Still wondering if you picked the right Scotch for Uncle Frank? Or did you end up picking a Bourbon? Can't remember which he drinks or if there's even a difference? Grab a bottle, raise a glass, and let's sip our way through the whiskey labyrinth.
First off, some basics: whiskey (we also accept the spelling whisky) is a specifically defined, yet broadly inclusive type of spirit. Much like how vodka is a spirit with many styles and flavors, whiskey is a category that has its own subcategories, AND, much like wine, these groups tend to get classified based on geography and ingredients. Popular styles like Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, and Rye Whiskey are all just different types of whiskey, each with their own sub-types… take a sip, because the rabbit hole goes deeper.
So what makes a whiskey a whiskey and not a vodka or a gin? This is where ingredients and process come in. When we ferment grape juice, it's called wine. Fermenting grain and then distilling it gives us whiskey. Finished products are typically at least 40 percent alcohol by volume (water is added to proof spirits down to desired levels) and are often aged in barrels to turn them from clear (think moonshine) to that nice amber brown.
There's a lot of different rules and regulations for each classification, so to make sure this is a simple breakdown, let's stick with some of these popular styles and look at the most basic definitions. Simply put, Scotch Whisky is from Scotland and Irish Whiskey is from Ireland. That's it. Have another sip. But there's also the whole Single Malt method, which is a highly sought after version of whiskey. This is simultaneously slightly confusing and pretty straightforward: whiskies made at only one single distillery and made only from barley malt. (Single distillery, malted barley, Single Malt). The implication here is that there are a number of products made by blending whiskies from multiple distilleries which were distilled from other grains. Is this such a bad thing? Not really, it's just another way of doing things.
People like the idea of one distillery making the product for the sake of purity and presumed quality control, but most single distillery products are themselves blends of whiskies that have been aging in separate barrels. A true whiskey purist should look for the almost non-existent 'single-distillery, single-barrel, cask-strength (not proofed), unfiltered, grain-to-glass (grows own ingredients)' whiskey. And should expect to take out a mortgage to pay for it.
Multiple ingredients can also be a great thing. For instance, as a grain, rye makes notably earthy and spicy whiskies. So depending on how much is used, different flavor combinations and intensities can be achieved. To be a true American Rye whiskey, you need at least 51% rye in the grain mash (the batch of grain to be fermented); the rest can be barley, corn, and wheat. Similarly, when using the typically sweeter Corn as the majority grain, you get Bourbon (and no, it doesn't have to be from Bourbon County, Kentucky).
It gets even weirder when you start talking about aging whiskey. Those American whiskey styles must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels (to maximize fresh oak flavor), and would be labeled as generic whiskey if not. Those once-used Bourbon barrels usually get shipped off for Scotch to be aged in (cheers to collaboration). When you see "straight" whiskey, that's just code for it having been aged for at least 2 years. Where the designations like "12 year" refer to the age of the youngest barrel used in the blend.
Believe it or not, that's just a rough look at the basics. Take one more sip, try to process it all, and then remember it all barely matters as long you drink what you enjoy!
For a quick taste of different styles, check out these offerings from Westfield's home for artisanal spirits:
NosVino, 127 Central Ave, Westfield.
Visit www.nosvino.com for more great options, plus details about free tastings and events!