Well! I suppose since I've named my blog "Whiskey, Cheese and Crackers", it's about time that I actually posted something on that particular topic. (Oh, and that's "crackers" and in small baked crispy things you eat ... not ... well, you know.) So today we get to talk about, and maybe drink a little, whisky!!! Yaaaay whisky!!! Okay, those of you who look for this kind of thing have probably noticed a slight difference in the way I'm spelling "whisky" today, as opposed to the way I spelled it for the title of my blog. There is a reason for this; neither of them is a spelling error - rather, they are regional differences and, to a great extent, refer to two slightly different beverages. "Whiskey" is a more American spelling and generally refers to distilled spirits which are made in the U. S (and Ireland) - whereas "Whisky" generally refers to spirits distilled in Scotland and Canada. Now, you may be asking "whoopdie-fuckin'-do, Private Donut, why should I care how it's spelled???" Well, because you're an intelligent person (you must be if you're reading this) and it is proper to spell things correctly ... even when speaking. I mean, if you were talking to someone, you wouldn't go: "hey, I'm going two go over they're, you want too come to?" I mean, that's just wrong. So, when I created this blog, I was drinking Bourbon Whiskey, and so I used that particular spelling. But I think today, I'm going to talk about Scotch Whisky (by the way, in Scotland ... they just call it "whisky").
What makes Scotch Whisky different? Some folks would probably say "Bourbon, Scotch - they're all the same! It goes in my Coke, what the hell?" The same people would probably say "Kia, BMW, Maserati - they're all the same ...". Pfaugh! Philistines! Okay, in many respects Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskey/whisky are quite similar in that they are alcoholic beverages distilled from a "mash", which is made from grain and water and has been allowed to ferment. But there are many, many things (some small, some big) that make a huge difference in the way the finished product tastes.
For starters, as the old commercials used to say, "it's the water ...". Okay, that was for beer, but a batch of whisky starts out in much the same way one starts a batch of beer. Whatever else a distillery uses to make their product, they all use water ... and a lot of it. And that water can make a huge difference in the taste of the whisky. For example, Maker's Mark Bourbon uses water from a lake which is fed from a limestone spring - Maker's Mark has a sweet, mellow flavor. But then you have Lagavulin Malt Whisky from Islay Scotland - the water used has a much different taste and, along with the other ingredients and processes, results in a much stronger flavored whisky. So, yes, the water they start with (and hence the location of the distillery) can make a real difference in the end product.
Next comes the grains. Again, using the example of Maker's Mark Bourbon, in fact all Bourbon whiskeys, the main ingredient is corn. In order to be called "Bourbon" a whiskey has to start out with at least 51% corn. Maker's Mark Bourbon also uses wheat and malted barley. Single Malt Scotch Whisky, on the other hand, is made with only malted barley. This is another huge reason that Bourbon whiskey has a much different taste than Scotch whisky.
So what, you may ask, is "malted barley"? Good question - the harvested barley grains are soaked in water and allowed to germinate, after which they are heated and dried to stop the germination process. This produces sugars in the barley which will be used by the yeast to produce alcohol during fermentation. They are also heated again (or roasted) to develop the flavors more. Why is this important to know? Because the method used for heating the barley can make a big difference. In many cases nowadays, steam pipes or electric heat is used to heat the barley ... in some distilleries, such as Lagavulin Malt Whisky, they use malt which has been dried using smoke from burning peat. This adds a very smokey flavor to the resulting whisky.
The grains are ground or crushed, added to the water and cooked to extract the sugars. After this it is cooled and yeast is added to start the fermentation. This is much the same as the process for making beer, of course for whisky they don't add hops! During fermentation the yeast converts sugars to alcohol. It's after this point that the real magic begins ... distillation and aging. Distilling is, of course the heating of the fermented mash to release the alcohol which is then condensed. Many whisky distilleries will distill their product two, or more times before casking and aging.
Aging in oak barrels is usually the last step before bottling in single malt whisky or small-batch Bourbons. Aging will mellow the flavor of the liquor quite a lot and will impart the final flavors to the whisky. In the case of American Bourbon whiskey, it is, by definition, aged in new, charred oak barrels. The use of "virgin" or new oak imparts a woodiness and sharpness to the flavor of the whiskey. Some single malt Scotch whiskies also use virgin oak, but more commonly use oak casks which have been previously used to age Bourbon or other whiskies, or, in some cases, have been used for aging sherry. These used casks don't impart quite as much woodiness to Scotch whisky aged in them, but it is still there. Also, the use of used oak will add some other flavor notes such as sweetness or fruitiness. Aging can take anywhere from 3 or 4 years (for many Bourbons) to 18 years for some Scotch whiskies.
So ... why do you need to know all of this? Well, I guess if you're just going to drink whatever the cheapest bottle is that you come across, then you don't need the information at all. If, on the other hand, you want to actually enjoy what you drink, then you probably should know a little bit about what you're drinking. The more you know about what produces the flavors, the more you'll enjoy the drink itself. As the old saying goes; "life is to short to drink bad whiskey". So, what is a good single malt Scotch whisky to start with, without breaking the bank? One surprise is The Glenlivet ... it is relatively inexpensive, has a mild flavor with just a hint of smokiness. Good single malt Scotch whiskies, As for Bourbon, actually the Maker's Mark Bourbon I mentioned earlier is very good, so is Knob Creek.
But, if you've stuck with me this far, I'll give you some very simple advice for buying good whisky (or just about any other distilled liquor); if it comes in a plastic bottle - stay the hell away from it! Really... anything in plastic is crap. And, in general terms, if it's got a screw-on lid, it might be okay, but it might not ... if it's in glass with a cork stopper ... it's probably worth trying. (Two exceptions to the cork rule are The Glenlivet and Maker's Mark ... but mostly the rule works.)
Thanks for reading. Enjoy a dram of whisky with a splash of water ... see you next time. Slàinte!