I had a very interesting conversation with my Dad the other day. When he hears the word "Whisky", he thinks Scotch, whereas I think Bourbon. The differences between Scotch and Bourbon are vast, yet they are still lumped in under the umbrella. So, what is Whisky?
In the simplest terms, Whisky (or Whiskey, depending on what country you're in) is alcohol that is distilled from barley, corn, rye, or wheat. More often than not this spirit is then aged, usually in a charred oak barrel, before it is bottled. Most of the Whisky in the world comes from five countries: Canada, Ireland, Japan, Scotland, and the USA.
For decades Canada has been famous for its' Rye Whisky. Since Prohibition, Canadian distillers have enjoyed the reputation for making a punchy, peppery product. Rye is a resilient crop that could stand up to the harsh Canadian winters, however more and more Canadian Whiskies are now corn-based. In fact, Canada has the most relaxed production regulations of the major Whisky producers. The laws are so chill that many of the Rye Whiskies distilled in Canada contain 0% rye. Basically, all the whisky has to be is: 1) made in Canada and 2) aged for at least 3 years.
Flavour-wise, Canadian Whiskies are smooth and a little sweet, with a peppery bite thanks to the Rye. Canadian Whiskies make wonderful cocktails.
OUR FAVOURITES: Dillons Rye, Bearface Canadian Whisky, WhistlePig Straight Rye (American Company making Rye in Canada).
Whiskey (notice the 'e') and Ireland go hand-in-hand. The consumption of Whiskey in Ireland can be traced all the way back to 500 AD. There are four main varieties of Irish Whiskey:
1) Single Malt (100% Barley, aged 3 years, like Bushmills)
2) Grain (Corn or Wheat, like Teeling)
3) Blended (Single Malt/Gran combo, like Jameson)
4) Single Pot Still (Exclusive to Ireland, mixed malted and unmalted Barley, like Redbreast)
It's not as sweet as Bourbon or as smokey as Scotch, but most Irish Whisky is distilled three times, which means it's undeniably smooth. You don't hear about too many Irish Whiskey cocktails, because a Jameson is a just as delicious and lot less work!
OUR FAVOURITES: Jameson, Writer's Tears, Slane Irish Whisky.
Japan is the youngest Whisky powerhouse: they've only been commercially producing the spirit since the 1920s. However, they might be producing the best Whisky in the world. They were greatly influenced by the Scots and their methodology behind Scotch (which we will get to in a moment) but have integrated their own techniques and practices. They also age their Whisky, but for an undisclosed amount of time, and in barrels that range from classic Oak, to old Sherry casks, to Japanese Mizunara, an oak that can impart aromatic or citrus notes.
There are two main distilleries in Japan: Suntory and Nikka, and both companies make spectacular spirits. Suntory and Nikka put Japanese Whisky on the global map in the early 2000s when they starting winning major international awards
While Japanese Whisky is an excellent replacement for Scotch in almost every cocktail, it's most well-known use is the Japanese Highball: a simple, yet delicate mix of Soda Water, Ice, Japanese Whisky, and the lightest touch of citrus. The Japanese Summers are hot and muggy, so this long cocktail is the perfect balance of boozy and thirst-quenching.
OUR FAVOURITES: Suntory Toki, Hibiki Harmony, Nikka Coffey Grain
Entire books have been written about Scotch, the Whisky produced in Scotland. Like the Irish, there is a mix of Single Malts, Single Grain, and Blended Scotches. They also must be aged for at least 3 years in Oak barrels. The simplest way to break down this historic and complex spirit is into its five geographical regions:
1) The Lowlands: This southernmost region is where the softest and smoothest Scotches are distilled. Glasgow and Edinborough are both located in the lowlands. This is where Auchentoshan is distilled.
2) Speyside: Named after the River Spey that brings water to many local distilleries, this region produces Scotches that range from sweet to spicy to smokey. This is where Macallan and Glenlivet are distilled.
3) The Highlands: The largest region, that included the Scottish Islands. This is where some of the smokiest Scotches come from. Glenmorangie, Oban, Tobermory (Islands) and Highland Park (Islands) are all distilled here.
4) Campbeltown: The smallest region, with only three active distilleries. These Scotches are often described as "Wet". Glen Scotia is distilled here.
5) Islay: Some of our favourite Whiskies are the medium-bodied but super smokey Islay Scotches. Islay is known for distilling Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardberg, as well as Bowmore which is the oldest distillery in Scotland, dating back to 1779.
OUR FAVOURITES: Tobermory, Ardberg, Monkey Shoulder (Blended Speyside Scotch)
The Americans are most famous for their Bourbons, a sweet, strong liquor that mixes fabulously into cocktails. However, they also produce a wide range of delicious Whiskeys made with other grains.
Rye (unlike in Canada) must be made with a 51% rye mash. Bourbon is 51% corn mash. Corn Whiskey is 80% corn. And then Wheat, Malt, and Rye Malt are 51% wheat, barley, and malted rye, respectively.
All American Whiskey (except Corn) must be aged in new, freshly charred oak barrels. For American distillers, these barrels can only be used once, and then are often sold to other distilleries around the world to age other spirits.
However, the most confounding part of American Whiskey has to be the inclusion of Tennessee Whiskey. Although distilled essentially the same way, the Tennesee Whiskey distillers (most notably Jack Daniels and George Dickel) adamantly refute their association with Bourbon. The main distinction is the Lincoln County process: Tenessee Whiskey is filtered through (or steeped in) a thick layer of maple charcoal before resting in oak barrels.
OUR FAVOURITES: Rittenhouse 100 Rye, Basil Haydens Bourbon, Angel's Envy Bourbon.