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THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF WHISKIES Parts 1 and 2

IMG_0419                                          THE WEEKLY WINE COLUMN                                  Whisk(e)y River

Spirit-files know that a dram or two of quality Whisky makes for a rich and warming quaff on a cold winter’s night, not only because it is as rewarding served warm as on ice, but also because the best are complex and thought provoking and a lovely social lubricant.

Reason enough for this two-part journey on Quality Whiskies, starting with the two most influential Whisky Nations, Scotland and the United States.

At its base Quality Whisky is a grain mash that is fermented, distilled and aged in oak barrels. But, as with most things, the real interesting Devils are in the culturally-influenced scientific and artistic Details.

With Scotch the first thing to know is that you are looking for the term Malt Whisky, not Grain Whisky, on the label as this will be the traditional version made from Malted Barley that has been peat-smoked and distilled twice in a Copper Pot. Peat-smoke levels vary from area to area, and the good stuff stays true to the classic double-distillation as retains flavors. Scotch Malt Whiskey is required to be aged a minimum  three years in used Oak Barrels, usually Bourbon Barrels, even if there is no age indication on the label. This barrel-process contributes significantly to the spirit’s flavor adding coconut, vanilla and spice, complementing the heather, leather, and bite that are the calling cards of fine Scotch. Single Malt versions come from a single distillery, not from a single barrel, and are typically labeled with their years of barrel-age. This creation process is incredibly time and resource intensive, and the terroir where the Barley and Peat grow is considered the gold standard, and yes the best Scotch Whiskies rival Grand Cru wines in price. The good news for many is that a quality Blended Scotch Malt Whisky, which indicates it comes from multiple distilleries, can be of top-shelf quality as well and there are values to be had.

IMG_0401                                                                 High-end American Whiskey is equally delicious and complex but quite different in style and flavor profile. This is because they are not peat-smoked, the aging barrels are new, and the primary grain is corn. The outcome is a richer Whiskey with some sweetness from the new oak, deep caramel and fruit flavors, and the same vanilla, coconut, spice of Malt Scotch.  Tennessee, AKA Lincoln County, Whiskies are filtered through Maple Charcoal giving them a smoky and smooth profile.  The best Americans also bring solid structure making them                   age-worthy although they tend to peak earlier than Scotch.

When I give Whisky Presentations to people are always amazed how much top-notch Scotch and American Whiskies parralell the differences in Old and New World wines, and as with wines, Vive la Difference!

WHISKY              Part 2

The Green Isle is our first stop on Part-Deux of our World-Wide-Whisky Tour. Yes, Ireland is the original home of commercial Whiskey, and the word itself comes from the Gaelic term uisce beatha, and Old Bushmills Distillery #1.

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As with Fine Scotch, quality Irish Whiskies start with Malted Barley and are aged in old barrels for a minimum of three years. They differ from Scotch in that they rarely undergo the peat-smoke process and usually distilled at least three times making for a smoother and more accessible palate especially when young. Irish Whiskey offers enough similarity and enough uniqueness to make them a high-quality alternative to Scotch.

Next we fly across the pond and visit our polite neighbors to the north to share a dram or two of their smooth and beloved Canadian Whisky. These velvet devils are often labeled as Rye Whisky, although there is no legal requirement for them to contain any Rye at all – those whacky Canucks! They rarely do contain high percentages of Rye, but that notwithstanding, these blends do tend to be crowd pleasers and real values as well.

This begs the question; what is actual Rye Whiskey and where is it commonly made. To answer the “where” first I say, “In the good old U.S. of A. of course.” The “what” of Rye Whiskey is that in the U.S. it contains very high percentages of that spicy grain, and that spice-bite is what really sets them apart. They are commonly made in Kentucky in Bourbon Distilleries and feature the same distilling and ageing processes, but end up not only spicier but feature a drier finish as well.

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When I teach a Whisky Class I always include a Rye as it really stands alone in the world of quality brown spirits.

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Leaping across the Pacific pond, we are off to the Land of the rising Sun where for the past 20 years or so the Japanese have disrupted the World of Whisky at the very high end. Taking advantage of their coastal climates similar to Scotland and Ireland to grow their barley, and using the same processes of making  Fine Scotch, they have specialized in long-aged versions of Whisky that to my palate combine complexity and ethereal smoothness like no other. Did I mention to bring your checkbook? Even without venturing into the high end spirits shops where the four and five digit price bottles reside, one can get sticker shock just looking at Japanese Whiskies on the top shelf of your local grocer where entry level bottles of are $50 or more.

So there you have it, just in time for snuggling-by-the-fire season, the diverse world of Fine Whisky where a Winter Warmer is just a sip away.

 

 

 

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