On Whisk(e)y, by Philip Greene
I’ve been writing and presenting about cocktails and cocktail history for over 15 years, and from time to time people will ask me how different spirits are made. What is whiskey, and how is it different from, say, rum or gin? As William Faulkner once said, “Civilization begins with distillation,” and it makes sense to begin there.
Actually, to understand distillation, you have to start with fermentation. And the simplest way to understand beverage alcohol is to begin with something like wine. What is wine? It begins, of course, with grapes. You squash, excuse me, press the grapes and make grape juice. Then you add some yeast, and the yeast gobbles up the sugars in the grape juice and converts them, as a side product, into ethyl alcohol. Now you have wine. Wine typically ends up being anywhere from 10-14 percent alcohol, pretty low in potency. Beer is pretty much the same thing, but you’re not beginning with grapes, you’re beginning with grain, typically barley or wheat.
So how do these become spirits?
What happens when you take a pot of water and turn up the stove to 212 degrees Fahrenheit? The water boils away and becomes steam. OK, so let’s take that wine we just made from grape juice, or the beer we just made from grain, and turn up the heat on that, shall we? But wait! Don’t turn it up to 212, turn it up to about 175. Why is that? Because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, and if we “boil” the wine or beer in a contained contraption known as a still, the alcohol will boil away, leaving the water behind in the still. When the vapors cool and become liquid again, then you have your “spirit,” be it from fermented grapes or other fruit (known as brandy), or grains (typically becoming whiskey), sugar (rum), or potatoes (vodka, which can also be made from grains).
Let’s focus on whiskey. To repeat, whiskey begins as grain, and when allow the grains to germinate, you add water and yeast, and basically end up with beer. You distill this, and you’re left with a raw, unaged (and clear) spirit. So how does this become bourbon, or Irish, or Scotch, or rye, or …?
Let’s now look at the various expressions of that wonderful thing called whiskey. The origin of the word goes back to both Ireland and Scotland. Uisge beatha or usquebaugh are Gaelic terms for “water of life,” and were translated from the Latin aqua vitae. And while it’s believed that distillation was invented in ancient Persia, both Ireland and Scotland claim to have invented whiskey.
At this weekend’s event, you’ll taste a bunch of different whiskeys. How are they different? Here’s the skinny:
Bourbon: This term is controlled by law; you cannot call a product by this name unless it’s made from at least 51% corn. You see, every whiskey begins with the “beer” I described above. The technical term for this beer is called the “mash,” with the “mash bill” being the composition of grains. So, to be a bourbon the mash bill must be at least 51% corn, then the distiller can use other grains in making up the remainder. Most bourbons are anywhere from 51-80% corn, with the other grains being rye (8-35%, you might see reference to a “low-rye” or “high-rye” bourbon, rye will add some spiciness and burn to the resulting bourbon), wheat (no more than 20%; “wheated” bourbons tend to be smoother, think Maker’s Mark and Old Fitzgerald), and malted barley (5-12%).
That’s only the beginning. Once you make a spirit from the above-referenced “mash bill,” you have a clear, high proof spirit. To become a bourbon, the spirit is then aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels. These barrels must be new, not used, and must be made from new American white oak (typically from Arkansas and Missouri). If a barrel is re-used, it cannot be called bourbon. Early Times is no longer considered a bourbon for this very reason.
Tennessee Whiskey: Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon in composition, but it must be made in Tennessee. Further, the first step in the process after the spirit comes off the still is that it’s filtered through (sugar maple) charcoal before entering the casks for aging. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are the two principal Tennessee whiskeys, and this sugar maple charcoal filtering is known as the Lincoln County Process, named for the county in Tennessee where it was perfected.
Rye Whiskey: To be a rye whiskey, the majority of the mash bill must be composed of rye. For over a century, rye whiskey was the most common form of American whiskey, as rye was a popular grain in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern Colonies. But as more and more pioneers crossed the Appalachians into what is now Kentucky and Tennessee, farmers found corn to be easier and more profitable to grow, and distill. Rye whiskey has made a tremendous comeback in the last 15 years, and is favored by many in the craft cocktail world. It has a spicier flavor profile than bourbon or Tennessee whiskies.
Scotch Whisky: Scotch whisky (note the absence of the “e”) is typically made from malted barley. When barley grains are allowed to soak in water, they germinate or “sprout,” known as the malting process. The malted grains are then dried and roasted. In Scotland, peat has for centuries been an alternative fuel source to wood, and these malted grains were dried over peat fires. The smoky flavor of Scotch comes from the malted grains being exposed to the smoke from the peat. A “single malt” Scotch results from barley malt from one distillery, while a “blended” Scotch will be a blend of whiskies from different distilleries, and not 100% barley malt.
Irish Whiskey: Ireland’s expression of whiskey is made from barley, and typically lacks the smokiness of Scotch in that peat is rarely used in the drying process. Irish whiskey has made a big comeback in recent years.
Canadian Whiskey: Our neighbors to the north provided much of the nation’s whiskey during Prohibition, when American distilleries were largely shut down (only those allowed to make “medicinal whiskey” were allowed to operate. Canadian whiskies tend to have a higher percentage of rye (which thrives in colder climes), but many also include other grains.
Sour Mash: This term simply describes a style of distilling whiskey. Similar to how one might begin making sourdough bread using dough from a previous batch as a “starter,” in the sour mash process, fermented grains from a previous batch are introduced into the pot to get this new round of fermentation going.
Of course, there are other whiskey styles from around the world, including Japanese whiskey, but we can save that for another post in the future.
At the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival, November 21-23, you can sample tremendous whiskies from a wide range of producers (see below) in the NEW Bourbon Bar – where we are raising the “bar” in the Welsh Lobby with a unique premier Bourbon tasting experience. Please stop by and talk with me further about whiskey, classic whiskey cocktails, and facts and folklore from this amazing category of drink. You’ll find me there on Friday, November 22 (4-10pm) and on Saturday, November 23 (2-10pm).
I’ll also have copies of my three books available for sale, and I’d be honored to sign your copy!
- To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion
- The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail
- A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920’s Paris (winner of the 2018 Spirited Award for Best New Cocktail Book).
Here are those amazing Bourbon brands to check out:
- American Barrels Bourbon
- Basil Hayden
- Charles Jacquins Rainmaker Coffee Infused Bourbon
- Davenport’s Bourbon
- Grand Traverse Distillery Bourbon
- Hotel Tango Bourbon & Reserve Bourbon
- New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon
- New Holland Bourbon & Cola
- Town Branch Bourbon
Cheers, and see you soon.
About Philip Greene
Philip Green is an authority on the life and favorite drinks of Ernest Hemingway and has presented on this topic before the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center in Washington DC and at the Hemingway Home in Key West, as well as other locales around the world. His first book To Have and Have Another – A Hemingway Cocktail Companion (2015) received critical acclaim from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Huffington Post and many others, and remains a best seller. He is also author of The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail (2016) and A Drinkable Feast: A 1920s Parisian Cocktail Companion (2018), winner of the 13th Annual Spirited Award for Best New Book on Drinks Culture, History or Spirits.
Greene is a Brand Ambassador and consultant for the Hemingway Rum Co., and their line of award-winning rums under the Papa’s Pilar brand. He is one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and has presented at events such as Tales of the Cocktail and Manhattan Cocktail Classic, as well as programs for the Smithsonian Associates, the Hemingway Society, the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, as well as other notable institutions. Greene is on the Board of Directors of the National Food & Beverage Foundation as well as the Museum of the American Cocktail’s Founders Board.
Outside of the world of cocktails, Greene is a Trademark and Internet Counsel to the U.S. Marine Corps, based at the Pentagon in Washington DC.