Welcome to Whisk(e)y 101. We’ll sort fact from fiction, and hopefully give you some useful info.
Saying “whiskey” is like saying “beer”. When someone says beer, most people ask what kind. Is it a lager, an IPA, a stout, that thing named PBR? Beer doesn’t give enough info, but just differentiates it from other spirits. Saying whiskey is similar – at least you know it’s not vodka, but that’s about it.
All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Lots of myths on this one, so we’ll cover the basics. Legally, bourbon has to be made from at least 51% corn, distilled at no more than 160 proof, be put in a barrel at no more than 125 proof, the barrel needs to be made from charred, new oak and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Whew. The barrel can’t be used again (many go to Scotland), nor does it have to be made in Kentucky. Those are the basics – we’ll save aging, what the other 49% is and other interesting facts for a future post.
So, if bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, what’s the deal with Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel? Tennessee whiskey isn’t actually a category recognized by the folks that regulate alcohol (i.e. the TTB), but is something used by the distilleries in TN. It’s recently become a bone of contention, with the rise of craft distilleries in the state. What’s the problem? Jack and his lobbyists say that you can only call it Tennessee if you use the Lincoln County process: filtering your new make whiskey through sugar maple charcoal. Seems money wins (shocking, that) and legislation was introduced that supports Jack’s position. Everyone else (besides Prichard’s, who was given an exemption) has 3 years to comply – either use the charcoal, or take Tennessee off the label. I’m betting there will be label changes, since filtering changes the flavor of your final product.
“I love Scotch. Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.” Stay classy, Ron Burgundy. But what’s he drinking? While there’s lots of things to discuss about Scotch, the easiest place to start is single malt vs. blended. Single malt means it’s made from…you guessed it, a single grain, usually barley. Blended means just what it sounds like – it can be blended from whisky made in a single distillery, or different distilleries, it just depends on the brand. Scotch can have a sweet finish because of the time it spends in a wine cask, or extremely peaty, with a hint of iodine (some compare it to tasting a Band-aid). If you’re new to Scotch, try something like Monkey Shoulder, an easy-mixing blended Scotch.
If you’ve been reading carefully, you likely think that I can’t make up my mind on how to spell whiskey. Or is it whisky? The general rule of thumb is that if the name of the country of origin has an E, so does whiskey. Of course, people get all crazy with stuff, like George Dickel’s whisky. He felt like his hooch was as good as Scotch, so spelled it whisky. No real rules on this one: if you read the page-turner that is is TTB regulation book, they actually use whisky. Confused yet? Eyes glazed over? Maybe a shot of moonshine will wake you up!
Ah, moonshine. I’ve lost track of how many there are on the market these days, with new ones springing up almost daily. It’s an easy and relatively cheap product to put on the market – but what is it? Moonshine isn’t an actual category as defined by the TTB, either. It’s a marketing word! Generally, it’s made from corn and sugar (sometimes just vodka), and then a bunch of it is flavored. Not as extensively flavored as vodka – cotton candy vodka still makes me cringe- but there are more apple pie, blueberry and peach flavors than a old time ‘shiner could shake a stick at.
All this talk about whiskey has made me thirsty – I think it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. Or if it’s not, oh well – sláinte!
By Jeanne Runkle
Jeanne Runkle lives here, and sometimes there. Her favorite spirit is whiskey, be it bourbon, rye, or American. You can even take out the e, and give her Scotch. Check out her other whiskey musings at PancakesandWhiskey.com. Cheers!