There are few drinks that conjure up such a strong image of masculinity as whiskey. Men like Mark Twain, George Washington, and Winston Churchill all enjoyed their share of the classic drink. To fully enjoy a good glass of whiskey, though, you’ll need to know some basics about the spirit. A man ought to always know what he’s drinking - and, when it comes to whiskey, the depth can quickly become intimidating.
Whiskey is an incredibly diverse and opinionated beverage, so don’t take any of this as an all-inclusive guide. One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in the whiskey culture is the sheer range of variances available. If there’s any theme to this guide, it should be one of exploration and experimentation.
With that being said, here’s a basic overview of our favorite chest-hair-endowing spirit.
Whiskey - Made in Ireland or the United States.
Whisky - Made in Canada, Scotland, or Japan.
Cask Strength - Bottled straight from the barrel. The distiller didn’t add water to bring the whiskey down to a set proof. Not only does it have a higher ABV content, cask strength whiskeys tend to be richer and more full in flavor. Add a few drops of water to open up flavor profiles.
Age - The number listed as a whiskey’s age refers to the youngest whiskey in the bottle, not the average age.
Finishing - ‘Finishing’ refers to whiskeys that have already been aged, which are then aged a second time in a different type of cask, producing different flavor profiles.
Sourcing - Sourcing refers to companies that buy whiskey that’s made elsewhere and then bottle and label it under their own brand.
Mash Bill - This is the ratio of grains used in a whiskey. Bourbon has to have a mash bill with a minimum of 51% corn. Single malt Scotch has a 100% malted barley mash bill.
Sour Mash - Sour mash is a process that involves using spent mash from a previous round of fermentation to start the next batch’s fermentation.
NAS - “No Age Statement” whiskeys are becoming more and more commonplace in the market. Don’t dismiss NAS whiskey for poorer quality, though.
While we’re known for our bourbon, American whiskey is far more than a single style.
Bourbon - Bourbon contains a minimum of 51% corn, is American-made, and is aged in charred, new oak barrels. The key trait of exclusively being aged in new oak barrels is the main reason why those same barrels tend to be used for Scotch aging later on down the road. Some people believe that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky to be bourbon…. But, this is untrue. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S.
Tennessee Whiskey - Tennessee whiskey is another American-made staple. While it’s a variant on bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is it’s own style. While meeting all of the requirements of bourbon, laws require that it be made in the State of Tennessee while also going through an extra charcoal filtering process called the “Lincoln County Process.” Ever had Jack Daniel’s? That’s Tennessee whiskey.
Rye - American Rye has to be made with a minimum of 51% rye, by law. American Rye whiskey is made in charred, new oak barrels just like bourbon.
If you can’t help but mentally pronounce “Scotch” in Sean Connery’s accent, you’re already onto the point of origin of some of our favorite whiskies. It’s mandated that scotch come from Scotland, where it must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. The majority of modern scotch tends to be aged in used bourbon barrels and other casks (like sherry, for example). Scotch is also usually distilled twice.
Single Grain - This type of scotch must be made at a single distillery, but usually incorporates additional mash grains further than just malted barley. Single grain whisky runs on the rare side of things since most is usually used in blends.
Single Malt - Single Malt scotch is made solely from malted barley, and solely from a single distillery.
Blended Grain - This is a blend of two (or more) single grain whiskies from separate distilleries. Just like the single grain, this is also a fairly rare category of scotch.
Blended Malt - Blended malt whiskies are blends of two or more single malt scotch whiskies from separate distilleries.
Blended Scotch - Take a blend of one or more single malts with one or more single grains and you’ve got a Blended scotch. You’ll find that the majority of all the scotch sold around the world tends to be blended.
Regions - Just like Tennessee Whiskey is made in a specific region of the U.S., scotches are also made in different regions around the country. Here are the 6 regions deserving of mention: Islay, Highlands, Campbeltown, Lowlands, Speyside, and the Islands. Each region has different flavors and aromas that are unique to their specific distilleries.
It’s a no brainer where this special whiskey is hailed from. Just like scotch, Irish whiskey has a three year aging minimum. That’s about as far as the similarities go, though.
Most Irish whiskeys are triple distilled, and enzymes can also be added to convert starches to sugars before fermentation. Unlike the previous styles of whiskey, though, Irish whiskey is far more lax in their classification.
Blended Whiskey - Distillers must use the word “blended” for any whiskey containing two or more separately distilled whiskeys. The majority of Irish whiskey is blended.
Single Pot Still - This is a type of Irish whiskey made at a single distillery from a pot still, using a mix of unmalted and malted barley.
Ireland is home to the oldest licensed distillery in the world - Old Bushmills, which first opened in 1784. Ireland also is only home to 10 currently operating distilleries, seven of which have only opened up in the last decade.
Canadian whisky is strangely labeled as a “rye whisky,” even though it doesn’t even have to legally match the American minimum of 51% rye… or any rye, for that matter. Most Canadian whisky consists of a much higher percentage of corn than rye - the “rye whisky” bit just arises from the strong rye flavoring and profile.
Canadian whisky typically uses a blending of a very minute percentage of all rye whiskey to flavor a blend made from bourbon-styled whiskies and other grains. Canadian whisky does have to be aged for a minimum of three years, though, in a 700-liter wooden barrel.
Japanese whisky tends to be made in the same fashion as scotch. This is due to the origin of the Japanese branch of whiskies, which started back in the 1920’s after Masataka Taketsuru returned to Japan after studying distilling techniques in Scotland.
As such, Japanese whiskies consist of single malts and blended whiskies, just like scotch. However, they are not always similar in flavors. Where in Scotland a distillery may create a lone variety of single malt, in Japan it isn’t uncommon for a distillery to create a huge range of styles that use different still, profiles, and mash bills. These variances all add up to an increasingly popular style of whisky with a light and nuanced profile.
HOW TO DRINK YOUR WHISKEY
Drops of Water - This may seem trivial to a new whiskey drinker, but just a single drop of water can release a plethora of aromas and recognizable flavors for your palate. Take a straw, add a drop, swirl, taste, and repeat to your liking.
On the Rocks - We all want a chilling glass every once in awhile. Just be wary, though - adding ice to your spirit may dilute the whiskey past your liking. If you want the chill without the dilution, use a good pair of whiskey stones.
Whiskey Cocktails - If you don’t prefer the bold aromas and flavor profiles of whiskey neat, don’t be afraid to mess around with some classic cocktails. Rye whiskeys tend to be best for cocktail mixes because of their assertiveness and ability to hold strong in a mix. Check out a few recipes like the Gold Rush or the Hot Boulevardier.
Like we said at the get, Whiskey is as broad as it is bold. There are other places around the world that distill quality whiskey spirits, all with their own unique flavors and aromas. There are also plenty of other ways to drink your whiskey. We can’t cover them all - so, if you have some near and dear methods of consumption or different styles that you love, comment and let us know! We’re always down for an excuse to taste-test our favorite spirit.