What is Whiskey?
To put it simply, whiskey–or “whisky” if you’re Scottish or Canadian–is distilled booze made from fermented grain. The grain type, composition, production, and flavor profile varies by the variety, but whiskey is typically made from barley, corn, rye, or wheat.
Types of Whiskey
- Malt: made with at least 51% malted barley. Single malt whiskey must be produced by one distillery using one type of malted grain (not to be confused with single cask whiskey, which must be bottled from an individual cask, and will often be labeled with the barrel number).
Tasting notes: while single malt whiskeys are known to be smooth, they will vary greatly depending on the producer. In a similar vein, even with the same producer and recipe, a single cask whiskey will vary by the cask!
- Grain: made from cereal grains; usually wheat, corn, or barley. Single grain whiskey must come from one distillery.
- Blended: produced by multiple distilleries using both malt and grain, then blended for flavor.
Common Styles of Whiskey: similar to Champagne, whiskey and how it’s sold is strictly regulated.
- Bourbon: A uniquely American whiskey, bourbon must be produced in the United States. Though many falsely believe all bourbon must be made in Kentucky, it’s not strictly required to hail from the Bluegrass State. Some more fun facts about the strict rules of bourbon:
- Must be made from 51% corn: from there, it’s dealer's choice. While most distillers use rye, wheat, or some combination of the two plus a bit of malted barley, some more experimental producers use grains like quinoa or oat.
- Must be oaked: distilled to no more than 80% ABV, then aged in charred new oak barrels.
Tasting notes: vanilla, caramel
- Tennessee: must be made in the state, and follows the same rules of bourbon with one nuance: it goes through what’s called the “Lincoln County Process,” where it’s filtered through maple charcoal before aging.
Tasting notes: same vanilla/oak/caramel flavors of bourbon but slightly more mellow with a hint of smokiness
- Rye: follows the same rules as bourbon, but instead of corn, rye whiskey’s mashbill (grain makeup) must be made of 51% of… you guessed it… rye.
Tasting notes: grassy, peppery, and slightly spicy
- Irish: the most popular spirit in the world, Irish whiskey must be produced in Ireland and aged in wooden casks for at least 3 years. Generally speaking, Irish whiskey is aged for much longer, and distilled three times.
Tasting notes: light, mellow, fruity, and slightly floral on the nose with hints of vanilla
- Scotch: must be made from beginning to bottle in Scotland, with a minimum 3 years aged in oak (its “age” is typically indicated on the bottle). Though it’s not always the case, Scotch often uses peat fires to dry the barley, giving it a distinct flavor.
Tasting notes: an acquired taste, Scotch is typically slightly sharper with a distinct woody, smoky, “peaty” flavor
- Canadian: must be made in Canada using cereal grain and aged in 185 gallon wooden barrels for at least 3 years. Unlike their American and Irish counterparts, Canada allows flavoring agents like caramel to be added, and doesn’t put a cap on how high the ABV can go. Historically, Canadian whiskey made a name for itself when it was imported illegally during Prohibition!
Tasting notes: light, sweet, and mild
- Japanese: with less regulation, Japanese whiskey producers have the freedom to experiment and get creative. Though they’re known for their high quality, there’s less transparency for how the spirit is made (in fact, it’s often blended with imported Scotch and Irish whiskey).
A note: check out koji whiskey if you haven’t already! It’s made from rice treated with koji, an ancient mold often utilized in fine dining kitchens. It’s then distilled similar to shochu, and matured for years in a variety of casks.
How is whiskey made? A brief overview.
While the specific nuances for whiskey making varies by origin and style, the basic process is as follows:
- Get malty: the raw grain is germinated (or sprouts as a result of being moistened). This releases an enzyme which changes the barley’s starch to sugars. The grain is then heated to stop the germination process.
- Get sweet: to extract the sugars, the grains are ground and placed in a large “mash tun” (tank) with hot water. They're mixed, typically with malted barley to expedite the starch-to-sugar process, until as much sugar as possible is extracted and you’re left with the “wort.”
- Get fermenty: yeast is added to the wort, which eats up all the sugar and spits out all the alcohol, until you’re left with what’s called the “wash.”
- Get distilly: the wash is added to a “pot still distillation” or “column still distillation,” where the volatile compounds are extracted and the alcohol content is increased. The alcohol is heated, evaporating into vapor more quickly than the water, and the vapor is condensed and turned into liquid. This process is repeated depending on the number of times the whiskey is distilled. The distiller saves the “heads and tails” a small amount of liquid from both the initial and final phase, which is typically unpleasant in flavor. From there, they put the remaining liquid–known as the “heart” – into a barrel to age.
- Get older (& wiser): the whisky is aged in wood barrels, the type and time dependant on the producer. During this time, a small percentage of alcohol evaporates in what’s known as the “angels’ share.”
- Bottle it up!: whiskey is filtered and bottled, usually as a combination of multiple barrels (unless, of course, it’s single cask or single barrel).
As you adventure into the wild world of whiskey, consider tasting a wide variety of different styles (in moderation). In fact, a blind whiskey tasting makes for a great dinner party ice breaker--not to mention your food is all but guaranteed to taste better!
From there, you can keep it classic with some of my favorite whiskey cocktails that typically require just 3 ingredients, like my go-to drink order the Manhattan, or get a little trendy with a fat-washed spirit - recipe below!
Happy National Bourbon Day from the entire Truffle Shuffle Team!
How to Fat Wash Alcohol
Because fat freezes while alcohol doesn't, it can be added in its liquid form to spirits and left to impart its savory flavor, then frozen and skimmed, yielding an intriguing spirit with a silky-smooth mouthfeel, perfect for experimenting with in your home mixology rotation. While the fat and alcohol you use is up to your imagination, I recommend trying this technique with the truffle oil leftover from your Truffle Carpaccio, or, for a milder flavor, try using White Truffle Butter (just make sure to melt it first)!
4 ounces Truffle Carpaccio oil
750 milliliters of your spirit of choice (I like whiskey, tequila, or vodka)
Combine the two liquids in a large jar (or you can take a nice 4 ounce sip of the spirit and add the oil to your bottle, it will just make step #4 slightly trickier).
Set aside to infuse for 4 hours.
Set in your freezer overnight.
Use a knife to puncture the fat layer at the top of the jar. Line a fine mesh strainer with cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Pour the liquid through the lined strainer into the bowl.
If you notice the liquid still looks slightly funky or impure, filter it once more through a coffee filter.
Use in your favorite savory cocktails, or as an interesting twist in a boozy classic cocktail. Cheers!