20151230_151430Of course, everyone knows what whiskey is – but are you ever confused about the different kinds of whiskey? And why is it spelled two ways?

There are Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye – most people are somewhat familiar with these spirits. But then there are also Irish Whiskey and Canadian Whisky – add Japanese, Danish, German and even Indian to the list of different whiskies, and the subject becomes mind-boggling.

Is it Whiskey or Whisky?

Let’s see if we can simplify things a bit and clear up a few misconceptions about whisky/whiskey. First, the spelling – which should it be? One commonly-held school of thought is “whiskey” is used in the U.S. and in Ireland, while “whisky” is used in every other whisky producing country. And naturally, like many grammatical rules, there are exceptions. A few popular U.S. brands like George Dickel, Maker’s Mark, and Old Forester omit the “e” on their labels.

A second theory on the spelling is simply a matter of regional language convention – in other words it depends on the audience or the personal preference of the writer. Whatever theory you choose, a label’s spelling should not be altered when quoting it.

So, what exactly is whisk(e)y? Nothing more than grain, yeast and water. There could also be some additions like peat smoke (typical in Scotch) or flavorings like cinnamon (think “Fireball” whiskey). Although the ingredients are simple, the various regional distillation processes give each variety its 20151230_151041distinctive flavor.

American Whiskey – so many choices

Let’s begin with American whiskeys, of which there are a number of types, and some of the federal regulations governing the distillation of American whiskeys. Bourbon whiskey must be made from a mash that consists of at least 51% corn, and like most American whiskeys, must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume (note: this is not the final bottle proof), and barreled at no more than 125 proof. Only water may be added, no coloring or flavoring. And as with all the American whiskeys, except corn whiskey (often referred to as moonshine) and Tennessee whiskey, they must be aged in new charred-oak barrels.

Let’s clear up one misconception about Bourbon. Recently, I had a brief discussion with a young bartender who insisted that Bourbon had to be made in Kentucky – it doesn’t. Just look at the proliferation of micro-distilleries opening throughout the U.S. and the many fine Bourbons they are creating. But if they want to put Bourbon on their label, they must follow the regulations mentioned above, and they can’t call it “Kentucky Bourbon.”

Another popular American whiskey is rye. The production of rye must follow all the same regulations as Bourbon but must have a mash of at least 51% rye. Rye tends to have a spicier profile than Bourbon, 20151230_151355which has a slightly sweeter profile of vanilla and caramel.

What is “moonshine”?

Corn whiskey is made from a mash that consists of at least 80% corn. It is usually unaged, which is why it is usually a clear spirit. If it is aged, it must be in un-charred oak or in used barrels. Corn whiskey is often sold as a legal version of moonshine.

Moonshine generally referred to illegal whiskey because its distillers were avoiding government regulations and more importantly taxes. Typically distillers wanting to avoid the taxman would distill at night so that the darkness would hide the smoke from the still – thus the term “moonshine.” Although the history of moonshine was prominent during American prohibition, two hundred years earlier much of Scotland’s distilling was forced underground following the passage of the English Malt Tax of 1725.

Another type of American Whiskey is Tennessee Whiskey, which is quite similar to Bourbon. The difference is this whiskey must be made and aged in Tennessee, and then it must be charcoal filtered after distillation, a process called the “Lincoln County Process.” This is significant because Jack Daniels, obviously hugely popular, is a Tennessee Whiskey, but (technically speaking) not a Bourbon.

Scotch – different spelling, and different taste

Like the U.S., Scotland has government regulations for the production of Scotch whisky, the two most 20151230_150818significant being that the whisky must be distilled in Scotland (seems reasonable considering the label is using the term “Scotch”) and the spirit must be aged a minimum of three years in oak casks. Although the process that gives Scotch its distinctive flavor is a closely guarded secret, much is attributed to the soft water used by Scottish distilleries and by the introduction of peat in the kiln or oven in which the malt is dried giving the malt its distinctive smoky flavor.

There are two kinds of Scotch Whisky – Malt Whisky and Grain Whisky. Malt Whiskies, which have a more pronounced bouquet and flavor than Grain Whiskies, are further divided into four groups according to geographic location of the distilleries: Lowland Malt, Highland Malt, Speyside Malt from the valley of the River Spey, and Islay Malt from the island of Islay. These Malt Whiskies’ characteristics range from the lighter Lowland Whiskies to the Islay Whiskies, considered the heaviest Malt Whiskies.

Canada – popular with bootleggers

Canadian Whisky, which includes the very popular Crown Royal, Canadian Club and Seagram’s brands, must be produced and aged in Canada, be distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grain, and be aged in wood barrels for not less than three years. There are not many other restrictions beyond these. No specific grain type is required, and Canadian Whiskies may contain caramel and flavorings. Canadian Whiskies gained a strong foothold in the U.S. during Prohibition, as they were a major source of contraband liquor brought in by rumrunners.

Ireland – “It’s not Scotch.”

The newcomers

Although these countries are the most well known whisk(e)y-producing countries, many other countries are discovering the economic (as well as social) rewards of distilling whisk(e)y. Japan has earned a well-deserved reputation for quality whiskies, most of which are fashioned after Scotland’s single malt variety.

20151230_151313What country consumes the most whisk(e)y? By a large margin India is the leader in whisky consumption, drinking almost as much as the rest of the world put together – more than 1.5 billion liters in 2014! This dwarfs the U.S. consumption of 462 million liters. Too bad they don’t do much to regulate the production of whisky in India, as most beverages labeled as “Whisky” in India are blends based on neutral spirits distilled from molasses – actually more like rum than whisky.

So, whether you drink it “neat” (straight up), on the rocks, or in a cocktail (a few of which I have included here), whisk(e)y has a wide selection of types and tastes. Finding yours favorite can be hard – or a lot of fun. You decide.

Some whiskey recipes: (All of these cocktails should be mixed in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice – but DO NOT shake – just stir the drink. Each of these cocktails should then be strained and served either straight up or on the rocks. I like to use one “super cube” – an extra large ice cube.)

Vardier – (from Proof on Main Restaurant in Louisville)

2 oz. of Bourbon
½ oz. Aperol (an Italian aperitif- a great addition to many cocktails)
½ oz. port wine
2 dashes bitters (a peach or orange bitters works well in this cocktail)
1 (or more) brandied cherries for garnish (These are not that easy to find – so I made my own by purchasing pitted dark cherries, draining the juice and then covering them with brandy in a sealed jar – perfect garnish!)

Cherokee Triangle – (from the 8 UP Rooftop Lounge in Louisville)

1 ½ to 2 oz. of Bourbon
½ to 1 oz. brandy
½ oz. Aperol
2 to 3 dashes bitters (Peychaud’s Bitters is great for this cocktail)
Lemon twist for garnish

Forgotten Law – (from the Side Bar in Louisville)

2 oz. Rye
½ oz. Luxardo
½ oz. Demerara simple syrup (unwashed, raw sugar)
Orange twist for garnish

Scotch cocktails – to some Scotch purists this sounds like heresy. Well, yes, Scotch can be a difficult spirit to blend in a cocktail. But there are some tried-and-true cocktails that work well with a nice blended Scotch. It would be best to avoid using a single malt Scotch for these.

Rob Roy – (This is essentially a Manhattan using Scotch – it is a classic from way back.)

2 oz. blended Scotch
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters (Angustora works well here)
Lemon or orange twist for garnish

Rusty Nail – (another classic – this cocktail is generally served on the rocks)

2 oz. blended Scotch
1 to 2 oz. Drambuie (this is a Scotch based liqueur made with honey and herbs)

The ratio of Scotch to Drambuie is a matter of taste. Some mixologists will even start with a 4:1 ratio of Scotch to Drambuie.