So you’ve just arrived at your summer internship and your new boss is an old white dude, who – surprise – loves whiskey. Here’s a crash course so you can land that offer at the end of the summer.
What is Whisk(e)y?
Whiskey (or whisky in Scotland and Japan) is made from fermented grain mash, which is then distilled and aged in wooden barrels (also known as casks). Unless a whiskey is “cask strength,” the aged product is typically watered down before being bottled.
What the heck is a “fermented grain mash,” you ask? Well, basically it’s a bunch of grain that’s ground, heated in hot water, and finally allowed to ferment by introducing yeast. Often the grain is first “malted,” which means that it’s soaked in water and allowed to germinate before being dried. If you know anything about how beer is made, the process is very similar.
The important thing is that the type of grain used in the mash is one of the primary determinants of the type of whiskey you wind up with.
Major Types of Whiskey
- Scotch – Obviously from Scotland, Scotch is made primarily from malted barley and typically aged in oak barrels. Peat (basically, swamp muck) is used to dry the barley before it’s made into mash, imparting the spirit with a smoky, earthy character. If a Scotch is a single malt, that means that it’s only made from malted grains, and it’s from a single distillery. Blended Scotch is made from multiple distilleries’ products. Generally, single malts are more interesting and expensive, while blends are more consistent.
- Bourbon – Produced in the US, bourbon is made primarily from corn and aged in freshly charred oak barrels. A sweeter, more straightforward spirit than Scotch, bourbon has recently enjoyed a significant boom in popularity.
- Irish Whiskey – With looser requirements than Scotch, Irish whiskey encompasses a broad range of spirits. Peat is rarely used in the malting process, and it’s usually distilled three times (Scotch is usually distilled twice), imparting a simpler, smoother flavor profile.
- Rye – Similar to bourbon, rye is made in the US, except with the ingredients reversed – at least 51% rye, with the remainder usually being corn and malted barley. A slightly sharper, “drier” taste profile compared to bourbon.
- Japanese Whiskey – The Japanese have been producing whisky since the 19th century, generally in a style that parallels Scotch. Unlike the Scots, it’s typical for a Japanese distillery to produce products across a wide range of flavor profiles.
Whiskey Do’s and Don’ts
- DO be hesitant about adding ice to your whiskey
- DO add a few drops of water to your whiskey to open it up, if you’d like
- DO NOT add any type of mixer to your whiskey
- DO nose (smell) the whiskey before you taste it
- DO NOT guzzle your whiskey – savor the taste
Finally: whiskey should be unpretentious – don’t be afraid to ask other people for help or instruction, and don’t worry too much about the minutiae – just enjoy your glass!