by Taylor M. Vogel
People who drink whiskey have a tendency to talk about it, and people who are new to the whiskey world (and it is its own little world, indeed) often shy away from discussing it with other people. And I completely understand why: it’s so easy to say something completely wrong. It’s a complicated world, with tiers of product, where every brand markets their product so differently, so what might be the crème of the crop to one distillery is the bottom of the heap for another. There’s age stamps, mash bills, AbVs, proofs, regions, and a sense of pride about knowing everything about whatever it is there is to know about a certain label. And while I ascribe to the belief that you should ask whatever questions whenever you want, since this particular issue can frequently be riddled with arrogance and shaming, why would you? My hope is that after reading this article, you will be able to navigate the foundational principles that guide the whiskey world, get your foot in the door enough to navigate products that you will or won’t like, and enjoyably participate in the passionate discourse that some people relish having while feeling enabled to ask questions a little bit more confidently in the future.
Understand the Broad Category
The most common question I get, or most common misconceptions that I hear surrounding whiskey, have to do with what the product actually is. I have heard people from all walks of life say, “I love Scotch, but I hate whiskey,” “Bourbon has to be made in Kentucky,” and “What is Japanese whiskey?” So we’re going to start by talking about what all whiskey has in common.
Whiskey is a broad category that encompasses so many of the other labels that we hear thrown around the bar, whether or not they contain the word “whiskey.” Think of whiskey as soup: There are so many different varieties of soup. Some are named based on their region (Italian wedding soup) and some are named based on their contents (tomato soup). But they’re all soup. This is whiskey. Just as soup is a combination of ingredients sautéed, seasoned, and soaked in a bubbling pot of liquid, whiskey is a combination of grains that are soaked in water with yeast, distilled, and aged in barrels. It’s just a broad category.
That soaked combo of grains, water, and yeast is actually beer. The yeast in this beer mixture munch on the sugars produced by the grain and then expel ethanol gas. That yummy, yeasty beer mash is dumped into a still that heats the mash up and causes the ethanol (the alcohol we drink) and a few other molecular components to evaporate up into some nifty pipes. The collected evaporate is then cooled back down to a liquid, the clear drink of alcohol that will get you drunk. That clear liquid is poured into barrels, and aged for a variety of times based on legal specifications, production demands, and patience. It absorbs color and flavor in the barrel, while being pulled in and out of the staves, and is simultaneously exposed to oxygen (which creates some more nifty chemistry that I won’t go into here). Sometimes one barrel is bottled on its own, sometimes a hundred barrels are blended together, but it’s all whiskey in the end.
Choose Your Grains
hen we start getting more specific with our labels, we start naming differences in this process. As I stated earlier, some labels name the contents (tomato soup). Such is the case with rye whiskey, or most often, just called “rye.” To be labeled rye, the grain recipe must be at least 51% rye. It can be made anywhere, and it might get named something else, but it’s rye (recipe) whiskey (process).
Other labels are more specific about the region. These are the types that most people are familiar with. For a bottle to legally be labeled as Scotch, it must be produced in Scotland. There are a lot of other specifics that go into Scotch production, but it cannot be called Scotch if it’s made somewhere else. Many Japanese whiskeys use all the same elements as Scotch, but they’re not made in Scotland. They’re made in Japan, and thus labeled as such. Some people ascribe quality to these different locations, but I guarantee that every country can make both terrible and wonderful products. Different regions will impact the flavor profile of the drink, though, based on resources (type of oak, peat, grain quality) and climate (the greater the variance in temperature, the more the spirit is pulled in and out of the wood of the barrel while it’s aging).
While most of these regional names are pretty easy to determine, bourbon (whiskey) must be made in America, point blank. Not Kentucky. But it is strictly a United States product, which is fun. Again, there are a lot of other legal requirements, but if you hear of a bourbon, you know it is made in the United States. Bourbon is also specific to the grain recipe, or mash bill. Bourbon is legally required to be at least 51% corn, although it’s usually higher than that. The other 49% can be a host of other grains—rye, barley, wheat, get creative here—but that 51% corn gives it its sweet quality that is essentially the appeal of bourbon.
Location is also typically the reason that you’ll see it spelled both “whiskey” and “whisky.” The general rule is that if the country of origin has an E in the title (UnitEd StatEs), then the product is spelled with an E. If not, the E is absent, such as Scotch whisky. But of course, since the E is not legally regulated, it’s really just a preference of the distiller, so exceptions abound.
Decipher Your Labels
To complicate matters even further, a distillery can make a variety of different products—think of a distillery company in the United States producing both bourbon and rye whiskeys. The name on the bottle can be exactly the same (High West), but their products are different (Rendezvous Rye and American Prairie Bourbon). Same company, both whiskeys, different ingredients. Some regions are trying to garner legal protection for their “unique” product, such as Stranahan’s “Colorado Whiskey,” which tells you nothing about the contents, but strictly where it’s made. Most of these titles are not legal mandates. If in doubt, check it out… on the internet. A quick search of whatever terminology is on a bottle of whiskey more than these basics can tell you specifically what you’re about to consume. And while some labels keep their specific mash bills a secret, you can usually get at least a picture of whether you’ll be downing that spicy rye, peaty Scotch, sweet bourbon, or another combination.
You’ll also see age labels. While there are no legal aging requirements for whiskey as a broad category, certain subcategories must be aged in the barrels for certain lengths of time. That’s exactly what these age statements signal to us—how long it was kept in the barrel to soak up the oaky goodness or other flavors imparted therein. While age statements often disclose to us whether that drink is going to bite us on the nose with a potent sting of alcohol (younger) or have bonded those harsh qualities off with oxygen to create a smooth finish (think 20 years, my friend), they don’t always mean “good” or “bad” if you don’t like the grain something is made up of.
Yes, it does get a lot more complicated. But these are the first steps into the world of whiskey. Whiskey is a broad category that encompasses drinks made from distilled grain. That’s it. Know that it’s the big category, and if you can be more specific with your language when ordering, try it out. If you like corn, order bourbon. If you enjoy some spice and heat, get a rye. Want the earthy, smoky connection to a faraway land and tradition while you’re in the states? Order that glass of Scotch. Just know that if you only ask for “whiskey” you could get a huge breadth of flavors and styles from all over the world, so you might as well order what you like.
Have questions or comments about the world of whiskey? Comment below, or send Taylor an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out our conversation about alcohol in Episode 5: Alcohol.
Drink safely, legally, and with a smile!
Hi! I'm Taylor Vogel, one of the hosts of SHELTERED: the Podcast and each week, I'll be bringing you some written content along with the podcast that connects you and yours more deeply with the topics discussed on the show.