Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Whiskey 101

When all of my friends in my graduating class were getting ready for their first "real" jobs post-college, I too was preparing for my entrance into the real world- except mine led me to the tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling, a distillery on Seneca Lake in Burdett, NY.

Since then, I have begun to notice how little people actually know about liquor- in particular, whiskey. So, I'm kicking things off with the whiskey basics.

What is whiskey?

Whiskey, or whisky if you're super cool (or British), is a distilled spirit made from grain. I won't go into all the technical details here, but to make whiskey you essentially first make beer, and then distill it no higher than 160 proof.

What is distillation?

The Holstein still at Finger Lakes Distilling
At its simplest, distillation when it comes to alcohol is the process by which water is removed from a fermented beverage, so that the remaining alcohol is much more potent because it is increasingly pure. This takes place in a handy machine called a STILL.

First, you heat the fermented mixture. Since the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water, the alcohol boils off in one chamber of a still and is transported to a second chamber, leaving behind the excess water. In the second chamber the alcohol gas is cooled and returns to liquid form. The alcohol in the second chamber now has a lot less water, and is therefore much stronger. There are many different kinds of stills, from the ones you can make illegally in your kitchen, to the ginormous 1,000+ gallon industrial continuous stills used by large-scale liquor producers.

Different kinds of whiskey

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, I like bourbon, but I don't like whiskey. Bourbon actually IS whiskey- whiskey is the umbrella category that contains bourbon, rye, scotch, irish whiskey, moonshine, corn whiskey....

The main difference between these different subcategories of whiskey is the ingredients and details of how it's made. Here's a simple breakdown of the major types of whiskey:

This American whiskey is made from at least 51% corn, and aged in new charred American oak barrels. Some well-known bourbon whiskeys include Buffalo Trace, Maker's Mark, Evan Williams, and Bulleit. Bourbon is found in Old Fashioned cocktails.
Bourbon aging
*A common misconception about bourbon is that it must be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky in order to be labeled as bourbon. Not true! Bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, as long as it's mostly corn-based and is aged in those new charred oak barrels.

Corn, rye, and barley
The original American whiskey, rye has similar legal production requirements to bourbon except that instead of corn, rye must be at least 51% rye. Rye tastes quite different from bourbon, often featuring spice and dried fruit notes not present in the buttery bourbon. Examples include Redemption Rye, Sazerac, and Templeton. Rye is found in the Manhattan and Sazerac cocktails.

*Rye can also refer to Canadian whiskey, which doesn't have to follow the same guidelines as American rye whiskey.

Single Malt
You might be more familiar with the single malt whiskeys by their regional name, Scotch. But it can only be called 'Scotch' if it comes from Scotland; otherwise, it is called single malt. It's kind of weird and confusing, but the phrase "single malt" doesn't actually mean anything on its own, each word refers to something different. "Single" refers to the fact that the entire bottle of whiskey comes from a single distillery, as opposed to Blended Whiskey, like Johnnie Walker and Dewar's, which are blends of multiple types of whiskey. "Malt" means that it is entirely made of malted (partially germinated) barley.

There are lots of different flavor profiles of single malts, from smoky to buttery. Macallan, Glenlivet, and Laphroig are all brands of single malt Scotch.

Irish Whiskey
Like Scotch, Irish Whiskey is a regional whiskey that must be made in Ireland to earn the name. It differs from single malt in that it is made from both malted AND unmalted barley. Irish-style whiskeys not from Ireland are sometimes called pot still whiskeys. Popular Irish whiskeys include Jameson, Powers, and Concannon. Taste-wise, Irish-style whiskeys tend to be smoother and less sharp than single malt.

Corn Whiskey
AKA moonshine, must be made from at least 80% corn. Unlike the other whiskeys I've mentioned, this one doesn't require any aging at all, and is therefore often clear in color (for all spirits- the dark color comes from the barrels it's aged in, so no color= no age as a general rule). Georgia Moon is a well-known brand of corn whiskey, which is coming back into favor with the newer craft distilleries.

Whiskey in New York

While there aren't too many whiskey distilleries in the Finger Lakes alone, there are several places making whiskey in New York. Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, NY makes a McKenzie bourbon, rye, pot still, and Glen Thunder corn whiskey. Hudson Whiskeys, made by Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson Valley, makes 2 bourbons, rye, single malt, and corn whiskey. Delaware Phoenix Distillery in the Catskills makes a rye, bourbon, and corn whiskey. And closer to the city, Kings County Distillery makes a bourbon and corn whiskey.

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