Irish, Japanese, Canadian, Scottish whiskeys, rye, and bourbon have distinct tastes and rules for making them. (Photo: Handouts)
With all the different styles available, the world of whiskey can be more confounding than Mad Men's short-phrased episode teasers. So with the premiere of the final 7 episodes this Sunday and the cocktail parties that are sure to accompany it, we thought we’d work on our whiskey basics.
By definition, whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of grain. After that, the process, style, and flavor vary a lot from country to country. Some are light, others are heavy, and their characteristics can be floral, fruity, woody, sulphur, or peaty. (Fun fact: In the U.S. and Ireland, it’s spelled whiskey. In Scotland, Japan, and Canada, they go with whisky.)
Sales of whiskey have been steadily growing in the U.S., so perhaps the fictional show is having a very real world effect. Bottles may seem pricy but the stuff can last a while after you open it (as long as you store it well, out of heat and light). This also makes it a great gift, since people think about you for months every time they pour out a glass.
Exploring all the varieties is really where the fun begins. You can drink it neat (on its own), over ice, or with just a few drops of water to open up the flavors. It’s also great in a cocktail — try Don’s cocktail of choice, an Old Fashioned, which is bourbon, Angostura bitters, sugar, water, and ice, garnished with an orange wedge and a Maraschino cherry.
Arguably the most well known, Scotch uses barley as its grain. To qualify as a Scotch, it is legally required to be made in Scotland and it must be matured in oak for a minimum of three years, although many are a lot older. You’ll find either single malts (a single grain from one distillery, which has a distinct flavor) or blended whiskies (a mix of malt and grain from different distilleries, which aims for a more dependable style). The five main regions that produce Scotch are Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, and Islay, each with their own unique characteristics. One of the most distinctive flavors found in many Scotches is smoke or “peatiness,” which comes from using malted barley that’s dried over a fire of the peat soil found in Scotland.
What to try: Oban is an elegant single malt from one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and has a light nuttiness, toasted apple, and hint of smoke and brine to it ($80). Glenlivet 15 is a Speyside single malt with more candied fruit and hazelnut flavors ($60). And you can find Islay’s great smoky peat in the Lagavulin 16 year, which is excellent for warming up on cold nights ($107). Johnnie Walker is one of the more well-known blended scotches whose labels come in different colors depending on the quality, from red ($38) to the sublime blue ($225) with its orange rind, toasted almond, fresh hazelnut, and light but elegant smokiness.
Bourbon’s flavor is all sweet caramel and vanilla. Bourbon has to be made from at least 51 percent corn (usually more, with the rest being rye and malted barley), aged in new, charred American oak barrels for at least two years, and made in the U.S. (that means anywhere in the U.S., not only Kentucky as many people think).
Try these: Woodford Reserve is a great example of the delicious caramel and vanilla bourbon offers and widely available ($42). And Rebellion is a small batch Kentucky bourbon with a great balance of apricot, vanilla, clove ($38).
Rye whiskey can often have a spicier, almost rustic straw taste, which makes it great for cocktails that need balance for a sweeter ingredient. Like bourbon, it has to be made in the U.S. and aged in new charred American oak, but it has to be made from 51 percent rye grains (the rest usually is usually corn and barley).
Try these: Wild Turkey makes a very basic rye, but they also make Russell’s Reserve 6 year old which has hints of pine, nutmeg, and red hots ($42). For something a little sweeter, Tap 8 Rye is a Canadian rye that blends in some Amontillado sherry ($40).
Mad Men character Don Draper often has a glass of Canadian Club in his hand during the show’s 7-season run. (Photo credit: AP)
Canadian whisky is made by blending a lighter whisky (usually made from corn, which has a light flavor) with a more flavorful whisky (which usually has a lot of rye). Most of the blend is usually corn-based, so they tend to be a little lighter than other whiskies. It has to be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels, but no specification is made about them being new, used, or charred.
Try these: Canadian Club is a favorite of Don Draper, and will give you a good example of the lighter Canadian style ($26). The Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve is light and lovely with fresh orange and almond ($70).
In general, the rules for making Irish whiskey are more relaxed so it produces a whole range of styles. Basic regulations are that it has to be made from yeast-fermented grain mash, and aged and distilled in Ireland for at least three years in wooden casks. It’s also usually triple distilled (as opposed to scotch, most of which is distilled twice). One thing unique to Ireland is “single pot still” whiskey, which comes from malted and un-malted barley.
Try these: Jameson is the one Rihanna lets sink in in her song “Cheers,” and it has a light nose of fruitcake, pine, and almond ($25). Yellowspot 12 year old is a single pot still, which is a bit fuller and fruitier with spicy dried apricot and butterscotch ($100).
After studying the Scottish way of making whisky and founding the first commercial distillery in the 1920s, Japanese whiskies are starting to gain international admiration and win major awards. As in Scotland, the styles range from light and floral to heavy and peaty. They use American and European oak barrels, but also have their own oak called Mizunara, which can impart more of a floral character.
Try these: The two biggest and most well known distilleries are Suntory (of “Lost in Translation” fame, when Bill Murray’s character flies to Japan to film a commercial for them) and Nikka. Suntory’s Hibiki 12 year old has lots of fresh orange, almond, and white florals – a light, elegant and approachable whisky ($65). The Nikka Taketsuru 12 year old is milder, with fresh almond and lots of green pear ($69), while the Taketsuru 17 year old goes deeper with dried green pear, dried apple, and toasted almond ($149).
Thirsty for more? Try these: