Problem: I Want to Drink Whiskey, but I Don’t Know the First Thing About It.

A beginner’s guide to the brown stuff.
December 14, 2012

Your grandpa drank it, maybe even your dad, too, and perhaps you’ve had a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned before. But you’ve never had the gall to order up a whiskey—or whisky, as the Scottish, Japanese and some American purists prefer—neat. The spirit is on the rise, though, as a new generation switch from the standard slew of vodka drinks to the complexities of uisce beatha (the original Gaelic word for the hooch, literally meaning “water of life”).

What is whiskey, anyway, and what makes it different from other spirits? “The primary distinction according to the U.S. law is defined by the proof at which it comes out of the still,” explains Colin Spoelman, co-founder and master distiller of Kings County Distillery. “Whiskey is distilled from a fermented grain mash. If you were to divide the world of spirits into two categories, there’s spirits made from fruit sugars”—cognac, grappa and the like—“and there’s spirits made from grain sugars,” Spoelman continues. Whiskey is the latter. From there, the spirit can be divided even further, into what is essentially vodka, or neutral spirits, and whiskey. “The way that the government determines what is whiskey and what is vodka has to do with the proof at which the spirit comes off the still.” Got that?

Basically, whiskey is lower in alcohol when it’s first produced, meaning that it doesn’t need to be distilled as many times as vodka does in order to make it palatable. That’s also why you see vodkas branded as “distilled six times”—it gets smoother every time you distill it. It’s also why whiskey is generally aged in oak barrels, giving it its taste and color.

Within the category of whiskey there are several distinctions and variations that greatly affect the flavor of your drink. “By law bourbon has to be aged in virgin charred oak barrels. So they char the barrel, age the bourbon in it and then they can’t use those barrels again,” explains John Hansell, editor of The Whisky Advocate. Irish and Scottish whiskies will use the spent bourbon barrels, as well as other types of barrels, like port or sherry barrels, to age their whiskey, which gives those types of the liquor different flavor profiles. The different types of grain a whiskey distiller uses will also change the flavor of the spirit. “Bourbon, by law, has to contain at least 51 percent corn, so when you drink a bourbon, you’re getting a lot of corn flavors,” Hansell elaborates. “A single malt scotch, from Scotland, is made exclusively with 100 percent malted barley.” Other common types of whiskey: Irish whiskey; rye whiskey, made from a mash that is at least 51 percent rye grain; Japanese whiskey, similar to Scotch and generally made from malted barley (which means that the seed of the grain has been allowed to germinate slightly, changing the enzyme profile, and thus the flavor of the grain); corn whiskey, made from mash that is at least 80 percent corn; wheat whiskey, made from mash that is at least 51 percent of, you guessed it, wheat; and white or un-aged whiskey (sometimes called white lightning or, erroneously, moonshine) is produced in the same way as bourbon, but either not aged, or aged so little as to not matter.

Most hardcore whiskey drinkers will admit that there’s no wrong way to drink whiskey. “I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way,” says Maker’s Mark chief operating officer and eighth-generation distiller Rob Samuels. “Ginger ale is a nice mixer, especially on a hot day.” Spoelman and Hansell agree. “People who are afraid to try whiskey or think they don’t like whiskey, one thing you can do is to add water to it. It brings the alcohol level down and it might be easier to drink,” Hansell offers. “My philosophy is to not be very pretentious.”

What brands of whiskey come recommended? “I have a bottle of Balcones Baby Blue corn whiskey. Balcones is a great, well-respected little distillery out of Texas and they make a great whiskey,” says Spoelman. Bulleit Rye, he says, is his go-to rye. “If there’s sort of the Coke/Pepsi debate between Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve, I’ll go Woodford Reserve.”