Whisky is in the midst of a renaissance. You’re likely to find a whisky bar or two in every major city in America, and whisky knowledge is at an all-time high, too.
“Whisky culture has taken on a life of its own,” says Bartender Gregory Westcott of Hinoki & The Bird, in Los Angeles. “It used to be that I would have to talk someone into trying a whisky that they had never heard of. Now, they’re asking what we have that they haven’t tried before.”
Westcott and many other bartenders are finding that the real challenge is staying ahead of the whisky demands of bar patrons. To help you stay in the loop about this buzzed-about spirit, we’ve compiled a guide that covers everything you need to know about this popular spirit.
What is Whisky?
Whisky is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash, including corn, rye, barley and wheat. After fermentation, the whisky is matured in barrels for several years. The most popular whisky-producing countries are Canada, Scotland, Japan and the United States, but different forms of whisky are made all over the world, from Taiwan to Tasmania.
The recent surge of whisky popularity is part lore, part Hollywood and partly the fact that it’s simply a great spirit. “Much like a good cocktail, the fate of any spirit is a mixture of many elements that create a perfect storm,” says Ryan Wainwright, Head Bartender at Terrine in Los Angeles. “Whisky has been an inextricable part of our culture here in the States and particularly in the West. It will be here to stay for a while.”
Whisky or Whiskey?
You might be confused by the fact that sometimes there’s an “e” on the end of whisky, and sometimes there isn’t. It’s actually fairly simple: the spelling depends on which part of the world the whisky is from. In the United States and Ireland it’s spelled with the “e,” and in Scotland, Japan and pretty much the rest of the world, it’s spelled “whisky.” It does get confusing, though, because Maker’s Mark in Kentucky and George Dickel in Tennessee forego the “e” to pay tribute to their Highland heritage.
“Both whisky and whiskey are acceptable for labeling a spirit distilled from grain at less than 95% alcohol,” says Jack Daniel’s’ Assistant Master Distiller, Chris Fletcher. “There is a lot of history involved, and I believe it goes back to Britain between the 12th and 15th centuries, when the term ‘whisky’ had a Celtic meaning: ‘water of life’.”
Common Types of Whisky
Single malt whisky accounts for most of the Scotch whisky produced and is made up of one single type of malted grain, hence the name. Blended whisky, on the other hand, is created by mixing single malt whiskies from different distilleries to create one whisky. It’s very common in Scotch, but can also be found in every other whisky-producing nation.
The most well-known American style is bourbon. To count as bourbon, the whisky must be made from at least 51 percent corn. It also needs to be matured in first-use charred American oak casks. The last “bourbon law” is that it can only be distilled to 160 proof and enter the cask at a maximum of 125 proof. It doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, and some great bourbon is coming out of places like Texas and New York.
By the way, the folks at Jack Daniels tend to get a little annoyed if you refer to their whisky as bourbon. It’s actually Tennessee whisky, but you’d be hard pressed to find a major difference in taste. The only difference is that Tennessee Whisky is charcoal filtered, and bourbon isn’t.
If you’ve spent any time perusing your local liquor store you might have seen the words “cask strength” written on some of the bottles. When whisky is produced, it is aged in barrels for several years until it has matured enough to be removed and bottled. During that time, a large portion of the whisky evaporates—distillers refer to this as the “angels’ share”—and the alcohol content increases. Cask strength whisky is removed from the barrel and immediately bottled; unfiltered, undiluted and at a fairly high alcohol level.
You can also get other types like single pot still whisky, rye whisky and white whisky, but we’ll let you explore those in your own time.
What to Ask When Buying Whisky
It’s okay if you aren’t sure what you like, and there’s a whole world of different flavor profiles to explore. If you’re in a bar and you’re looking for a smoky whisky, say, simply ask the bartender which smoky varieties he or she prefers. If you want mellow, easy-drinking bourbon, again, ask the bartender for a recommendation.
Be clear about your preferences, and a good bartender should know how to steer you in the right direction. “Ask bartenders about their favorite bottles, and make friends with your closest liquor store staff,” Westcott recommends. Solid relationships with bartenders can pay off when they share inside info with you and introduce you to amazing varieties you’d never considered.
If you’re buying a bottle of whisky, you might want to research online before going into your local liquor store, but this isn’t necessary. When something piques your interest, ask an employee about it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because assistants are there to help and are likely to relish the opportunity to share some knowledge with you.
The Delicate Topic of Mixing Whisky
Many whisky purists would tell you not to mix whisky with anything, but even master distillers mix their whisky with water to open it up. You can always add a few ice cubes or even a splash of cola or ginger ale without getting too many people up in arms about it. Remember, this is your experience, so if you want to mix, that’s your call.
Most whiskies are distilled in a way that lend them to being enjoyed on their own, but bourbons pair very well with different colas and soda water and scotch mixes well with ginger ale and seltzers. Pretty much any well-made whisky works well in an appropriate cocktail. If you have a really well-aged or expensive bottle, though, you’ll probably have a better experience by drinking it on its own.
Why Aging Matters
Aging matters because much of the flavors associated with whisky comes from the caramelized, charred wood it’s aged in. The barrel is almost like a living, breathing thing and the whisky moves in and out of the wood, taking on diverse, strong flavors in the process.
Most whiskies are aged for a minimum of three years. Others can sit in a cask for decades, taking in more and more flavor the whole time.
Whisky Prices and What You Should You Expect to Pay
You don’t have to spend a fortune to buy a great bottle of whisky, and you can find great choices for around $20 to $30. Just because a bottle of Macallan 18 Year Old is $260, doesn’t mean a $50 bottle of Macallan 12 isn’t also delicious. A bottle of Bulleit Bourbon will only set you back about $30 and a bottle of Redemption Rye is only about $25. There is a vast world of whisky out there, and many deals to be had.
There’s so much to explore within the world of whisky, and even seasoned aficionados are always discovering something new. If you’re a relative newcomer to the nuances of whisky, don’t be deterred: you have an exciting period of discovery ahead of you. As Wainwright says, “Be excited to try and taste. I tell all my bar-backs and beginners that they are in a place I wish I could be back at.”
Join us for future guides to popular spirits, and in the meantime, check out our list of five alcohol-producing regions you need to know.
- Words: Christopher Osburn