Saturday, January 19, 2008

Whiskey


I have previously posted on the subject of wine, but have to admit that this is not the only adult beverage with which I am familiar. Being no authority on the subject will not prevent me from sharing some of my limited knowledge with you in the hope that you too will broaden your horizons, as I do in my own small way. So saying, let me say up front that:

God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from conquering the world.

(... and so far, it has succeeded in doing so)
Whiskey comes from the term "wisge beatha" which means "water of life". It is spirit distilled from malt and/or grain by soaking it in good water and yeast, and allowing it to open up or ferment. This mixture is then placed in a still to cook, and the distilled vapors are condensed to produce a grain alcohol. This is usually then aged in oak barrels for some period to allow the product to gain complexity from the wood. In some cases it is then "blended" by the producer to gain a desired consistent flavor, or subjected to additional aging and finally released in a "single-barrel" derivative. The complexity of the flavors, again much like wine, has a lot to do with the amount of time that the original components spend in the barrel. In fact many whiskey producers use old wine barrels for this aging process. A surprising fact in this may be that unlike wine, where French oak is preferred, whiskey producers tend to lean toward American oak. This works out just fine for American wine producers, as they cannot reuse the barrels, and the distillers provide a ready market for their used ones.

This process of aging, as the components soak into the wood in the heat and return as the product cools down, provides the much of the color that we see in the finished product. In this process however, some 2% per year is lost through evaporation. This is called the "Angels Share" and is accepted by the distiller (sometimes grudgingly). What it means though, is that the longer the product ages, the more that is lost through evaporation. Hence the price difference between a 10-year old, 12-year old, and 25-year old product. Some rare whiskeys are aged for up to 58 years, and are priced accordingly (Johnnie Walker Blue for example). But enough of the technical details, let's talk a little bit about the whiskeys themselves.

I have been know to indulge in the occasional glass of scotch (Some would say that I was Irish by birth, and Scotch by ingestion. This is patently untrue, as my mother is a Corey and from fine Scotch-Irish stock.). In the history of whiskey however, I am glad that the Scotch have finally admitted that they learned to make Whisky from Irish monks. (No this is not a misspelling. Whisky from Scotland is the only one that is supposed to use this spelling, though some producers from Canada and Japan have used it as well. All others must use the "ey" form.) This Whisky hails from two main regions: Islay, an island in the west of Scotland; and Speyside, a whiskey producing region in the Northern Highlands. Anyone who has ever sampled MacAllen 25 year-old, Lagavulin, Glenmorangie (I prefer the madeira wood myself), or my personal favorite 12 year old Balvenie Double Wood (6 years in a port wood cask, 6 years in a Madeira wood cask) knows what fine examples of the distillers art that good scotch whiskey can be. While scotch is without a doubt an acquired taste, and getting past the peat flavors can be a daunting task in the beginning, it would be well worth your effort to try.

Bourbon, once defined as American whiskey that was produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky (though there are actually no distilleries there), is more accurately defined as a whiskey that is produced anywhere in US that is produced with a mash (fermented grain base) that is at least 51%, but not more than 81% corn. Sour mash whiskeys also fall within this category with the term coming from the fact that some of the residue from the previous batch is added to the new mixture before distilling. I cannot say that I am a large fan of Bourbons, but I have been exposed to enough of them over the years that I can appreciate the talent that goes into producing them. Maker's Mark, Booker's, Elijah Craig, and Woodford Reserve are all single barrel versions that I have sampled and enjoyed. Marker's Mark holds the additional distinction of lending its flavor to a cigar by having its wrapper soaked in that beverage (and a great compliment to a sample of the beverage of the same name). On Tennessee side of the picture, Jack Daniels remains king, with both the Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniels single-barrel as efforts that should be on anyone's short list. Rye whiskey too falls under this category. While formerly little known in the US it is gaining a greater audience in recent years, and is greatly appreciated north of the border in Canada. I would love to be able to share more with you on this subject; but I seldom venture to "The Great White North" these days, and my knowledge suffers as a consequence.

In the end, I return to my favorite of the distilled beverages known as whiskey. Here I have experienced a great number of the possible choices (most courtesy of a trip to Ireland for a friend's family reunion and my daughter's wedding a few years back). Though there are many brands of Irish whiskey most, if not all of the Irish whiskeys today however, are produced by IDG (Irish Distillers Group). Amazingly enough this Irish national treasure is owned by the French company Pernod Ricard, which purchased IDG for $525,000,000 in the late 1980's (to the undying shame of the Irish).

There are a number of different versions of the standards, Jameson and Bushmills, each having to do with whether they are a blended or single-barrel whiskey, and the amount of time that they are aged in the barrel. There are additionally, a number other varieties that are well worth indulging in: Paddy, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Red Breast, and Michael Collins. Then there is that rarest and most expensive of Irish Whiskey, Middleton's Very Rare (which amazingly enough is a blended whiskey). This "nectar of the gods" is actually dated by the by the year that it is bottled (with the blend being reformulated every year), and is called very rare because of the small quantities in which it is produced. Irish whiskeys tend to be a little "sweeter" or "lighter" than their counterparts, and may be the easiest on the untried palate.

Serving suggestions:Amazingly enough, even the distillers recommend adding a little water to their product. This "splash" of water opens up the flavors of the whiskey and helps to bring out its complexity. For those of us in the US who seem unable to enjoy a cocktail without ice, I recommend placing a couple of ice cubes (not to be mistaken for loading the glass to the rim) to perform the same function. Many purists (myself included) simply ask for a little water on the side, to allow us to decide what is enough.

In the end, like wine, the best whiskeys are the ones you enjoy. Wade in gently and venture into deeper water when you feel you are ready and I think that you will soon find much to earn your interest. Do not be intimidated by the variety and feel free to take on the more expensive ones when you have learned to appreciate their less expensive counterparts.

...Enjoy



For those who want to learn more, the best information on the subject of whiskey that I found is a wonderful book on the subject: "Whisk(e)y", by Stefan Gabanyi. It is both a definitive tome and a interesting read.

6 comments:

historymike said...

Eh, gave the stuff up years ago, but I think I agree with God's wisdom in keeping us Irish highly liquored.

Tim Higgins said...

Aye Michael,

I should be wi'yah, but I have these urges to take on the world from time to time lad, an it's only a wee dram that keeps me from starting a donnybrook.

Right Wing Toledo said...

I would suggest that anyone trying Scotch for the first time avoid Lagavulin - it is a personal favorite of mine but far too smokey for the novice. For those wishing to make the jump to Scotch (single malts only please), particularly from Irish whiskey, give Glenkinchie 10 y.o. a try.

And yes, you might say that I've been a fan of the "e-less" spirit for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Be what it may, but Irish whiskey goes a long way on a cold winter night regardless of how much or little we consume. Me personally prefer Redbreast 15 year old (hard to get and expensive, but oh so tasty)or the Middleton very rare.I live in Ireland and I am not rich enough to be called eccentric, so i must just be plain crazy.. I write in whiskey forums under the name of Glen Mhor at http://www.straightbourbon.com

Joshua Ruffin said...

I'm actually enjoying a nice Bushmills right now; its become my favorite study/reading drink, and has a nice way of warming the bones, even when the bones are plenty warm on their own.

Tim Higgins said...

Joshua,

If you like Bushmills, just wait until you get to sample one of the "1608" bottles, as I recently did. I would also highly recommend Redbreast.