corsair, Rogue
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.