SINGLE-MALT WHISKEY

How To Order Whiskey Like A Pro

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There’s something intriguing about whiskey that makes us revere it with awe — its name, after all, comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha, which means “water of life.” If it’s in fact the “water of life,” then let’s drink up! But before you lift that glass, you need to either A) buy the right kind of whiskey for your home or B) know what to order at the bar! There are several different whiskeys around the world and all are slightly different — made of different ingredients, and even given different names, like Scotch or Bourbon. So sidle up and find out what you should be looking for …

The Many Types

SCOTCH WHISKYS can only be produced in Scotland and are generally made from malted barley, distilled at least twice and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. Scotch typically has a smoky taste because peat (basically dirt) is used in the malting process.

There are two main types: single malt Scotch (made from malted barley) and single grain Scotch (made at a single distillery of malted barley and other grains, malted or unmalted).

Furthermore there are three blends: blended malt Scotch (a blend of single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries), blended grain Scotch (a blend of single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries) and blended Scotch (a blend of single malt Scotch and single grain Scotch).

IRISH WHISKEYS can only be produced in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and are aged for at least three years. Unlike Scotch whiskies, Irish whiskeys have a cleaner taste since peat is not used in the malting process. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled three times from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley and other grains. This produces a whiskey that is much lighter and more neutral than most others.

AMERICAN WHISKEYS are generally aged in new charred oak barrels. Some of the most popular American whiskeys include Rye whiskey, Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

  • Rye whiskey, is, as the name suggests, made from rye (at least 51%). It has a spicy, fruity taste. Originally cocktails like the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, and Whiskey Sour were created with rye.
  • Bourbon is mostly made from corn (at least 51% by regulation) and has a sweet taste. Brands include Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey.
  • Tennessee whiskey is straight Bourbon whiskey that is made in Tennessee. What differentiates it from regular Bourbon is that it’s filtered through maple charcoal before going into barrels for aging, which removes unpleasant aromas and flavors, giving the whiskey a cleaner taste. There are four brands: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Collier and McKeel, and Benjamin Prichard’s (does not use the filtering process).

How To Serve And Taste Whiskey

Whiskey is really best served “neat“ in a snifter at room temperature with no ice. This type of glass with its particular tulip-like shape helps the drinker enjoy the aroma and flavor. The heat of your hands also helps bring out more flavors in the whiskey.

When you get your whiskey, smell it, but be careful not to inhale abruptly as the alcohol will deaden your senses — it’s best to leave your mouth open as you smell the whiskey. Watch the video below for exact tips on drinking whiskey.

If you order a whiskey “on the rocks,” which means with ice, it will be served to you in an old-fashioned glass. It’s also quite common to order whiskey with water, which some drinkers say helps bring out the flavor of the whiskey. It’s a good idea to taste the whiskey first before adding water to see if it’s even needed. Try to use spring water instead of tap water, which contains chlorine that may react with the whiskey.

Whiskey Terminology

Grain whiskey refers to whiskey made from grains other than malted barley that’s distilled in a continuous column still, which produces a light-tasting whiskey. Grain whiskey is usually mixed with malt whiskey to create a blended whiskey.

Blended whiskey contains both malt whiskey and grain whiskey. It’s the most common kind of whiskey available. Brands include Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Seagram’s Seven Crown, and Chivas Regal.

Single malt whiskey is made from a single malted grain, traditionally barley, that is made in one distillery. The term is most often applied to Scotch whisky.

Single barrel whiskey means the entire bottle came from one barrel of whiskey instead of a blend from many barrels. This term is most often applied to Bourbons.

Straight whiskey is a term used for an American whiskey that is aged for 2 years or more in new charred white oak barrels.

 

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Bourbon Legends

America’s best Whiskey
Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as too much good whiskey.” Chances are he was referring specifically to bourbon, a spirit he was known to adore. But what exactly is bourbon whiskey anyway, and what makes it so good?

Federal standards, issued by Congress in 1964, stipulate that bourbon must be a grain mixture made of at least 51 percent corn, produced in the United States, and distilled to no more than 160 proof, with nothing other than water added to the mixture (aside from yeast). It must also be aged in new, charred-oak barrels, among other requirements. The term “straight” bourbon designates whiskey that has been aged at least two years.

Distillers have had tremendous success experimenting with the mashbill (that’s fancy distiller talk for “recipe”). Aficionados like to group bourbons into fancy-sounding categories. Below, a guide to the jargon and producers:

High Rye
Most bourbon mashbills contain corn, barley, and rye. The more traditional ones have 8 to 10 percent rye. A few bourbons stand out with a high rye content that makes for a bold, spicy flavor. Four Roses Single Barrel has the highest rye count of any bourbon on the market, at 35 percent. Other high-ryes include Bulleit, Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, and Old Grand Dad.

Flavors can vary: Bulleit is the fruitiest of them all. Basil (who was a pioneering distiller in the late 18th century) is the lightest of the Jim Beam Small Batch and has a nice spicy rye bite, but it lacks the full body of Bulleit. Old Grand Dad comes in three versions: 80 proof, 100, and 114 (that’s Basil’s image on the Old Grand Dad bottle). Both are made by Beam, so they are similar in flavor, but OGD’s three variations, of course, get bolder the higher you go.

High Corn
Bourbon can be much more than the 51 percent corn minimum; many are made from 60 to 70 percent corn. But very few exist with a really high corn content. Buffalo Trace produces Old Charter with a corn content of more than 80 percent. The other main one is from New York’s new microdistiller Tuthilltown Spirits, which made a splash in the market with its “Baby Bourbon”—made from 100 percent New York corn (yes, it’s legal to produce the stuff outside of Kentucky) and aged in new charred wood. Whiskeys with a high percentage of corn may come across with extra sweetness. Also note that there is a separate and distinct category of corn whiskey; these spirits must be at least 80 percent corn and can only be aged in used charred barrels or new uncharred wood.

Wheaters
While most bourbons are made with corn, rye, and barley, a handful of outlaws defy that tradition with a mashbill of corn, wheat, and barley. Whiskey geeks call these “wheaters” or “wheated bourbons.” This style offers a flavor profile with more pronounced caramel and vanilla and can be described as a tad softer. Maker’s Mark is perhaps the most famous. Others include the many renderings of the Weller label, Rebel Yell, and any of the Van Winkle bourbons. Rebel Yell is the lightest and youngest of the bunch.

Small Batch
No legal definition exists to define “small-batch.” Jim Beam’s launch of Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden brought the term to the public mind. In general, “small-batch” means that a distillery used fewer barrels to make a bottling than it would have with its flagship brand, like Jim Beam white label. Still, this could mean that a distillery culled the choice stuff from 4 barrels or 4,000.

Maker’s Mark draws on about 19 barrels for each batch. Some bottlings such as Noah’s Mill or Kentucky Vintage label their bottlings with batch numbers and the dates that the bottling occurred. In this case, the batch number is an in-house number assigned to each dumped batch of whiskey to designate it from another set of barrels that may be dumped, mingled, and bottled at another time.

Single Barrel
Unlike “small-batch,” the phrase “single-barrel” has real meaning. A single-barrel bottling is made from one barrel and bottled without mingling the bourbon with any other barrels. Single-barrel bottlings can be different from barrel to barrel, as each barrel offers different flavors depending on where it was stored in the warehouse and a variety of other characteristics, such as age and natural differences in the wood. Introduced to the world in 1984, Blanton’s was the first single-barrel bourbon on the market. Many others exist now, such as Elijah Craig 18-year-old, Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit, and Eagle Rare. Elijah is the oakiest, smokiest of the three. Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit has more chocolate and spice richness. Eagle is a good middle ground between the two, balancing 10 years in oak with a caramel smoothness. There is no relation to the phrase “single-malt” aside from the fact that both connote quality.

Classic Bourbon Cocktails
Manhattan
Old Fashioned
Whiskey Sour
Mike’s Milk Punch
Mint Julep
Derby Fizz
Sazerac Cocktails
Boilermaker
Orange Cooler
Horse’s Neck I

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Bottled in Bond

In days gone by, a bottler might label a whiskey as 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume, or ABV), and gosh darn it, the whiskey might actually be less. The whiskey’s coloring might even have been tainted with iodine to give the false impression of aging. Our dear federal regulators stepped in to protect us from fraud with the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. A labeling term called “bottled in bond” (BIB) was created to guarantee that the whiskey was at least four years old, made at one distillery during one distillation season by one distiller, and a bona fide 100 proof.

One might say this is the closest bourbon term to the Scotch designation of “single malt” because single-malt whiskeys come from one distillery and do not mingle with grain spirits or any other producer’s whiskey. Whiskey designated as “bottled in bond” was stored in warehouses considered “bonded” by the government. These storage units were under lock and key by federal agents to guarantee no one had tampered with the whiskey. Ages ago, whiskey lovers saw BIB designation as a sign of quality on a label. This term is a bit outdated and rarely used today as whiskey production standards have greatly increased across the board.

A few bottled in bond labels that still exist include the big bully, spice-filled Old Grand Dad 100 proof and the slightly minty and toasty Heaven Hill 100 proof.

Cask Strength
As the “flavor monsters” in the whiskey world, cask-strength whiskeys excite as rare treats. Bourbon distillate is typically diluted with water before hitting the charred-oak barrel, since federal regulations say that the bourbon cannot go into the barrel at more than 125 proof. Water evaporates out of the barrel as the whiskey slumbers in a hot warehouse, so you often see the proof is higher when the barrel is emptied than when it was filled. Therefore, most bourbon is cut with water again before bottling to bring the proof down to a desired strength, such as 40 percent ABV or perhaps a bold 50 percent. Cask-strength bottlings have not been cut with any water and feature full-flavored, high-octane whiskey straight from the barrel. This style offers great flexibility, because you can add whatever amount of water you like to bring the whiskey to your preferred strength. (You can always bring a whiskey at barrel-proof down to 40 percent or 50 percent alcohol, but you can never make a 40 percent ABV whiskey taste stronger.)

Jim Beam released Booker’s as the first cask-strength bourbon in 1988. The whiskey’s power amazed bourbon lovers with nuances of tobacco, oak tannin, chewy caramel, and fall spice. Others that titillate discerning taste buds are George T. Stagg, Parker’s Heritage, and Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed. Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, firmly believes in distilling at a lower proof to capture more flavor so its cask-strength whiskey is the lowest strength in this category at around 108 proof. It’s loaded with cinnamon and nutmeg spice. Parker’s Heritage is rich with dried fruit and toffee notes and has a very dry, woody finish. Stagg’s proof differs with each release (it has been as high as 141) and so does the flavor profile, but it typically displays an incredibly concentrated, layered complexity each time, and at 15 years, a bit of smoky wood dominates the finish.

Be warned: Drinking undiluted whiskey over 100 proof can be dangerous in more ways than one. Booker Noe, for whom Booker’s is named, loved telling the story of how his wife blew the oven doors off when cooking with undiluted Booker’s. What’s more, a little addition of water unlocks the subtleties of that concentrated flavor; you need not prove your vigor by drinking cask-strength whiskey straight.

Cheap and Cheerful
With modern whiskey production standards, you can bet that all the bourbon at the bar or store is “good,” even if you find it on the bottom shelf. Many inexpensive bourbons, which are younger and lighter than their older siblings, deserve respect. Very Old Barton can be found in a variety of proofs around the country, and all are high-quality bourbons aged for approximately six years. Various other labels are ideal for party punch; J.W. Dant and Bellows come to mind. Dant, available in two proofs, comes across as having slightly more maturity and a gingerbread spiciness. Bellows is lighter and very easy on the palate.

Trophies
A few bourbons stand out as limited, hard-to-find items that make excellent gifts and function as special-occasion spirits. Each year in the fall, Buffalo Trace releases the Antique Collection that includes a few bourbons like George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, and Eagle Rare 17. The Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old amazes many with its balance of flavors (think caramel, vanilla, cocoa, with candied dried fruits, all balancing well with the extended wood aging) despite its older age—and every now and then the company will release a limited edition of the 23-year old. Hirsch 16 has a fascinating sweet, grainy aroma that leads into coconut and toffee flavors with a lingering finish of spice and toasted bread. The distillery in Pennsylvania is now defunct—some bottles remain on store shelves, but once they’re gone, they’re gone.