Whiskey, like wine and fine food, has a vocabulary all its own. But you should not allow this to deter you from visiting a local whiskey bar or whiskey restaurant to experiment with this spirit. Here are some whiskey terms to understand so you know what you are ordering:
Whiskies are distilled grain spirits. Looking at each word individually, whiskeys are made from grain. Any grain can be used, although the most common are barley, corn, wheat, rye, and rice.
The terms “spirit,” “liquor,” or “alcohol” all refer to the end product of the whiskey-making process. The starch in the grain is converted into ethanol through the process of fermentation. Fermentation requires two steps:
- Starches are converted to sugars by the enzyme amylase. Amylase occurs naturally in grain that has been malted. Malted grain has been allowed to begin germinating or sprouting. When grain sprouts, amylase converts starch in the grain into sugar. This natural process is used by distillers to jumpstart the fermentation process.
- Yeast (the tiny microorganisms that also give us bread, beer, and wine) eat the sugars produced by the amylase and produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. Sometimes, the goal of fermentation is the carbon dioxide (as in bread) and sometimes it is the ethanol (as in beer, wine, and other liquors).
Once alcohol is produced through fermentation, it is concentrated through distillation. The U.S. has over 1,500 craft distilleries, but they all operate using the same process. Distillation is a chemical process in which a liquid is heated and the vapors are captured and allowed to condense. Since different chemicals and chemical compounds have different molecular weights, they will evaporate differently. Alcohol is highly volatile, so heating alcohol allows it to evaporate and leave behind heavier (and less tasty) fermentation products.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Once the distillation process is complete, the whiskey can be drunk. And you might get drunk because whiskeys straight out of the still are moonshine. They have a raw, harsh, alcohol taste that is more reminiscent of vodka than bourbon.
The harsh taste is mellowed through aging. Aging concentrates the liquid through evaporation and allows the liquor to absorb other flavors from the aging vessel. For example, under U.S. law, bourbon must be:
- Produced from corn: Although other grains, namely malted barley, rye, and wheat, can be included, at least 51% of the grain used must be corn.
- Aged in new charred oak barrels: Some whiskeys are aged in barrels previously used to age other batches of whiskeys, wines, or other spirits. Bourbon, however, must be aged in unused barrels. The barrels must be made from oak and they must be charred, typically using a flame, on the inside. The result is a smoky flavor with overtones of vanilla from the oak.
- Produced in the U.S.: While there are other whiskeys from around the world, such as Irish whiskey, Scotch whiskey, and Japanese whiskey, bourbon is a uniquely American product.
The duration of the aging will relate directly to the cost. Spirits aged longer will evaporate more. This means that a 50-year-old barrel will contain less than a 12-year-old barrel.
While scotch has a mystique surrounding it, the only thing that is unique about scotch whiskey is that it is produced in Scotland.
There are some processing differences, such as the aging barrels are dried over peat fires, which gives scotch a distinctive peaty, smoky flavor. Moreover, scotch must contain malted barley and be aged at least three years. However, the basic process of fermentation and distillation remain the same as other whiskeys.
Single malt whiskeys are blended from whiskeys made at a single distillery. As a fermented and aged product, whiskeys will vary from barrel to barrel. Often a distillery will mix whiskey from different barrels to produce a desired flavor, color, and aroma. As long as all the barrels come from the same distillery, the final product can be marked “single malt.” Since single malt whiskeys can be blended from different batches it is less rare than single batch or single barrel whiskeys, which are truly rare whiskeys.
Whiskey is a unique product. Because of the many ways, it can be produced and the many countries that produce it, it can take on many different flavors.