Hate being cold. Hate winter. One bright spot that utter frigid weather brings me is the perfect moment for whiskey drinking! Whiskey’s like an internal space heater. I’m obsessed – started off with bourbon, ventured into scotch, and just discovered Japanese whisky which is amazing too.
Since we’ve got a few more winter weeks ahead of us, thought I’d share some fun basics about whiskey so you know what to order when you need to warm up!
Here are my 100% biased descriptions of each basic type:
Scotch is freaking awesome. I’ll admit that it took me a while to acquire the taste, but that was years ago and I’m now a full devotee. It has to be made in Scotland, and is either a single malt (single grain from one distillery) or blended (a mix of malt and grain from different distilleries). There are a lot of types of scotch from different regions with all different flavors, but I’ll get into those more tomorrow.
You can boil this down into two categories:
- Bourbon, which is all caramel and vanilla and dangerously delicious. It has to be made from at least 51% corn, aged in new charred American oak barrels, and made in the US (and anywhere in the US, not only Kentucky as many people think). My go-to’s are Woodford Reserve and Baker’s, but I’ll do a post later this week on a few new faves too.
- Rye, which is disgusting. (Warned you I was biased.) It always has this rough, rustic straw taste – gross. Like bourbon it has to be made in the US and aged in new charred American oak, but has to be made from 51% rye grains. Was talking to a bartender the other day who said he loves it for cocktails – I can see that. If you use it to balance something sweeter it probably would be good in the mix. Not a fan on its own though.
Have just started getting into these, but love them. Much more delicate than scotch, and love the ones that have a white floral component to them. Japan’s actually pretty new to whisky making compared to Scotland, having started in the 1920s. They use American and European oak barrels, but also have their own called Mizunara which can impart some floral character. The Yamazaki 12 year is one to try to get a sense of this sandalwood incense thing, but also has an ashy, black stone quality that’s awesome. Hibiki is probably an easier one to try at first – fresh orange, almond, and white florals, very light and approachable.
The only thing I really like about Irish whiskey is that Jameson is in that Rihanna song “Cheers (Drink to That).” I like how she says Jameson in her Bajan accent (Bajan is the adjective for people from Barbados, FYI – learned that when I worked at MTV and we booked her on the VMA pre-show). Anyway, the rules for making Irish whiskey are pretty relaxed so it produces a whole range of styles. Basic regulations are that it has to be made from yeast-fermented grain mash, in Ireland (obv), and aged for at least three years in wooden casks. Some of them are made from both malted and unmalted barley. In general, it’s lighter than Scotch whisky. I don’t really see the point of drinking it, so moving on…
canadianBlends a light base whisky, usually made from corn, with a flavoring whisky that usually has a lot of rye. Apparently it’s a lot lighter than other whiskies, but it’s possible I’ve never even had it so just relaying facts. Don Draper – who has Canadian Club on IV – would be appalled.
whiskey or whisky?
Both! In Scotland, Japan, and Canada, they go with whisky. In Ireland and America, it’s spelled whiskey.
how to smell it
You should smell it with your mouth open. This lets air pass through freely, and the backdraft lets you detect and “taste” more subtle aromas.
how to drink it
Up to you. You can drink it neat (just on its own) – I usually don’t, as I find some of them to be a little strong. You can add a few drops of water, which release some of the aromas. That’s kind of the classic way – if you’re really geeked out about it, some distilleries even bottle the water they’ve made the whisky with to use so that it doesn’t get at all compromised with your crappy tap water. Ice cubes: for scotch I’ll use a few small ones; for bourbon I like one gigantic one that melts slowly (I need something to hold me back from sucking it down like liquid candy).
If you’re trying to figure out what you’re tasting, basic profiles to look for are: cereal/malt, fruit, floral, smoky/peaty, sulphur, and woody. Try to pinpoint what you do or don’t like about what you’re drinking and base your next choice on that – just like wine.