Whisky, bourbon, scotch, it’s all the same, right? Many times we treat them as interchangeable and don’t pay much attention to the difference. But gentlemen, we’re beardsmen, and as such we need to take the time to educate ourselves. And while we don’t need to be experts in mixology, we should at least know what we want and what we’re talking about when we walk up to the bar. And thanks to our sponsors Glenfiddich, we’re bringing you the Urban Beardsman Whisk(e)y Guide.
Let’s keep things simple: everything we are going to discuss here is a whisky – it’s the umbrella under which bourbons, scotches, and the like will fall under. So what is whisky? Basically it’s an alcohol that is created from fermented grain mash, and typically aged in wooden casks – which is actually where the golden-brown color comes from. And what about the spelling? You’ll see some referred to as “whiskey” and others as “whisky” sans the “e”. So what gives, you ask? The rule of thumb is that if the spirit comes from Canada, Scotland, or Japan it’s going to be “whisky” and if it comes from the United States or Ireland, it’s “whiskey.” Some distilleries play with which version they use regardless of geography, but that’s not important – it’s all fundamentally the same spirit, the spelling is secondary.
You know them, you love them, but do you really truly understand them? Have no fear, because we’re going to clear up any confusion you may have about exactly what an American whiskey is all about. There are three types you need to familiarize yourself with.
An American-specific form of whiskey, bourbon has a few key aspects that make it unique. Not only must it contain a minimum of 51% corn and be distilled domestically in the United States, but it must also be aged in new, charred-oak wood barrels.
Must be made with a minimum of 51% rye and also aged in new, charred-oak barrels.
Yes, the very same one Chris Stapleton sings about. It is mandatory that it is produced in Tennessee and follow the same protocol as bourbon, but with the added step of undergoing a charcoal filtering process commonly called the “Lincoln County Process” in which sugar maple is burned until it reaches the charcoal state, and the whiskey is filtered through to create a mellower and warmer flavor.
What makes scotch so special? Scotch is a whisky that has been matured for a minimum of three years in Scotland in oak barrels, and is typically twice distilled. Super specific, and super badass. But it doesn’t stop there – there are a handful of subcategories of scotch that will yield different flavors.
Made from only water, malted barley, and yeast, and produced at a single distillery.
A mixture of two or more single malt scotches from different distilleries.
A mixture of barley and grains – such as corn or wheat – and still produced at a single distillery.
A mix of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries.
This is the one you might be most familiar with – this is a blend of one or more single malts, plus one or more single grains.
Not sure which of these scotches are for you? Well the good news is you don’t always have to choose. That’s the big benefit of trying these subsets of whiskies – you’re getting more complex flavors and notes as you taste through different methods of distilling the alcohol. And distilleries like Glenfiddich feature incredible blends that offer some of the best parts of each type of whisky. Case in point, their 14 Year Bourbon Barrel Reserve. Now I’m a whisky man myself, and while I’m no expert, I know what I like and what I don’t when it comes to whisky. Anyone who has tasted a variety of whiskies will tell you that they can range from harsh and biting, to smooth and smoky, and I look more for that smooth flavorful taste. That’s why I was exceptionally excited when I got my hands on a bottle of Glenfiddich’s 14 Year Bourbon Barrel Reserve. It’s a single malt scotch whisky that has been aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon American Oak casks. That means that the liquid starts out as a conventional single malt scotch, but because it matures in barrels that were previously used to age bourbon, it incorporates many of the characteristics of a bourbon, specifically the sweet-smooth kick of Kentucky bourbon.
Now I know what a lot of you are thinking – Zach, you probably poured yourself a glass and sat back in a worn-leather chair, kicked on the fireplace, and turned on some Coltrane while you sipped on the scotch and put the bottle neatly on the shelf to be saved for a special occasion.
Quite the opposite, amigo. As much reverence and respect as I have for scotches like this 14 Year Bourbon Barrel Reserve, I just don’t think whiskies (and scotches in particular) are meant to be stuck on a shelf untouched, or treated like they’re fragile and delicate little birds. This stuff was made for drinking, and you can rest assured if a company like Glenfiddich knew they went through a decade and a half of work to create an amazing scotch so that you could use their bottle as a paper weight, biding your time until your first child was born to break it open and enjoy the goodness, they’d be thoroughly bummed out. So I decided to raise a glass to the Glenfiddich distillery and enjoy the hell out of their scotch.
My venue of choice was outside, sitting around a swimming pool on a warm summer night, talking, laughing, looking up at the stars, and enjoying good company, and I found that this bottle was the absolute perfect choice for the evening. What I noticed immediately was that this scotch was unlike most I had tasted – where I expected there to be a bite, it instead was a gentle nudge on the back of the tongue followed by a warm, smooth trail of vanilla, apple, and caramel. I was taken aback by the richness of the flavor that was completely unfettered by any type of harshness.
The real treat comes a second or two after you take the first sip – the soft warmness of the scotch seems to gently radiate through your throat and stomach, and as I took a breath, I was greeted with woody, oaky notes of orange, toffee, and cinnamon. This is a scotch I want to drink often. It’s smooth, it’s sexy, and it will be the perfect companion for any occasion.
This very specific form of whiskey starts with a mix of malted and unmalted barley and is typically triple distilled in a pot still.
Canadian whisky is sometimes compared in flavor to Irish whiskey in that it is quite smooth and subdued. Distilled in column stills for a minimum of three years, Canadian whisky is actually allowed to be mixed with a variety of spirits like sherry and brandy.
Last but not least, we come to Japanese whisky. As a scotch-style whisky, it is made from malted barley, is wood-aged, and twice distilled in pot-stills.
And gentlemen, there you have it – a crash course in the basics of whisk(e)y. The only thing left to do now is get out there and start tasting.
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Photo courtesy of The Manual