What do Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Frank Sinatra have in common? Turns out they were all fans of whiskey, the bewitching, amber-hued elixir that also counts Michael Jordan, Mila Kunis, and Prince Harry among its long list of enthusiasts.
But what exactly is whiskey? At its most basic, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains like corn, barley, wheat, or rye that’s aged in wood. Unlike brandy, which is basically distilled wine, whiskey doesn’t have a pre-distilled alter ego.
Distillation — basically boiling away water to concentrate whatever is left — was developed in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, as a way to produce potent perfumes. Before long, early tipplers appropriated the process for spirits. European monks, working as missionaries in the British Isles, are credited with creating whiskey when they decided to ferment and distill mash made from leftover barley rather than the more typical fruit or honey. It was rough stuff, consumed when it was young and clear, likely with herbs or other flavorings added to make it more palatable. No one seemed to mind. By 1494, whiskey, then called aqua vitae, or water of life, had become so popular that King James IV of Scotland ordered “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
Everything changed around 1536, when King Henry VIII dissolved the monastic system in England. Suddenly homeless and needing employment, many monks took their whiskey know-how to the private sector and opened their own distilleries throughout the kingdom. Before long, each region developed a signature style that, over the years, evolved into Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, two similar, yet markedly different, spirits.
Scotch as we know it — fragrant, flavorful, and aged to a deep gold — was likely a lucky accident that came about as fresh whisky was loaded into barrels to be delivered. No one will ever know what delayed that first carload of barreled whisky, but the resulting spirit was a revolution. It was being quaffed to such an extent that by 1725 the English had passed a malt tax so steep that it threatened production. Innovative distillers shifted manufacturing from day to night and began to refer to their product as moonshine.
Distillers looking to create anything labeled Scotch must follow a highly regulated process. In most cases, it starts with the ingredients, which are grain, water, and yeast. Single malt and blended Scotch whiskies are made with malted barley; Scottish grain whisky can be produced from any cereal grains. Caramel coloring is also allowed. Finally, Scotch must be not only made in Scotland, but also aged there in oak casks, for at least three years.
Scotland is divided into five whisky-making regions: Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. Each has its own clearly defined characteristics, ranging from the lighter lowland malts to those distilled on Islay, which are generally regarded as the heaviest. Single malt Scotch comes from a single distillery; blends are exactly that, a combination of whiskies from various distilleries.
But what gives malted Scotch its distinctive flavor? Peat, which imparts a rich, complex smokiness to Scotch, is most commonly noted. It makes sense because peat does generally make an appearance while the malted barley is being dried. Many Scotch connoisseurs, though, believe that since not all Scotch is exposed to peat, it’s more about the actual distilling process, which leaves traces of unique and flavorful impurities called congeners.
Ireland received its first royal charter to produce whiskey — the “e” was added to differentiate the product from Scotch whisky — in 1608 when Sir Thomas Phillips set up a distillery on the River Bush. Incorporated as Bushmills in 1784, it is still in operation. Known for its silky smoothness and hint of vanilla, Irish whiskey, like Scotch whisky, comes in a variety of formats, including single malts and blends. Single grain whiskey is a bit of a misnomer. It can include a variety of grains but must be made at a single distillery. Pot still whiskies are made the old-fashioned way, using a one-batch pot still instead of a speedier continuous still.
Throughout the 19th century, Irish whiskey was a worldwide phenomenon, with cases being imported not just throughout England — where it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I — but to the United States, South America, and Asia as well. Unfortunately, two world wars, a trade war between England and Ireland, and Prohibition in the United States left Ireland’s distilling industry so decimated that by 1966, only three distilleries remained operational. Worse, moonshiners had labelled their cheapest rot gut whiskey as Irish, which gave Americans the sense that Irish whiskey was a subpar product. By the time the world had righted itself, drinkers had moved on to Scotch and other whiskies. These days, Irish whiskey is seeing a huge resurgence, with more than 30 distilleries turning out nuanced whiskies that are growing at a rate of about 10 percent each year. Proponents love the spirit’s lighter, floral character; lower price point than top Scotches and bourbons; artisanal character; and cool flavors coming from aging in casks — sometimes fashioned from Japanese mizunara oak as well as those previously used for wine and Cognac.
In the 1600s, when colonists from England began to migrate across the Atlantic to the New World, they not only took their love of distilled spirits with them but their ability to make them as well. Though some whiskey was produced, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the most popular spirit in the Colonies was rum, which was imported from the West Indies.
During the Revolutionary War, though, British blockades made rum nearly impossible to find. Realizing that their crops of whiskey-making grains — which at the time was mostly rye — would be more profitable sold as liquid assets rather than in solid form, farmers took advantage of the situation and revved up whiskey production. The business became so profitable that, during George Washington’s presidency at the behest of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress passed an excise tax on American whiskey. Distillers in western Pennsylvania revolted in what would become known as the Whiskey Rebellion. They promptly moved their operations into the woods and west to states like Tennessee and Kentucky. Once there, they began to use corn and wheat, instead of rye, to produce their whiskey.
The tradition of aging whiskey in charred barrels was brought about by early distributors, who felt that the spirit would gain more respect (and fetch a higher price) in markets like New Orleans if it resembled French Cognac.
Bourbon’s first boom arrived, ironically, with Prohibition, when six Kentucky distilleries used nothing more than a label change to transform their liquor into “medicinal” whiskey. By the time Prohibition was repealed, Kentucky had cemented itself as the bourbon capital of the United States. In 1964, Congress declared bourbon a distinctive product of the United States. It created a set of standards that required that it consist of at least 51 percent corn and be aged in brand new, charred, American oak containers. Although the guidelines don’t limit production to the state of Kentucky, bourbon was not produced anywhere else for more than 40 years.
After a second surge in the early ’70s, bourbon lost popularity to vodka and other clear spirits. Things picked up again around the year 2000 as bourbon producers, taking note of the luxury Scotch market, began to enhance their product’s image with small-batch and single barrel expressions. The opening of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail in 1999 helped, as did a drinking shift toward cocktails. As bourbon gained popularity, so did its siblings, particularly rye, which tempers bourbon’s sultry sweetness with bracing spice.
“I give a lot of credit for bourbon’s rise to bartenders,” says Tim Heuisler, an American whiskey ambassador for Beam/Suntory, which represents brands such as Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s Bourbon, and, of course, Jim Beam. “They used it as a base for Prohibition-style cocktails that were both approachable and trendy.”
No matter where whiskey is made, or what grain was used to produce it, it will be aged in a wooden barrel for two years or more. For some whiskies, aging in a particular type of wood is required. These days, though, as whiskey drinkers become more open to new flavors, distillers are experimenting with the flavors imparted by barrels previously used to age rum, sherry, port, madeira, bourbon, and even cider. “People’s palettes are changing and they’re willing to try something new,” says Alex Boykin, specialty spirits manager with Columbia’s Aleph Wines.
Ready to give bourbon, scotch, rye, or whiskey a try? Dave Ward, head bartender at il Giorgione Pizzeria and Wine Bar, suggests heading to your favorite bar and chatting with the bartender. “Tell us some of the flavors you enjoy, and we can help you find something you like, either to sip straight or as part of a cocktail,” he says. “It may take a few tries, but that’s part of the fun.”
Shane Baker, co-owner of Kentucky’s Wilderness Trail Distillery, offers these tips for tasters:
Start with a clean palate by just sipping water in advance of the tasting.
With sniffing and sipping, allowing the glass to open up for a few minutes after pouring helps really pull out the aromas.
Be sure to open your mouth when smelling to get those flavors hitting all sensory areas.
When sipping, try and hold the liquid in your mouth, swishing around a little for the mouthfeel and tongue to be exposed as well.
Follow that with a sample of chocolate or stone fruit and try another sip to sense how the flavors marry together or complement each other.
Tim Heuisler says that after your first sip or two, consider adding a bit of water or an ice cube to your glass and note how the bourbon changes.
This cocktail was developed by Beam Suntory to showcase Legent Bourbon, which is distilled by Fred Noe, seventh-generation master distiller of Jim Beam, and blended by Shinji Fukuyo, fifth-ever chief blender of Suntory, the founding house of Japanese whisky, who ages it in both sherry and wine casks before blending.
1½ parts Legent Bourbon
½ part Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur
½ part lemon juice
¼ part simple syrup
Combine ingredients in a shaker, shake, then strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
Black Walnut Old Fashioned
Most whiskies use a sour mash to begin the fermentation process; Wilderness Trail gets its signature soft finish from sweet mash.
2 ounces Wilderness Trail Small Batch Bourbon
1 ounce simple syrup made with equal parts of water and demerara sugar
3 dashes of Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters
Swirl & strain over ice in cup. Garnish with Luxardo cherry and dried blood orange.
Dave Ward loves this cocktail as a summer sipper; lower-alcohol Four Roses bourbon keeps them drinkable. “Warning: be prepared for your guests to drink LOTS of these,” he says. “They’re that good.”
6 mint leaves
2 lemon wheels
1 ounce simple syrup made from equal parts water and sugar
2 ounces bourbon (Four Roses bourbon is a good choice here)
In a shaker, combine the mint leaves and lemon wheels. Muddle thoroughly with a muddler to release the oils and juices. Add the bourbon and simple syrup and fill the shaker with ice. Stir with a cocktail spoon for 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
“This is a great classic cocktail that many have, sadly, forgotten exists,” says Dave Ward. “If Scotch isn’t your thing, switch it out for bourbon and you’ll have a classic Manhattan.”
2 ounces Scotch whisky (choose a smooth blended Scotch here, like Johnny Walker Red)
1 ounce sweet vermouth (Don’t skimp — a great vermouth, like Carpano Antica, can make all the difference)
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
In an old-fashioned glass filled with ice, combine Scotch and sweet vermouth. Stir with a cocktail spoon for 30 seconds. Add bitters and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Tim Heuisler is also a fan of classic cocktails; think of this one as rye’s answer to the Negroni.
1 part rye (or bourbon)
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part Campari
Stir all ingredients and serve up or on the rocks with an orange twist.