What is Whiskey?Whiskey - in all its various forms - has perhaps the greatest history of any spirit in the developed world. It commands the most attention and the greatest price. Yet for all its history and grandeur and legends, it's nothing more than grain alcohol - which is little more than fermented beer distilled - that is aged in barrels to soften the flavor. The only thing separating grain alcohol from most vodkas on the market is the degree to which it's distilled. Since vodka is distilled to 190 proof where most whiskey is around 140, more of the grain characteristics are retained in the unaged whiskey. Still, the varieties and avenues of exploration in whiskey are endless making it the apex of a person's spiritual exploration.
Where does whiskey come from?Anthony Dias Blue in his book The Complete Book of Spirits mentions the first recorded reference to whiskey in 1494 when a Scottish bureaucrat wrote "8 bolls of malt for Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae." Thus begins the tradition of referring to alcohol as "the water of life" and Catholic ministers enjoying - and in some cases monopolizing - its consumption and production. The practice is estimated to have begun as early as 800 AD with Christians creating the aquavitae for "medicinal" purposes. The Latin aquavitae became translated into Gaelic as uisge beatha and later Anglicized to "whiskey."
How is whiskey made?The grain - barley if you're making scotch, corn if you're marking bourbon, rye if you're making rye or whatever mix or other grains - is soaked in water to germinate and then laid on the "malting floor" to germinate. The germination is ended at what is hoped is the maximum sugar content, where it is dried in either a kiln or over smoke. The types of grains and the method in drying can both introduce different flavor characteristics in the whiskey. Dried over peat, for example, creates a distinct smoke or "peat reek" so famous in many Islay scotches. Mash the grain to flour, mix with water and you've got "wort." Filter the wort and let it sit with a bit of yeast and it ferments into "wash" or "beer" or "wine" or any of a number of other names. Distill this and, hey presto!, you have whiskey.
Or at least moonshine. Whiskey comes out clear as vodka usually at a scorching 140 proof or higher. Some un-aged whiskey is blended down with water just like vodka and bottled as moonshine. The true art of whiskey is in the aging. Introducing the un-aged whiskey to oak barrels - and oftentimes finished in some form of wine barrel like sherry or port - introduces color, complexity, aroma, and other characteristics as the whiskey seeps in and out of the porous wood. Each barrel will produce different whiskey based upon duration, location, temperature, air, or many other variables. Distillers will blend several barrels together, use a single barrel, or whatever to produce the best possible whiskey. An "age statement" (say 12 years) refers to the least amount of time that the whiskey is certified to have aged but it can have whiskeys that have been aged longer.
Geoff Kleinman of Drinkspirits.com reported on the Buffalo Trace Distillery’s investigation into the aging characteristics of whiskey and mentioned, “There’s a major misconception in the American Whiskey space that older whiskey is better whiskey. This is simply not true. Unlike Scotch whisky where age is a better indication of the maturation cycle, the factors that impact American whiskey are not as easily quantified. American whiskey is often made from a majority of corn and aged in newly charred American oak barrels in a climate with fairly dramatic climate swings. Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, has the luxury of using a variety of casks (most often previously used ex-bourbon barrels), and is aged in a temperate climate with smaller swings in temperature.” He mentions an accepted sweet spot for bourbon at around 6 – 9 years and scotch closer to 18 years. All this to say, there is an extreme art in barrel aging whiskey and greater stocks with wider arrays of warehouses and temperature ranges to select from almost always yields better whiskey.
Who should drink whiskey?Whiskey exploration is a lifelong journey. While whiskey can be made into many different famous cocktails, most whiskey enthusiasts - particularly with premium labels aged for long periods of time - will prefer whiskey in its purest form. Many scotches are 86 proof (or higher if "cask strength") while single barrel bourbons can be even higher. Because it is difficult to appreciate flavor and aroma in proofs higher than about 70 or 75, you will never, ever, ever see a whiskey pro taste whiskey without introducing a tiny bit of spring water to the spirit. Drinking whiskey in this way is like appreciating darker or headier beers: it's often an acquired taste and not necessarily for the novitiate.
Biggest whiskey myth to bust...Age and price don't necessarily indicate the best possible whiskey. The world's most expensive whiskeys may be great for collectors but we have seen them described as "fatigued and spent" or, perhaps more charitably, "challenging." People who like a lot of smoke or "peat reek" may find themselves in small company if many others prefer little or no smoke. Bourbons under $100 can often have appeal that scotch can't match. Some prefer the spicier characteristics of rye while others the fruitier characteristics of younger (and cheaper!) whiskeys. Where price can be a generally good (but not infallible) guide in other spirits, this is the one place where marketing and market pricing should not dictate preference.
As an aside, there is much controversy over the spelling of this spirit as "whisky" or "whiskey." Generally, stuff from Scotland (scotch) and Canada are spelled "whisky" whereas stuff from Ireland and the United States is spelled "whiskey." International brands from India and Japan generally adopt the scotch spelling of "whisky." Either is correct.