Whisky Wind-down, Interlude: Terminology

As I was writing my latest, I caught myself drifting into whisky esoterics, and it occurred to me I should probably not assume everyone reading this series has the same level of familiarity with this, uh, hobby as I do.

With the casual drinker (or interested non-drinker) in mind, here are some whisky basics:

Wait, whisky? Or, whiskey? You seem unsure on this. 

Depends where you live.

Most of the world prefers to spell it “whisky.”

Here in the States we mostly spell it “whiskey,” but being contrary Americans we are not consistent and sometimes use “whisky.” (There is probably an American somewhere selling “wisky.” Or maybe whiskay. Whiz-K. Schwizkee. I’ll stop.)

The Irish, meanwhile, spell it “whiskey.” Or uisce beatha.

I prefer “whisky” because I prefer the way it looks. (Also, the AP Stylebook says to use “whiskey.” That book has irritated me one too many times, so I sometimes go against it on principle.)

At any rate, I use “whisky” in my writing unless the distillery uses “whiskey” in its name, in which case I’ll defer to that.

Unless I typo it. Whicth hapens.

At any rate, if spelling inconsistencies get on your nerves, maybe don’t take up drinking whisk(e)y.

Fuck the spelling, what is it?

Booze. Made from grain. (Goes like this: Make grain soup. Let it ferment. Boil it down. Let it sit for a few years, usually in a wooden barrel. Dilute. Bottle. Profit.)

If you want more detail, try Google. (Or take a distillery tour. Serious fun, those.)

What sort of grains are we talking here?

A little bit of everything. (I recently tried a quinoa whisky. It was … an experience.)

But let’s narrow focus. Most of what I drink is malt whisky.

Malt whisky?

Whisky made from malted grain (Malted basically means “sprouted.” It’s … well, it’s a whole process unto itself. Seriously, if you want more detail, hit Google.)

The grain in malt whisky is usually barley. In fact, when someone says “malt whisky” it’s safe to assume they mean a barley whisky. (I’ve never seen or heard “barley whisky” used as a marketing term.)

What about other grains?

Malted rye makes rye whisky.

There might be other single malts to which I’m not savvy, but those are the big two. And, really, when someone says “single malt” odds are they are talking about Scotch whisky.

Okay, so what exactly is Scotch whisky?

Only malt whisky made in Scotland can legally be called Scotch whisky. There are several major regions, each with a distinct whisky-making style, and some of them have sub-regions as well. (I’ll spare you several hundred words of description here, as these are characteristics I tend to mention in my tasting notes.)

And single malt?

One malt, one distillery. Single malt whisky. AKA, the good stuff.

Although the term is not limited to Scotch whisky, that’s the whisky type with which it is most commonly associated.

(Do not confuse single malt with “single barrel.” A single malt whisky, like most types of whisky, is usually a mixture of dozens of barrels, which may or may not have been from the same distillation batch or aged for the same duration. These are joined under the guidance of a distillery’s master tasters to produce a consistent product.)

In that case, what exactly is a blended whisky?

Different malts. Possibly different grains.

Generally speaking, single malts are seen as having more character than blended whiskies, but that’s not to say a master blender can’t make something you will enjoy more.

Some blended whiskies are quite popular, i.e., the (in)famous Johnnie Walker lines of Scotch whisky, which bring together multiple malt whiskies from multiple distilleries to produce their various “colors.”

Other blends have names — such as bourbon.

What about bourbon? 

Bourbon is whisky. But it’s a very particular type of whisky, with some special legal caveats. The mash bill has to be a least 51% corn. (Barley is nearly always in there, too, as is rye, though some blends use wheat instead.) The spirit must be aged on charred new oak barrels. (The time varies, but it’s a minimum of two years to be called straight bourbon, and anything younger than four years is supposed by labeled as such, I guess so people can laugh at the baby bourbon. There are currently some distillers out there flaunting these age requirements, using technology to speed the process and calling the result bourbon. Some people call them innovators. I call them assholes. Which is not to say they aren’t making good whisky; but c’mon. Call it what it is — make up something snazzy; employ a marketing department ! — but don’t pretend it’s bourbon.)

It has to be made in Kentucky, right?

No. Common misconception. However, nearly all bourbon is made in Kentucky, due to tradition, marketing, and groovy whisky weather. Bourbon must be made in the United States. (Unless you’re a foreign government that disagrees. Also assholes.)

That it?

No, there are some regulations about distillation strength and bottling strength, but frankly that’s a lot of math, and I am a writer, not a, er, math person.

And Tennessee whisky?

It’s usually (not always) legally speaking bourbon, but most Tennessee whisky makers don’t use that term because they like their exclusive term better.

Also, it has to be filtered through charcoal. Or something. I’m not a big fan.

Irish whiskey?

There are some pesky legal specifics (on distillation proof, aging time, and something else, I think) but the big deal is to be made on the island.

Irish whiskey is generally regarded as smooth, and this is often attributed to the common technique of triple distillation (which is exactly what it sounds like).

Personally, I find Irish whiskey a little too easy drinking, but that is only a bad thing depending on context.

A while back you mentioned single barrel. What’s the big deal with those?

A single barrel is just what it says — whisky bottled from one barrel, not a mixture. This is whisky with nuance. That one barrel might have, for example, been left in storage longer or been exposed to more or less heat than typical. Maybe the distiller got a weird idea and (depending on the whether this is allowed for the whisky in question) used an unusual wood or char level. Perhaps … you get the idea. This is one-of-a-kind stuff, and it’s generally priced to match.

What about cask strength? You tossed that term around back in Whisky Wind-down 30

At maturity, nearly all whisky is diluted with pure water to bring its proof down to a standard level, usually between 80 and 90 (40-45 % alcohol) depending on style.

Cask strength whisky is undiluted. This is whisky off the wood, unadulterated the way the elements made it. The longer it aged (and the warmer the climate) the stronger a cask strength whisky will be.

Sometimes cask strength is also single barrel. AKA, the best stuff.

(Some people cut cask strength with water. I have nothing but contempt for that practice. Just save money and buy regular whisky, fool.)

You take this stuff pretty seriously, huh?

You have no idea. This is the polite, condensed version.

Anything else?

I agree with Warren Ellis on the subject of cocktails.

Who? What?

Shh. I’ll get to it eventually.