Everything you need to know about Whiskey

Lynchburg, Tennessee (TFC) – As whiskey struts back into vogue, it’s time to demystify the various incarnations. Contrary to the promoted image, whiskey is not entirely gut-rot liquor. The intricacies of whiskey are as subtle as wine. Scotch? That’s whiskey. Bourbon? Also Whiskey. Rye? Whiskey. Moonshine? Unaged whiskey. Whisky? Whiskey made outside of Ireland or the US. It all boils down to how it’s prepared, the ingredients, filtration, age, and many other factors. It doesn’t have to be confusing though.

Speaking in very general terms, whiskey is distilled beer with no hops. It’s made from grain mash or corn mash. The distillation process typically happens in either a column still or a pot still. Column stills constantly produce, while pot stills make batches. With very few exceptions, the distilled product is then aged in barrels or casks. The end product needs to be between 40% and 94.8% alcohol. Distillers often water down the liquor when it is finished aging. The main classes of whiskey are:

Bourbon: Produced in the US. It must be produced from 51% corn mash. The remaining 49% can be a mix of barley, wheat, or rye. Bourbon must be aged in new American white oak barrels that are slightly charred by flames. Straight bourbon must be aged for two years. Jim Beam is probably the most popular bourbon. Bourbons tend to have a sweet taste.

Tennessee Whiskey: Bourbon that was charcoal-filtered using the “Lincoln county process” prior to being placed in the barrels. There is an effect on the taste. At the risk of offending Jack Daniels, you’re not likely to be able to taste the difference until you’ve really experimented with the various types of whiskey. Gentleman Jack is mellowed with charcoal after it comes out of the barrel; the second dose of charcoal makes it easier to pick up the flavor.

Irish Whiskey: To those familiar with Irish history, it should come as no surprise that Ireland has about the most relaxed rules in the world concerning alcohol production. To be labeled as “Irish Whiskey”, it has to be less than 94.8% alcohol by volume, it must be yeast fermented, and it must be aged a minimum of three years. That’s it. The lack of regulation produces a wide variety of tastes. Typically, Irish whiskies that are exported to the US are very smooth and not as sweet as their American cousins.

Rye: Produced using at least 51% Rye mash, if made in the United States. Other than having at least some Rye mash content, Canada has no rules in place for labeling a whiskey as “Rye”. In the US, it’s aged in oak casks for at least two years. Rye is spicy and that extra bite makes it an acquired taste.

Jameson Image Source: Justin King

Image Source: Justin King

Scotch: Renowned Scotch lover Joseph Tye points out that “Scotch is not Whiskey. It’s Whisky.” Spellings aside, it’s made from malted barley. It’s aged for at least three years in oak casks, and it must be less than 94.8% alcohol. Now for the most important thing about scotch: it must be made in Scotland.  The distiller may add other grains or caramel color, but the best Scotch tends to be aged for more than seven years and is made from yeast, barely, and water.

White Whiskey: An unaged whiskey. It’s clear because it was never aged in barrels.

Inside the main classes, there are special and slang terms that can help you understand the contents of a bottle: 

Corn Whiskey: Must be 100% from corn mash. It produces a very bland whiskey that is typically used in blended whiskies.

Malt Whiskey: Typically made in Scotland with malted barley in pot stills. It’s most often aged in used oak casks for a minimum of three years.

Grain Whiskey: A whiskey made primarily in Scotland or Ireland that does not use malted barely. It is typically made from wheat, but can be made from any grain.

Blended Whiskey: Exactly what it sounds like. A whiskey made of a blend of the above.

Single Pot Still Whiskey: Grain whiskey with a little bit of unmalted barley that was produced in a pot still.

Irish Pot Still: Irish whiskey made with malted or unmalted barley. It is entirely distilled in a single still.

Single Malt: Made entirely with malted barley in one distillery.

Single Grain: Made with grain entirely in one distillery.

Single Cask or Single Barrel: Whiskey that was bottled entirely from one barrel or cask. This is one of the easiest special types of whiskey to identify by taste. Jack Daniels makes a good, moderately priced, and easily obtainable single barrel whiskey.

Bootleg whiskey: Today, it means whiskey that hasn’t had taxes paid on it. It may have been produced in a commercial distillery, so it does not qualify as “moonshine.”

Old Bourbon: Refers to Bourbon made in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

No Age Statement: A whiskey without a defined period of aging. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad bottle. Many of the most popular and most awarded brands do not provide an age statement. As whiskey reenters vogue, expect more brands to drop their age statements. The demand for whiskey is outstripping the supply of aged barrels.

Moonshine: Unaged whiskey. It typically has an extremely high alcohol content. Even though it’s in style right now to label all white whiskey as “moonshine,” a purist will tell that it isn’t really ‘shine unless it was made without paying taxes in an unregulated and unpermitted still. Growing up where I did, I’ve known many moonshiners. They take a great deal pride in their product. Most of the time it is completely safe. You should probably view the stories about people going blind from it with the same incredulity you view claims of reefer madness. That being said, it’s illegal and it’s an unregulated product and the government is always right and something about liability, so don’t drink it.

Cask Strength Whiskey: Whiskey is stronger in the barrel before it is watered down and bottled. Sometimes a distiller will issue a small run of bottles filled with cask strength whiskey. It’s a novelty and interesting, but not always the best taste. Maker’s Mark offers a cask strength whiskey that isn’t bad. It’s about 20 proof higher than the normal runs. Most aficionados will tell you to dilute the cask liquor with water. At that point, I would have to ask what the point of purchasing a cask strength bottle was in the first place.

Boilermaker whiskey: Not to be confused with the drink you order at the bar. It’s a reference to cheap whiskey that workers drank in a bygone era. It was said to be to so harsh that it could be used to clean the boilers in the basements of buildings. Today, it refers to the stuff in the plastic bottles on the bottom shelf in the liquor store.

86 whiskey: The legend says that back in the days of the wild west, 86 proof whiskey was “women’s whiskey” and considered weak. To serve a man 86 proof whiskey was a semi-polite way of showing him the door. While the legend is fun to note, the historian in me has to say that it is almost certainly false.

Barley legal: Any whiskey that has been aged for 18 years.

Black whiskey: When a whiskey is called “black” it was typically aged in a barrel that was heavily charred. The charred barrel made the whiskey darker.

Red eye whiskey: Unaged and typically illegally-produced whiskey that has had a coloring agent added to make it appear as though it was aged. The odds of running across it in the US are slim to none. If you do, don’t drink it. If the producer is adding coloring in an attempt to trick you, there’s no telling what else was added.

How do you drink whiskey?

There are some conventions about mixing whiskey, but they’ve really fallen by the wayside. My personal advice is to slowly sip a whiskey neat until you’ve picked up the flavor. After that, do whatever you want.