Whether you love whiskey or are just dipping your toe into the amber ocean, here is a basic guide to help you navigate the spirit’s seas. Let’s begin at the beginning — or from the grain up.
What is whiskey?
Whiskey is alcohol distilled from a fermented grain mash.
What is the difference between whiskey, whisky, scotch, and bourbon?
Simple: where they are from. Bourbon is whiskey made from 51% corn (among other requirements). Scotch is distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley (see the full legal definition here). Whisky and whiskey mean the same thing, but the former is used for for Scottish, Japanese, and Canadian whisky and the latter for Irish and American whiskey (although not always — Maker’s Mark is “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky”).
Wait. What is “Straight” Bourbon Whisky?
Bourbon does not have an aging minimum, but straight bourbon whisky does — it must be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. Same with straight whisky. Source.
OK, I’m with you so far. What is the difference between single malt and blended scotch?
Single malt scotch whisky has been distilled in one or more batches at a single distillery, from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals, and in pot stills. There is also single grain scotch whisky, which is scotch whisky that has been distilled at a single distillery except single malts and blended scotches.
A blended scotch whisky is a blend of two or more scotch whiskies (two or more single malts = blended malt scotch whisky, two or more single grains = blended grain scotch whisky, and one or more single malts + one or more single grains = blended scotch whisky).
Kayleigh Kulp at The Daily Beast writes that the goal of a single malt “is to achieve very distinctive flavors and nuances that exemplify a single distillery’s style.” Blends “create a smooth and versatile product that allows various styles of whisky to dance harmoniously together in a glass.” Source.
What does it mean when scotch is “peaty”?
Imagine a campfire. Now imagine a campfire in your mouth.
Peat is a “partially carbonized vegetable tissue formed by partial decomposition in water of various plants.” Source. In Scotland, peat fuels the fires that dry the malted barley used in whisky production, and the longer the grain is exposed to the fire the smokier the finished product will be.
I have the sudden urge to make a s’more. What is the difference between small batch and single barrel?
Small batch refers to whiskey produced by mixing the contents of a small number of barrels, but because there is no strict legal definition the “small number” can range from around 9 (Jefferson’s Reserve Very Small Batch) to 100 barrels (Bernheim Original).
Single barrel, on the other hand, means that the whiskey in the bottle comes from a single barrel and not a blend of the contents of various barrels. Rather than overall consistency, single barrel whiskeys showcase the particular expression of each barrel.
Okay. I have finally chosen a bottle: Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond. But what does “bottled in bond” mean?
It means the spirit in question has been bottled in bond under United States Government supervision. The con: red tape. The pro: you are guaranteed a spirit that is:
- Composed of the same kind of spirits produced from the same class of materials
- Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery
- Stored for at least four years in wooden containers wherein the spirits have been in contact with the wood surface except for gin and vodka which must be stored for at least four years in wooden containers coated or lined with paraffin or other substance which will preclude contact of the spirits with the wood surface
- Unaltered from their original condition or character by the addition or subtraction of any substance other than by filtration, chill proofing, or other physical treatments (which do not involve the addition of any substance which will remain incorporated in the finished product or result in a change in class or type)
- Reduced in proof by the addition of pure water only to 100 degrees of proof
- Bottled at 100 degrees of proof. Source.
Speaking of proof — what is it?
Proof is alcohol proof, or alcohol content. Sometimes it appears as a percentage: for example, Maker’s Mark is 45% alc./vol. (alcohol by volume or ABV). To find the percentage of alcohol from a proof, just divide by two — so a bottled in bond whiskey would be 100 proof or 50% ABV. By US law, whiskey must be bottled at not less than 80 proof or 40% ABV. (You can see a cool list of spirits and their average proofs or ABVs here.)
Okay. I think that’s all I wanted to know.
Wait! Let me tell you about cask strength.
OK, OK. Tell me about Cask Strength.
Cask strength or barrel proof whiskey has literally gone from barrel to bottle with no dilution. Because of aging variables — like the type and quality of casks, the temperature and humidity of the warehouse, or even the position of the barrel within it — there is no set ABV for cask strength spirits and no two bottlings will be the same.
The cool thing about cask strength is that you control dilution. You might start sipping neat and taste the unfettered burn of the cask strength spirit, and then gradually add water or an ice cube and experience the spirit at various proof points. That, says G. Clay Whittaker, is “the selling point for cask strength: experiencing various evolutions of flavor in one glass.” Source.
The cool thing about whiskey is there there’s always a new one to put in that glass.
Are you done?
I can drink now?