Whiskey River take my mind
Don’t let her mem’re torture me
Whiskey River don’t run dry
You’re all I’ve got, take care of me
Words from Willie Nelson’s famous rendition of “Whiskey River.” We’ve all heard the song and we all love it. Many of you may also love whiskey, but do you really know what whiskey is? I didn’t, but after a fun and informative “Whiskey and Cheese” class in New York City recently, I’m a little bit more, shall we say, whiskey wise.
My girlfriends and I weren’t sure what I signed them up for with the class, but it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. It was set up much like a wine tasting, with several glasses of whiskey positioned in front of us along with perfectly paired cheeses. The class was held at Murray’s Cheese in the West Village and was brilliantly led by Jon Lundbom and Jordan Zimmerman, a whiskey and cheese connoisseur, respectively.
The whiskeys we sampled were:
Hudson New York Corn Whiskey – which is surprisingly clear and looked more like vodka than whiskey. It is a true American spirit distilled one batch at a time, is soft to the taste, and no sugar is added.
Glenmorangie The Original – floral and fruity Scottish barley-based Scotch
Weller Special Reserve – wheated and very smooth Bourbon and my personal favorite
Whistle Pig Rye Whiskey – straight rye 100 proof whiskey hand bottled on a former dairy farm in Vermont. This dark amber drink is big flavored with a vanilla and caramel touch that is creamy and “huge.”
Burichladdich Rocks – single malt rye Scotch considered “challenging” by many but respected the world over.
Elijah Craig 12-Year – straight Kentucky bourbon whiskey considered the “Father of Bourbon.” Firm, malty with a long, smoky vanilla finish.
When one thinks of “whiskey,” one probably doesn’t think of southern-style Bourbon or the oh-so refined Scotch. But, when truth be told, they are both whiskeys! So, what’s the difference between them and single and double malt? Wheat or rye? Barley or corn? Whiskey or Whisky? So many questions; so much to learn.
It can all get very confusing, but Jon was very good at making it somewhat simple. In a nutshell, whiskey is a term for a type of alcoholic spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains. (Our class was actually cleverly named “Do the Mash,” which at first reading I thought was maybe a typo!) Corn, rye, and barley are all involved and guess what, moonshine is a form of corn whiskey! Scotch, Rye, and Bourbon all fall into the whiskey category and the production of each one is very regimented and in some cases, historical. In fact, the manufacture of each of these is regulated by the government of their country of origin. Don’t mess with whiskey!
Flavor-wise, the various types of whiskey differ because of many things. Scotch is often considered more on the sweet side, Bourbon almost always tastes smoky, and Rye is frequently described as spicy. Jon also informed us that if you see “glen” in the name of a Scottish whisky, it will probably be smooth and sweet.
Which brings me to, what is it, “whiskey” or “whisky.” It all depends on where the stuff came from and sometimes even where you’re buying it. In the U.S. and Ireland, it’s “whiskey,” but in Scotland, Canada and Japan, it’s “whisky.” Don’t ask, just go with it.
As with everything there are exceptions. Bourbon is a “whiskey” because it’s from the U.S., although Maker’s Mark spells its name “whisky” because it uses a process similar to that of Scotch. Bourbon, however, must be aged in new white oak barrels that have never been used before. Surprisingly, Jon told us that many of the used barrels are often sent to the Caribbean to be used in the manufacturing of Rum! So, you might ask then, why is Jack Daniels not considered Bourbon? Because it’s filtered through maple wood charcoal before being aged in oak barrels, which is an extra step that isn’t included in making Bourbon. Jack’s friend Jim Beam, on the other hand, is true Bourbon.
Totally confused yet? Try learning all of this while drinking them! When all else fails, simply remember this:
Scotch is barley based and from Scotland
Rye is rye based and from the U.S.
Bourbon is corn based and from the U.S.
Irish is barley based and from Ireland Moonshine is Whiskey (okay, maybe this one isn’t so important to remember!)
Bourbon is actually the United States’ only true native spirit, while Scotch is a distinctive product of Scotland. “Irish whiskey” is whiskey that is produced and manufactured in either the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland, and “Canadian whisky” is a product of Canada.
Now let’s look at single malt and blended whiskey. Single malts are usually produced by blending whiskies from different barrels produced within a single distillery while “blends” are typically a mix of malt and grain whiskeys, though there are exceptions.
On top of that, there are two definitions of “blend” when talking whiskeys: a mixture of two or more whiskeys bottled and sold as one whiskey, and a blended whiskey product that contains a mix of barrel-aged malt and grain whiskeys. Keep in mind that just because a certain whiskey is labeled “single malt” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the product of a single batch or barrel. In fact, most single malts are blends in that they’re a mixture of several whiskeys. Bottom line: a “single malt whiskey” is not the product of a single batch or a single barrel, but of a single distillery.
Many people also believe that a single-malt Scotch is not a blended whisky, but it is. Single-malt scotch is indeed a blend, but it’s a very specific type of blend. Take for instance the wonderful single-malt Lagavulin Scotch. It contains whiskys from many barrels but they are all whiskys produced at the company’s famous distillery. Truth be told, nearly all whiskeys on the market today – bourbons, ryes, scotches, etc. – are blends.
Looking back on what I’ve written, I hope I got all this straight. I may have taken a whiskey class but am by no means a “whiskey sommelier.” If any of you whiskey drinkers out there read this and find some errors, please let me know! There’s a lot to remember, but as Mark Twain once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”