Mike Stocks Your Liquor Cabinet: Part 5 – Whisk(e)y

Hoo-boy, here we go.  I’ve been a long time in coming to this one, and here’s an example of why:

Did you notice something about those two minutes?  You know, how they didn’t contain any information about whisky at all, but piled on all the familiar imagery about it:  the wood-paneled rooms, the dudes in button-down shirts and ties acting very serious, the overwhelming selection of bottles with no explanation at all about what they contain?

Let’s review what we learned about whisky in that time:

  1. Older does not mean better
  2. Expensive does not equal good
  3. Don’t be afraid to mix it (in this case, with water)
  4. If you use ice, don’t use too much or you’ll wreck it
  5. Try a bunch to find out what you like

Or, in other words, nothing.  Was there anything in that video that couldn’t have applied if the affable douchebag host had visited a tequila bar instead?  Or any place at all that served an alcohol product?  I don’t mean to tee off on this particular example, but rather point out that it’s exactly the sort of piece that I’d have produced if someone forced me to: pleasantly vague, generic and avoided entirely the heavily-loaded complexities of the liquor.

Because wow, if there’s an alcohol out there that people are going to tell you about — at length — it’s likely going to be whisky.  There is just something about it that brings out the inner expert in everyone, and sparks debate along the same line that sports teams, personal computing technology or vitamin consumption might — heavy with personal bias and meaningless numbers, wholly impossible to win.

Today, I am not going to lecture you about whisky.  What I am going to do instead is provide you with enough material for you to accomplish two key goals:

  1. Know enough about the drink to enjoy it on your own terms
  2. Imbue you with enough inner peace to resist smashing your bottle over the head of the next jackoff to sniff disdainfully at your choice

Well, maybe that’s just one goal, but you get what I mean.

Onwards!

Every liquor’s source is one or another type of fermenting starch:  for rum, it’s sugar cane; for vodka, it’s grain or potato; for sake, it’s rice.  In the case of whisky, it’s a mash of fermented grains.  Hooray!  It’s already gotten complicated.

This is because there is a wide variety of grain that could constitute a mash:  one particular type, such as wheat, rye or corn; multiple types ground and mixed together, such as wheat AND rye; or malts, where one grain is allowed to germinate before it’s dried and ground.  More than that, whiskys aren’t necessarily the product of one distillery — you may end up with product that’s the blended combination of many different processes, or a single one.

All of these parameters are what result in the staggering variety of brands, flavors, qualities and cults that surround various whiskys.  There are international considerations, too:  North American whiskeys (see the “E” coming into things — more on that in a second) are known for using cereal grains like rye and corn; European and Japanese whiskys for their malts.  Woe betide anyone who dares to call their whisky a Scotch without having distilling it in Scotland, aging it for a minimum of 3 years and smoking their malt with peat!  And God help you if you call Jack Daniels a bourbon, whatever the actual, y’know, definition of a bourbon is.

Beyond this, the method of distillation can have an impact.  Pot stills will generally introduce more complex alcohols with strong flavors; column stills will result in a much more pure ethanol, that requires flavoring after the initial process — closer to gin’s production than rum’s, resulting in a cleaner alcohol with less complexity.

So, all of this to say that you’ve got lots to consider when you’re making your choice, and that such a large and swirling body of variables will guarantee you’ll come across some real chumps… but also any number of unpredictable gems, which is why experimentation is your true path to enjoying all of this.

Is it possible to keep it simple?  Maybe!  In amidst this spiral of endless choices, there are a few key terms that you can grab onto in order to get started:  Single, or produced in one facility; blended, or produced in more than one distillery; grain, which is the product of one (or more) grains in the mash; or malt, which is the product of one (usually) grain allowed to germinate before being dried and mashed.

Whisky fans out there are no doubt cracking their knuckles and preparing to excoriate me for how I’ve simplified matters, but keep in mind I’m just trying to get people started over here!  This is language enough to help any shopper decode what’s happening on the label of a liquor bottle, fully enough to decide whether it’s worth their valuable drinking dollar.  Let’s all just take a deep breath and get into some examples, why don’t we?

Blends

By far this is the most common variety that you’re going to find on liquor store shelves, and — let’s face it — likely the most affordable.  That doesn’t mean it’s not any good, but it’s going to be less about the craft purity of an individual craftsman’s careful attention to the details of his art, and more about a manufacturer doing what it takes to get a flavor that you recognize.  It’s art versus branding, personified in a bottle — the blow that mass consumption deals to the intricacy of creation.

Or, if you don’t want to load your drinking with a lot of class politics, it’s the difference between inexpensive liquor and the top-shelf stuff.  As a few good friends of mine call it, this here is your drinkin’ Scotch.

What it’s made from: A blended mixture of a malt (whether it’s barley, rye or even corn) and a grain, not necessarily from the same distillery.  The goal is to create a consistent flavor recognizable to devotees of the brand.

What it’s going to taste like: A formula designed to taste like every other bottle that brand produces, by design. Once you’ve had one, you’ve really had them all — this isn’t wine tasting, this is product quality review.

What makes it better: Age, mainly.  At the very minimum, blends will start at the 6-year mark and work their way up.  Keep in mind that, as the chap in the video mentions, flavor is accumulated in proximity to wood, so there is a logical limit to this before you’re paying for your own pucker.

What you can do with it: These are the whiskys that you’re going to turn into sours, that you’re going to use to power punches, that you’re going to chase with beers when you’ve had one of THOSE Wednesdays.

What it costs: We’re talking about your Dewars, your Canadian Clubs, your day-to-day whiskys that are going to get the job done.  The range will run from $25 to $35 at the most, and you should expect consistency, uniformity and exactly no real discovery.

Single malts

This is where things get into connoisseur territory, the far extreme from the basic blends that are designed for day-to-day chores.  These are the drinks that you should pour out and savor, sniff and sip, so that you can roll them around on your tongue and decide if there’s any sweetness, until you swallow and evaluate the burn:warmth ratio in your throat.  In other words, here’s where you get to have some real fun, though it comes at a price.

May contain some cat

Single malt whiskys get you into proper swirl ‘n’ sip territory, so brace yourself for all the fun and adventure that comes with that.

What it’s made from: The word “single” is intended to indicate that the alcohol is produced in one distillery, and malt that it is the product of only a malted grain (in the case of Scotch, barley).

What it’s going to taste like: Get ready for variety.  Tasting these whiskys (whether they’re Scotches or not) is like tasting wine, and you should be prepared for them to taste different based on the age, the point of origin and even the year.

What you can do with it: Serve it like you would a wine, and give consideration to air, to temperature and to how guests would enjoy it — and don’t cringe if they choose to enjoy it too much.

What it costs: Hoo-boy, don’t ask.  Basic single malts will start you at around $45, and then shoot off into the upper atmosphere.  There is nearly no limit to what you can choose to pay, though that isn’t actually a measure of quality — before you go that far, start at the beginning, decide the flavors you like, and go from there.

By now you get the idea:  Whisky is less of a beverage and more of a category, varied in options and rich in opportunities.  The important thing is to get comfortable, wrap your head around it, and dive in to enjoy it.

Hilariously enough, I find myself now turning back to the lessons imparted to us by the affable douchebag in the video we started with:

  1. Older does not mean better
  2. Expensive does not equal good
  3. Don’t be afraid to mix it (in this case, with water)
  4. If you use ice, don’t use too much or you’ll wreck it
  5. Try a bunch to find out what you like

But, just between us, let’s agree that suddenly these rules make a whole lot more sense now.  The joy of a whisky is in appreciating its complexity, understanding its wonderful variety — enjoy it on your terms, and have fun with every sip you take!

  • Tiestickle

    Whisky is the best. Pour over meatballs, and cook over low heat until sauce thickens. Or add ice and enjoy.

  • Jason

    ROTFLMAO! Tina posts about having a dinner of steamed bell peppers with white fish and herbs (which was an excellent low-cal recipe, I might add), immediately followed by a lengthy post from Mike – obviously well researched – about the many virtues and aspects of whiskey.

    I would suggest to also pay attention to the percent of alcohol. Most spirit distillers will dilute the final spirit to hit the 40%/80-proof standard, but any ‘Cask-Strength’ Scotch, or Bourbons in general, are undiluted from the cask and can pack quite a whollop. Taking a sip of an excellent 110-proof Bourbon, when you were thinking 80-proof, unexpectedly elevates the experience to a whole new level.

    Excellent post covering the classic drink of alcoholics.

  • http://muskegharpy.blogspot.com/ Jacquie

    The best part of Whisky in my little world? My husband hates it so I don’t have to share. I can buy a bottle of whatever single malt and it will be there, waiting for me when I get home after a bad day. He thinks it makes me smell like an old man and teases me about cigars and sansabelt pants. I, by that time, have stopped caring about anything but the glorious amber liquid in my tumbler.

  • MEP

    Whiskey is one of my favorite things in the world, and you’re right, you’re either a whiskey person or you’re not (and if you’re not, you’re usually a vodka person and you usually wrinkle your nose and groan about that one time you drank whiskey in college when you see what I’m drinking). I usually don’t drink it through the week, but I could if I wanted to, to excess, with no ill effects, because it’s just that wonderful.

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