What is Whiskey Exactly?

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When I’ve got a chance to teach a group about whiskey, I keep in mind a rhetorical question that Colin Spoelman and David Haskell posit in the introduction to their book, Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey: “How can you know so little about something you do so often?”

They’re talking about drinking whiskey, of course. Despite the pointedness of their question, Spoelman and Haskell are quite understanding and sympathetic about our lack of knowledge about this grain-based distilate. They acknowledge that here in America, where our “native spirits” are bourbon and rye, there isn’t a lot of knowledge about this category. Often not even the bartender from you’ve ordered your bourbon knows. They also acknowledge that we, now as drinking adults, don’t want to face the discomfort of looking like a fool by asking, What exactly Is whiskey? As a result, almost nobody knows what whiskey is and what spirits fall into the category.

I had the pleasure to answer this question when Justin invited Night Owl to make his boys’ weekend special. Justin was hosting an annual gathering of a tight-knit group of college buddies who consider themselves more like brothers than friends. I came up the idea of doing a whiskey tasting, along with a hands-on cocktail making session with the whiskey. What guided me in creating programming for the evening was that question, How can you know so little about something you do so often?: I knew from Justin that his four friends drank whiskey, and on my own I assumed that they probably didn’t entirely understand the category that they enjoyed so much, and that they probably were like most Americans and too proud or apprehensive to ask, What exactly is whiskey?

This was my chance. Actually, this was their chance, since rarely does the opportunity arise to find out something you were too apprehension to ask. That night, around Justin’s kitchen table, I got straight to the heart of the issues by asking the guys directly if they can explain what whiskey is. No one among Justin’s friends could answer correctly. They were stymied and thus a bit embarrassed. Sensing this, I assure them that no one really knows, and that after the class, they will.

I next explain that whiskey is an umbrella category, just as rum, brandy, and mezcal are. As a visual, I flash the international sign for category which is putting both hands above my head, like a roof sheltering me from rain. I learned it from Diane Wade, who used to lead the tours at New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn.

Flowing down from this category are subcategories: scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey, etc. What unites all these different expressions is that they fall under this umbrella category (I’ve still got my special visual going on) and what places them under this roof is that all of them are distilled from a fermented grain mash, whether it be barley, corn, rye, wheat, quinoa, oats, or whatever. What all whiskies are at the end of the day, more or less, is distilled beer.

By now, the five friends have had enough of my flashing the international sign for umbrella category and it’s now time to drink some actual whiskey. Poured into a Glencairn glass are three different types: bourbon, rye, and single malt scotch. Comparative tasting is the best way to learn; listening to me yammer on is not.

So, bourbon, rye and scotch are all whiskies, but what makes them fall into their specific subcategories? Bourbon has to be distilled anywhere in the U.S. from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no requirement on aging time, but to be called “straight” it has to be aged at least two years. Rye has to be distilled in the U.S. as well, and from a mash bill of at least 51 percent rye (what a surprise) and aged in new, charred oak barrels. For a single malt scotch, the “single” refers to the requirement that the distillate comes from a single distillery; the “malt” means that the “beer” is fermented from 100 malted barley; and “scotch” means it has to be distilled, naturally, in Scotland.

It’s all still rather confusing. Even after repeating the information, the guys were still confused. Same thing happens at our month whiskey club, The Asbury Park Whisky Club. And that’s ok. What I really hope to convey is that bourbon, rye, and scotch all belong to the same family (whiskey) and that it’s ok not to know what distinguishes them, and that’s ok to ask, if you don’t know. Just keep drinking whiskey and asking.

It’s time that you know something about something you do so often.