While whiskey was first billed as a medicinal substance — aquavitae or “water of vitality” — it soon gained popularity and became one of the most popular drinks in the world. Whiskey as we know it was probably first distilled in the 1400s, and probably in Scotland, according to the best hard evidence we have. Especially in England and Ireland, it became the drink of choice, and through taxation, came to contribute 30%-50% of the nation’s revenue.
With the colonization of the states, the popular beverage crossed the Atlantic, and Mr. George Washington himself counted whiskey as his favorite vice. He even opened a distillery at Mount Vernon which ended up being one of the largest in the young nation. They continue to make whiskey today.
In spite of its sometimes tumultuous history (see the Whiskey Rebellion), whiskey is a drink that men have enjoyed for centuries. Men like Mark Twain, Winston Churchill (often accompanied with a fine cigar), and Clark Gable imbibed regularly. When one thinks of masculine images, you often conjure up a picture of a man in a tweed coat with a glass of whiskey in his hand by the fire. If you’ve ever wanted to be that man and explore this manly tradition, you’re in luck. While we’ve given you a primer on Scotch whisky, today we’re going to broaden that and talk about whiskey as a whole — especially how to enjoy it!
I had the opportunity to talk with Jess Graber, founder of TINCUP American whiskey, to get his tips on how to drink this classic spirit. If you’re ever in Woody Creek, Colorado, look him up; he’s the kind of guy you’d love to share a drink with.
How to Find Your Favorite Whiskey
To fully enjoy drinking whiskey, you first need to know some of the basics about the spirit itself — the various styles, the alcohol levels, how to pick yourself a bottle, etc. Whiskey is defined as an alcoholic beverage that is distilled from fermented grains and aged in wooden casks (most commonly oak). The video below provides a much better description of how whiskey is made than I ever could in writing. While it’s particular to Scotch whisky, the overall process is the same.
Unfortunately, going to a liquor store or a bar and surveying all the whiskies available can be intimidating. There are plenty of terms (single malt, rye whiskey, blended whiskey, etc.) that don’t mean much unless you’ve done a little bit of homework.
The easiest way to distinguish whiskies is by nationality, and then broken down into subcategories from there that give a little further detail. While these are certainly generic terms, and you’ll find a few other varieties out there, these will cover most of what you encounter:
- American whiskey — tends to be sweeter than other whiskies. American whiskies must be distilled in America and aged in barrels in order to be labeled as whiskey (usually for two years, but not always). Breaks down into the further subcategories:
- Bourbon — distilled from at least 51% corn.
- Rye — distilled from at least 51% rye.
- Tennessee — bourbon that is distilled in Tennessee and filtered through charcoal.
- Scotch whisky — tends to have smoky and earthy flavors. Distilled in Scotland, from mostly barley, and aged at least 3 years. Breaks down into further subcategories:
- Blended Scotch — literally just a blend of one or more Scotch whiskies.
- Single malt Scotch — distilled at a single distillery from malted barley.
- Irish whiskey — tends to be light-bodied, but more robust than Canadian whiskey. Distilled in Ireland, aged at least 3 years.
- Canadian whiskey — tends to be light-bodied and fruity. Distilled in Canada and aged at least 3 years. They are typically blends.
You’ll also find alcohol content on whiskey labels. It may either be labeled directly as a percentage or as a “proof.” To find the percentage from a proof, simply divide the number in half. So a 100-proof whiskey is 50% alcohol by volume. You’ll find a range of 40% to 60% ABV in whiskies, with the lower end being more common.
The best way to go about choosing a whiskey, in my own experience, is to pick a style, and try a few different whiskies from that style. Try a cheap bottle ($10-$15), a middle-of-the-road bottle ($20-$35), and a spendier bottle ($35-$100), and compare them. (You don’t have to do this all at once! Take a couple months with each bottle you buy and get to know the flavors.) You probably won’t be able to tell too much of a difference in actual flavor at first, other than spendier versions being smoother and having a little less burn (this is because the longer it’s aged, the more the wood lessens the harshness). When you try a bourbon with 45% alcohol, and then one with 50% alcohol, you’ll definitely notice the difference in that 5%.
Over time, your taste buds will mature, and you’ll be able to at least partially distinguish different flavors and different styles of whiskey. A good starting style is Canadian or Irish, as they’re a little lighter and fruitier. From there, you can move on to American whiskies, which have a little more flavor and variety. And finally, you should probably try Scotch last, because it’s the most distinct flavor and the “harshest” for someone who’s not had much whiskey.