Everything You Need to Know About Whiskey: A Guide by Whiskey Social
Whether you love it or hate it or simply don't appreciate it (yet) - you can't claim to be a part time spirit enthusiast without some knowledge of whiskey. Derived from the gaelic for "water of life," whiskey and it's variations are consumed across the globe. But just like any global commodity, there are many variations and traditions. The spelling even differs depending on the region. For the purposes of this article, we will be using the spelling, "whiskey," which according to convention is how it is spelled in America and Ireland. In Japan, Canada and Scotland, the "e" is dropped for "whisky".
Whiskey Social - a whiskey-centric establishment in NYC, and it's manager, Daniel, taught us everything we need to know to be a part time whiskey connoisseur.
Daniel broke down whiskey distillation into the 5 most consumed regions - Scotland, of course (scotch), Ireland, America, Canada and Japan.
There are many variations in each region but the most prominent distinctions are based on production. Scotch is made mostly from malted barley whereas Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn and as a result is sweeter and often the whiskey variety of choice for a novice enthusiast (but can leave you with quite the hangover). Scotch tends to have the most complexity and rye (made with at least 51% rye) has more depth and spice and, Daniel said, is a great option for cocktails.
Every whiskey enthusiast needs to know about the king of whiskeys, Scotch.
Scotch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years and are only allowed to be labeled, "scotch" if it was distilled in Scotland. Scotch whiskey is produced in five regions, Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, and the "Isles".
Americans tend to enjoy the Highland varieties, which include the popular McCallan 12. There is a nice balance to the Highlands scotches, they are aged in fruity barrels and are lighter than some of its regional counterparts.
Lowlands tend to be thought of as the "inferior" region, one which is considered to have sacrificed smoothness for complexity.
From the Isles, specifically the Isle of Sky, come the briney, fruity scotches. Jura, which is finished with coffee from Brooklyn, was a good example of this. And anything that combines alcohol and coffee is ideal for me.
The Speyside region, sometimes referred to as the Western Highlands, produces a scotch that was one of my favorites of the day, Oban Little Bay. It was briney and smooth and had similar complexity to the Highland varieties.
Hailing from Islay are what Daniel calls the scotch for the more seasoned of enthusiasts. Laphroaig, a heavily peated variety, challenges the palate with its smoky depth and complexity. One sip, Daniel and I agreed, takes you to a bonfire somewhere near the sea. The Laphroaig distillery was one of the only ones that succeeded during Prohibition because no one could find the distillery.
American varieties of Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye are as varied as Scotch. But many more regions exist in America, all with their own requirements and defining traits. Widely recognized as the main region of whiskey production is the American "South," which we decided to focus on.
A great Tennessee variety we tried was the George Dickel. In order to be considered Tennessee whiskey, the spirit must undergo maple charcoal filtration (where they filter the distilled liquid though charcoal of maple wood) and be distilled with Tennessee whiskey.
Old Scout, hailing from West Virginia, has a high rye content but is of the bourbon variety (being made with 51% corn). The distillery, which boast the only female master distiller in the country, produces a bourbon which was spicy and one of my favorites.
Alabama whiskey, like the Clyde Mays, is sweeter, and tastes of apple and caramel. Though not my favorite, I would imagine it would be a wonderful spirit when accompanying dessert.
Jim Beam, the classic Kentucky bourbon and one of America's most well-know, is now owned by the Japanese company, Suntory. To my surprise, Daniel walked us through the Japanese varieties, which were some of my favorites of the afternoon.
Japan is rapidly becoming a front runner in whiskey production and consumption. The country drinks more whiskey per capita than any other country. In 2012, Yamazaki won scotch style whiskey of the year, signaling the clear emergence of the island-nation on the whiskey scene.
One of my favorite varieties from Japan was the Habiki 12. It was well-balanced but with a difficult flavor profile - giving fruity, smoky and woody notes while still remaining light, smooth and clean.
Daniel also showed us varieties from other unexpected and emerging whiskey regions like the Pacific North West and I learned that each region offers a whiskey enthusiast vast variety. One could even compare the distinctions to wine - and a true enthusiast can determine the region by the scent alone.
Though I am not there yet, Whiskey Social offers a great place for novice, part time and full time enthusiasts alike. At the end of our afternoon, we were inducted into the establishment's Whiskey Club. We chose our bottle of choice (we went for the Oban Little Bay) and were given a private locker with a plaque. We are now able to enjoy our whiskey as often as we please.
Space in the Whiskey Club is quickly running out, so I suggest any enthusiast or aspiring enthusiast to hurry to Whiskey Social for a drink, a class or a chance at joining the Whiskey Club. But before you go, brush up on your jargon.