Whiskey pouring into a glass

A few things I’ve learned and love about whiskey

Whiskey is my alcohol of choice. That’s a preference founded on years and perfectly-me nerdy intention, as you might have read.

For most of the last decade I’ve casually tried to learn more about the culture, stories and experience. Below I share a few concepts that have stood out to me as most interesting.

I’ve learned plenty more than I once knew: from uncles and friends, articles, podcasts and a book, distilleries in Ireland, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and beyond, plus lots of more thoughtful drinking at home, bars and weddings — weddings in particular haven proven an effective place for me to taste test and compare.

One thing that is clear though that I am no expert. I don’t pretend to be. I am a true novice, but an excited one. I likely will never position myself as anything like that; too many people with dual degrees in chemistry and history and decades of experience devote their lives to this fun subject. I simply enjoy whiskey and learning more about it. So I’d rather talk to and ask a lot of questions of a true expert. That won’t be me. I do like sharing what I have learned with those interested.

In my early 20s, I felt intimidated by wine culture, remnants of a very old product that for most of our country’s history was expensive in part because it all had to be imported. (This has changed, of course, as I  wrote about in this silly post about cups) By contrast whiskey (and beer) was made locally (and for most of its history, made very poorly).

me with a bottle of whiskey and a glen cairn glass
Deep in my American whiskey ? exploration earlier this year, my friend Laris Kreslins gifted me two POWERS Irish Whiskey standards to make sure I don’t forget my Irish roots. I contrasted their basic Gold Label with this very nice single pot still Three Swallow Release, which makes use of bourbon barrels. Very rich caramel flavor. Thanks Laris!

Distilleries were often in remote places (like Western Pennsylvania or, yes, rural Kentucky) because farmers sought profitable ways to manage surplus crops. This was part of the rugged individualism that Americans grasped onto, largely in contrast with old colonial powers and their wine-drinking culture. (Since as early as I could, I’ve always loved a good brewery tour, and I’ve found that distilleries are at least as much fun, since they all tend to mix history, culture, science and tasting.)

With whiskey, I’ve found all the fun of deep wine culture, without the pretense. Though I’m developing my knowledge and taste, I know one of the first rules of whiskey connoisseurs is that the spirit is best consumed however you want to consume it. If you want to appreciate the tastes (Here are some tips on tastings), think about neat, specific cocktails or with a drop of water. If you want to plunge it in soda, then so be it; better yet, you can even then focus on cheaper whiskies.

Below are some favorite quirks and basics that I’ve learned over the last several years and consider a good foundation:

  • Scotch created the original whisky snobs, but the Irish tradition brought to the United States is now creating a new wave. I do not want to be a snob. You shouldn’t either.
  • Scotch-Irish and other immigrants brought distilling habits to the American continent, leveraging the native grains here of corn and rye. These ‘native grains’ were considered lesser than by Eurocentric early colonial influences. Helpfully whiskey roots (acqua vitae and all) in Scotland and Ireland were also an anti-authoritarian act. Add use of native grains only extended this.
  • Whiskeys are defined by a mash bill: bourbon must have at least 51 percent corn; rye must have at least 51 percent rye, Scotch and Irish whiskeys are both geographically tied and majority barley; most other whiskeys are either majority barley or a plurality of the three. (Some fewer use wheat in their mash bill)
  • Whiskey is global: For instance, note how many of the world’s 25 best selling whiskeys are distilled in India.
  • There are primary styles of American rye: higher rye variations called Pennsylvania Rye and higher corn offerings called Maryland Rye. Scotch Irish first in Pennsylvania and Maryland (George Washington’s profitable high-corn mash bill distillery helps define the Maryland style of sweeter rye)
  • Pennsylvania rye has a far bigger influence on early American whiskey than I Realized. Rittenhouse Rye started in Philadelphia and Michter’s was made 90 minutes outside of the city. Even more of the action is in Western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh. James “Old Crow” was a chemist in Philadelphia who developed modern sour mash processed after moving to Kentucky. A Philadelphia distiller and writer named Harrison Hall was among the first to write about Kentucky-style whiskey with high-levels of corn that had aged in barrels during the long trip to the New Orleans port, as Bourbon Empire reprints. Publicker was a chemicals manufacturer in South Philadelphia that garnered national attention for their attempt after Prohibition to artificially age whiskey.
  • There has been massive consolidation in bourbon, like the entire liquor industry. So hundreds of familiar American whiskey brands are from just a dozen companies. Whiskey is like Jefferson on the label (small and independent) but Hamilton inside the bottle (efficient, corporate consolidation)
  • But there has been an explosion of craft distilleries; something like more than 600 in the last 20 years
  • Whiskey is now made in every U.S. state, including Dad’s Hat Rye in Pennsylvania
  • Because of the years-long lag time to be able to sell finished whiskey product, there has long been contract distilleries, like giant MGPI, which gets teased for inauthenticity. But it is one of the country’s oldest and most established distilleries. (By the way, you can find if a contract distillery was used with “Produced By” language on the label rather than “Distilled by”)
  • Whiskey (from grains) is one of six broad categories of distilled spirits, along with tequila/mezcal (agave), rum (sugarcane), gin (juniper berries), brandy (fruit via wine) and vodka (you know, just ethanol)
  • “In the heroic ages our forefathers invented self government, the constitution and bourbon, and on the way to them they invented rye,” wrote Bernard Devoto

(Whiskey photo via Unsplash)

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