Understanding Whiskey 

A Pre-Blackout Primer for Discerning Sots

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"WHISKEY" is an umbrella term. Beneath it, there are many styles and variations so subtle they cease to matter to those who seek simple intoxication. But let's be honest: If you didn't have time to kill, you wouldn't be reading this. Why not make good use of your time and learn something before you get too drunk to see straight?

Let's get down to brass tacks, dirty ankles, bare bones, the simple basics: To know whiskey, you must know how it's made.

"Anytime you take beer and distill it, you have whiskey," says whiskey expert Lance Mayhew. Okay, simple enough. Let's complicate matters a bit.

Both whiskey and beer start out as a mash, a kind of soup made from water, yeast, and grain (or a blend of grains). This same recipe when combined in different ratios and then baked will become bread. But we don't want bread—we want the sweet embrace of hard alcohol. In order to get alcohol, we need fermentation, which happens when yeast eats. Yeast loves nothing more than a hearty meal of sugar. As it eats the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. The more sugar there is, the more alcohol the yeast produces.

If a mash includes corn, there's plenty of sugar in the kernels for yeast to enjoy. However, if the grain is mostly barley (or something similar), it must go through a process called "malting." Malting increases sugars in the grain. The goal is to cause the grain to germinate enough to produce more natural sugars, but stop the germination before it goes too far.

So you've got your mash made of corn or malted barley or whatever clever mixture you've devised. The yeast is happily eating. Fermentation's happening. And you are still thirsty for whiskey. How do you know it's time for the next step?

"Generally, the yeast will die and fall to the bottom," says Mayhew. "Then you pump the mash off the yeast, into a holding tank." And soon the fun begins.

Now let's talk distillation. Essentially whiskey distillation is a process wherein a mash has been heated to a temperature that allows the alcohol to turn to vapor. The vapor rises as steam, then the steam cools back into liquid alcohol, and if done correctly, leaves everything else behind.

In primitive form, hillbillies practice distillation in corrugated shacks that tend to explode. This is because alcohol vapor is volatile, or "ornery," and becomes agitated when exposed to open flames, which heat the wacky series of tubs, pots, and tubes that pass for stills in hill country.

Avoiding explosions and barring certain complications (blindness, death) that may arise from collecting portions of the distillate that are poisonous, one is left with a crystal-clear whiskey. Done right, it will taste strongly of corn syrup or tequila, and will be able to slap the "purty" from your mama's face at a distance of 50 yards. This is the most basic whiskey: distilled, un-aged mash. This is your corn whiskey, your "moonshine," your "white dog." From here, the process becomes more sophisticated. And if all of the rules are followed, a humble distilled mash can become bourbon.

"Bourbon, by law, has to be made in America," explains Mayhew. "It has to be at least 51 percent corn mash. It has to spend at least two years in new American oak barrels." There are no additives or coloring.

Mayhew notes that the big flavors you get out of bourbon are vanilla and caramel. "If you don't know anything else," he says, "and you go to a party where someone's drinking bourbon, and you comment on how you love the vanilla and caramel, you'll get it right every time."

About barrels: First off, find a cooper (a person who makes barrels) and buy him or her a drink. They've done more for your drunkenness than you can possibly imagine. Also, their art form (and it is an art form) is dying. It's complicated and physically taxing. No one wants to learn how to arrange staves by hand and burn the insides of the barrels to create a perfect char. That char is important. It acts as a kind of charcoal filter whiskey passes in and out of while aging. This alone can affect the quality of a whiskey. The barrel is also largely responsible for whiskey's color. (And this doesn't even take into account the type of wood used in the barrel—different wood produces different flavors.)

Ninety-nine percent of bourbon is made in Kentucky, and as it happens, that's also where you'll find most American coopers. It's all linked back to the Rev. Elijah Craig from Bourbon County, Kentucky, who, around 1789, opened his distillery. Craig would transport his whiskey in used barrels that were charred on the inside, and upon delivery his whiskey would be caramel colored and have a unique taste. Being a smart man, the reverend named his whiskey "bourbon," and a national spirit was born.

Our other national spirit is rye whiskey, made from at least 51 percent rye mash. Rye whiskey is actually historically older than bourbon, rye being the choice of the Scotch-Irish distillers who first began making whiskey in western Pennsylvania in the 1700s. They were wily people who didn't like to be taxed, and gave George Washington a helluva time when he tried to tax them in 1794. Many of the distillers moved to avoid the tax—to Kentucky where corn was easier to grow than rye. Luckily, the tradition of rye lives on.

"[With] rye, you get more spice than bourbon," says Mayhew. "You get cinnamon, cloves.... Sometimes I get astringency, like really good black tea. It's a broader range of flavors."

There are whiskeys other than rye and bourbon being produced in America, but many are trying to capture the essence of whiskey styles from beyond our borders. The closest, geographically speaking, is Canadian whiskey.

"There are no rules with Canadian whiskey," says Mayhew. "You can basically do anything you want. You could add prune juice and still call it Canadian whiskey."

The most remarkable character of Canadian whiskey is that it's a bit sweet. (Canadian whiskeys love mixers. There's no shame in that.) It also remains constant from year to year—a 1971 Crown Royal, for instance, should taste exactly like 2009 Crown Royal.

Americans tend to malign Canadian whiskeys as often as we malign Canadians. But we're not the only whiskey makers with swagger. Just look at the Irish.

There is a debate that continues in the British Isles as to who were the first distillers, the Irish or the Scots. Honestly, whoever started it likely became too drunk to even remember they were the first to pump a porter into the still.

"So much gets dumped into the category of Irish whiskey, it's such a broad range," says Mayhew. But generally, Irish whiskeys are very easy drinking—they're lighter, a bit smokier, and have more fruit tones than American whiskeys.

Scotch whiskey, on the other hand, can get quite overwhelming. Scotch across Scotland was traditionally made in hard-to-reach places in order to hide from England's excise men who once sought to collect serious taxes from the distillers for the crown.

Each geographical region has a distinct flavor profile even though almost all Scotch is made with 100 percent malted barley. Lowland scotch will have a grassy, light, aperitif-like flavor profile. Highland Scotch, on the other hand will be a bit sweeter, with more fruit and sherry tones. But the peaty "Sharpie marker" tones associated with Scotch show up in a big way in Islay Scotches.

The peat flavor is a remnant of a malting process in which smoke from burning of peat is used to dry the barley. The effect is whiskey that can taste medicinal and rubbery. It's the good old "acquired taste" that can lead seemingly intelligent, moneyed people to spend thousands of dollars on Scotch that will likely taste like a drag race in a marker factory.

Beyond straight, single-malt Scotches, there's a style of gentler Scotch created by savvy English grocers to broaden the appeal of the beverage. These are the blended Scotches and they tend to be much more mellow and easier to drink.

They are, however, exceedingly hard to make. Blended Scotch relies on blending masters who receive barrels of random Scotch from all over Scotland, and must then create a formula to make their product taste like the same product they produced last year, even though the ingredients may be different. All of the hard work, however, produces a mellow Scotch that is often more accessible than big single malts.

And this is where we end. From a watered-down bread recipe to the blending houses of the British Isles, whiskey's long journey must ultimately end in a glass. Surely there's a bottle nearby—if you're still sober enough to stand, go find one, and drink in your newfound knowledge.

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