Sunday, November 28, 2010

Week 46: The Three Wise Men

It should be apparent to regular readers that I very much enjoy a good wine or beer. Over a glass of wine this Thanksgiving weekend, the conversation turned to a different alcoholic beverage: whiskey. While I have thus far enjoyed my limited exposure to whiskey, there is no question that I am by all accounts a rookie. Recognizing the risk of coming across as an alcoholic, I have nevertheless chosen to plow forward on my brief introduction to the three wise men - none other than Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels.

Whiskey was allegedly invented by Irish monks roughly 1,000 years ago. Its Gaelic translation (ulsce beatha) means "water of life", and if the monks said it, it has to be true, right? The major producers of whiskey are Scotland, the US, and Canada, followed by Ireland and Japan. While only the world's number two producer, the United States is by far the world's largest consumer of whiskey. Globally, whiskey is second only to vodka as the spirit of choice. But whiskey is hardly a homogenous drink... Why does my good friend make fun of Jack Daniels and instead drink some esoteric, unpronounceable single malt from Scotland? What makes a bourbon different from other whiskies?

The one similarity shared by all whiskies is that they must be made of some type of grain, whether from corn, rye, or barley. The key differentiators between whiskies are the type or blend of grains used, the nature of the distillation process, and how long the whiskey is aged. After finishing this week's research, it is clear that whiskey producers, for reasons of taste, process and perhaps most importantly pride, are to be divided and explained geographically.

We will start with arguably the most notorious whiskey producer. As of 2008, Scotland produced over 750 million liters of whiskey per annum. This staggering supply comes from Scotland's 90 distilleries, and makes whiskey Scotland's top export, accounting for roughly $6 billion in annual revenues. While Scotland produces many whiskey blends, it is most famous for its more expensive single malt scotches. "Single" refers to the fact that the whiskey is made from one distillery, and "malt" refers to the fact that a scotch has been made exclusively from malted barley. Calling something a "scotch" - in spite of the fact that the Scottish do not themselves call their whiskey by this name - typically means the whiskey has been distilled and matured in oak barrels in Scotland for at least three years. Popular scotches include Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet, Auchentoshan, Talisker, and Glenfiddich (althogh my colleagues would probably be annoyed if I didn't also include Oban and Macallan). Lucky for me, the dinnertime discussion that inspired this blog post also inspired my parents to send me back to New York with a bottle of Glenlivet that had been stored in their basement for some time. By volume, Glenlivet is the second largest producer of scotch, and its distilleries use an incredible 30 tons of malted barley and three million liters of water per day. Any serious whiskey drinker's collection will start with Scottish whiskies and branch out from there.

Of course the Irish would take issue with my deference to Scottish whiskey; after all, it was in Ireland that this wonderful experience started! Irish whiskies use both corn and barley to produce their flavors. Distinctive to Ireland is a triple distillation process that creates a much more smooth, silky texture to its whiskey. This in turn allows for more floral or fruity flavors to come through. Irish whiskies are aged in used bourbon barrels, as "virgin" barrels would destroy their coveted light flavors. The most popular brand of Irish whiskey is Jameson; since 1998 Jameson has doubled its production to 25 million liters per year. Anecdotally I can say this is in large part due to Jameson's appeal to a younger generation of whiskey drinkers. Whether you prefer straight Jameson, or as part of your Irish Coffee or Irish Car Bomb, you can count on the Irish for a good whiskey experience.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that the US, too, has a very strong whiskey tradition. It is one that dates back to President George Washington, who by the time of his death had become the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States. And like tea, whiskey has an 18th century anti-taxation story of its own. The Whiskey Rebellion was a strong, armed response to the newly created federal government's attempts to tax the whiskey trade as a means to pay back the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. Washington had to send the milita to Pennsylvania to subdue protestors, and ended up sending more troops to fight the whiskey revolters than he did to fight the British!

In terms of modern production, we have to focus on Tennessee and Kentucky, the homes of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, respectively. The difference between the two is that Jim Beam is a bourbon, while Jack Daniels is a straight whiskey. Jack Daniels filters every drop through sugar maple charcoal, giving it a distinct flavor. By definition, bourbon cannot have any flavor modification and must be distillate and water, aged in oak. Also distinct to Jack Daniels is its iron-free natural spring water supply. The lack of iron affects the fermentation and by extension the taste. Jack Daniels is the world's best selling whiskey at 24 million gallons per year; while it is sold in over 135 countries, it amazingly cannot be sold in the dry county in which it is made! JD is a blend of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye, but according to the company, over 50% of its flavor actually comes from the wood sugar of its oak barrels. As for bourbon, Jim Beam is the world's top seller. Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, and the corn must be tested for proper moisture, weight, and lack of disease. Unlike barrels used in other whiskies, bourbon barrels can only be used once for making bourbon; they are then sent to Scotland, Ireland, or Canada for use making other styles of whiskey. Outside of Kentucky and Tennessee there is a nascent craft whiskey movement, similar to the beer movement I wrote about in week 28. One new whiskey maker in Colorado described the movement as "another rebellion against the homogenization of America." Among other experiments, these whiskey distilleries are making the first American single malt whiskies - exciting stuff!

We now move north to Canada, whose whiskies tend to be a blend of rye and neutral grains. The Canadian whiskies represent the lightest and most delicate in the world, and are therefore among the easiest to embrace. Because of this lighter flavor, Canadian whiskey is known for its use in mixed drinks. The most famous Canadian whiskey is Canadian Club, a corn distillate with most of its grainy flavors distilled out. Of particular note historically is Canadian whiskey's rise to prominence during the Prohibition. Al Capone and others developed a substantial whiskey trade with the Canadians, allowing approximately 80% of liquor made in Canada during the Prohibition to end up in the United States.

It's clear that I have my work cut out for me if I want to become a whiskey connosieur. This blog has only scratched the surface, so please let me know if you have any thoughts or recommendations. Until then, I'll work on that bottle of Glenlivet - my first bottle of scotch - and perhaps get started on the list of the top 10 NYC whiskey bars.


  1. Hmm....didn't see Maker's Mark on the list. Haha! Maybe I should be paying a bit more for my bourbon...

  2. WARNING: The crumsumpten of wiskee may Mack you tink you kan type reel gode.

  3. Bob - have you tried the new Maker's Mark 46?

    Tibi - noted, and thanks for the warning!