Born of fire, wood, smoke, and grain. The barrel aged nectar of the gods known as whiskey is the reason we are gathered here today. Since I am at work and can't drink whiskey (as far as my boss knows), I thought I would school you a wee bit on my favorite spirit.
What is whiskey?
Quite simply, whiskey is classified as a distilled alcoholic spirit made from a fermented grain mash. The word whiskey originates from the 15th century when our Gaelic bretheren referred to it as "Uisce" or "Uisce Beatha" which in Latin translates to "Water of Life". Much and more has been made over the spelling of the word throughout the years, some insisting that "Whiskey" is correct and yet others clamoring for "Whisky". No one can agree on what is correct so let's just break it down as simply as possible: Ireland and America produce "Whiskey"; Scotland, Japan, Canada, and Jolly ol England produce "Whisky". Truth be told, its not that big of a deal, so lets move on!
The beautiful thing about whiskey is that it can be made from just about any type of grain that you can grow. The most popular are corn, wheat, rye, barley, rice, and even plain oats. The specifc recipes, known as mashbills, used to be a VERY closely guarded secret in the whiskey world but recently master distillers have been releasing their mashbills which has only fueled the whiskey craze of the last decade.
The first step in the process is to soak the grains in warm water. This step basically tricks the grain into thinking it is Spring and gets it to sprout, or germinate, into a new plant. Germination turns the starch in the grain into sugar which in later steps will be turned into alcohol. Once germination is complete the grain is put into a mill and crushed, water is added and now were cooking!
I wasn't being cute when I said "Now were cooking!", it is literally time to cook the mash. The watery grain is put into a huge pot and yeast is added. The yeast is one of the most important components to whiskey making. It is the catalyst that converts the sugar mentioned above into alcohol. Most whiskey distillers have been using the same yeast strain for generations to ensure a quality product. After about 5-10 days you will end up with a bubbling mash of water, grain, alcohol, and carbon dioxide. Now, if you are a beer drinker you might just realize that what I just described sounds an awful lot like beer. That's because, well, if you add hops, it is beer! If we stop right now, bottle it up, and sell it, we could be beer makers. But, as a wise man once said, "Beer is for breakfast round here!" so we will carry on to the next step.
Now is where the whiskey starts to take shape. The fermented mash (beer) is put into a copper pot still and will be cooked even further. The master distiller heats up the fermented mash very slowly until it reaches a temperature between 173-212. The temperature control at this point is crucial because ethyl alcohol boils at 173 and water boils at 212. We want to boil off the alcohol and leave the water. When the alcohol boils it turns into vapor which rises to the top of the still into a condensing tube. This tube is coiled and as the vapor falls its temperature will drop until it gets below 173. At that point it turns back into liquid and falls out of the still. What you have here is some good ol moonshine! But, again, we dont want that, we want whiksey!
The Aging Process
To be classified as true whiskey the distillate must be aged in a barrell. This is where the whiseky picks up all of it's characteristic flavors. American whiskeys are aged typically in brand new, fire charred, white oak barrels. The fire charring is what gives American whiskey its traditional smokey flavor, the white oak lends caramel, vanilla, and a myriad of other notes. This process takes YEARS to occur. Think of the barrel as a living thing. When the weather is hot the barrel expands (breathes in) and lets the whiskey through the char and into the wood. When the weather turns cold the wood contracts (breathes out) and forces the whiskey out of the wood along with all of the tasty flavors. The longer a whiskey is aged, the more complex the flavors and the more sought after the whiskey will be.
Now, about those pesky angels. When aging whiksey you lose about 2% of the year to evaporation. This is whats referred to as the "Angels Share", the whiskey is so good that the angels take a bit for themselves!
The last step in production is to filter out all the bad bits of stuff out of the whiskey. Some distillers opt for a chill filtration process which pulls out things like fatty acids that make the whiskey turn cloudy, proteins, and esters which lend a bad flavor. Other distillers prefer the Lincoln County Process which is to pour the whiskey over a vat of activated charcoal and filter as it drips down. Think of a big ass Brita water filter and you're pretty close. The distillery that made this process world famous comes from a little place in Tennessee that you may have heard of called the Jack Daniels Distillery.
There are as many ways to enjoy whiskey as there are grains to make the whiskey. I am sure most of you have wandered into a bar and ordered the ubiquitous Whiskey and Coke. Not that there is wrong with drinking it this way but you actually do a disservice to the liquor itself, especially when you are drinking higher end whiskeys. For these you want to enjoy all of the aromas, flavors, and characteristics of the whiskey so I would suggest you start off drinking it neat, straight in a glass without ice or mixers. If this proves to be a tad bit much for you, add about half of an ounce of filtered water to it. In fact, master distillers will tell you that that bit of water will open up some of the secrets locked in the whiskey (which I tend to agree with). If that is not your cup of tea, try addind an ice cube to the whiskey. This will numb your palette a bit and soften up the alcoholic burn. If you must mix the whiskey I would suggest adding Ginger Ale. It won't overpour the whiksey with syrup (like Coke) and will still let some of the flavor come through.
Now before you go get a bottle and get pants on your head retarded, let's figure out what whiskey suits you.
If you prefer a sweeter whiskey with notes of vanilla and caramel and a bit of smoke try out bourbon. Buffalo Trace is by far one of my favorite bourbons on the market and at a price point of around 22 bucks you can't beat it.
If you prefer a little peppery heat to your whiskey you want to check out a rye. You can't go wrong with a good Bulleit.
If you don't particularly like peppery flavors check out Maker's Mark. Instead of rye they use winter wheat which adds a fruitier profile with a creamy and syrupy backbone.
For the seasoned pros
The beginners whiskeys are all good but are bottled around 80-90 proof. I like mine with a little bit more of a kick in the teeth and a lot more flavor. The way to get that is to bottle the whiskey at a higher proof instead of watering it down after filtration. Commonly referred to cask strength or barrel proof. With these they pour the liquid from the barrel into a bottle and into my glass.
My favorite right now is peobably Four Roses. With a high rye mash bill and bottled at around 100 proof it is definitely one to sip rather than slug.
Another one that my bar will always have in stock is Old Weller Antique. It is made by the Buffalo Trace distillery and is gaining exponential popularity the last few year. I debated not putting this one here because you people will start getting all my whiskey before I can get to the store, do me a solid and leave me a few bottles.
There you have it kiddos. Get out there, pour a couple drams, and enjoy yourselves!