~ by Jenny Benzie, Advanced Sommelier + Certified Wine Educator, Proprietress of Épernay Wine & Spirits ~
You remember your father having a blended Scotch Whiskey (or Whisky: countries with an “e” in their names tend to spell it with an “e”; countries without leave it out) on the rocks as his cocktail of choice. It was easy to make, not a complicated beverage, and had that little bit of a burn going down the pipes: a man’s type of drink. Your older brother used to take a nip of Canadian Whisky when he was out deer hunting. It helped to keep him warm and pass the time as he was waiting patiently for the right moment to make his mark. And then there are the college football games where everyone likes to cheer with a splash of good ol’ American Whiskey. Its production is tried and true to the tradition of our forefathers, just like the colors of your Alma Mater.
Whiskey production has changed immensely recently, especially just over the past ten years. What we see on the market today isn’t your Pappy’s type of drink anymore. To give you a little background on this hooch, it is important to know what whiskey is and how it is made.
Whiskey is strictly regulated across the globe with different classifications and types. The typical unifying characteristics of these are the fermentation of grains, their distillation and then aging in wooden barrels. Whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains, such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat, are used in varying quantities to create different varieties of whiskey. The mash is made from a rather complex and timely process of combining milled grain and water together. With the addition of yeast, this mixture is then heated to start the fermentation process that will convert the grain into alcohol. Once the fermentation is complete, the liquid that remains is strained off and then distilled. This is when the alcohol will evaporate and siphon itself off the remaining water. The end result is a white spirit which then must be barrel aged to create your final product.
With such a wide range of choices on the whiskey shelf these days, here is a quality cross-reference of what’s currently available and worth seeking for a dram or two in order to educate your self across the whiskey spectrum. Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
In order for whiskey to be labeled as bourbon, it must be made from a mash that that consists of at least 51% corn and produced in the United States. While it does not have to be made only in Kentucky, this is where about 95% of the production hails from.
Buffalo Trace is a fine example of the bourbon heritage that comes from Kentucky. Produced in Franklin County, this straight bourbon whiskey is named after the pathway that was carved by buffalo migrating across the Kentucky River. It is distilled from the finest blend of corn, rye, and barley malt, aged in new charred oak barrels for years in century old warehouses and bottled at its peak of maturity at the oldest continuously operating distillery in America (over 200 years) and the “world’s most award-winning distillery.” The whiskey has a deep amber color, complex notes of vanilla and toffee, a sweet taste of brown sugar and baking spices with a smooth long, warm finish with lots of depth. Consider this one to be best served with one large ice cube that will melt slowly in the glass, not to dilute the potency of the punch too quickly.
Triple Eight Nor’Easter Bourbon
Bringing it closer to home and the shores of Nantucket, the Nor’Easter is a must-try for any whiskey connoisseur. Aged 30 miles out to sea, its geographical limitations alone make it a distinctive product as a reflection of Nantucket’s unique location and climate.
Nor’Easter Bourbon is named for the legendary massive storms with their strong, northeasterly winds that travel across the Mid-Atlantic and wreak havoc all over New England. It is made from a mash of 60% corn, 35% barley and 5% rye. After distillation, the bourbon is typically aged four to eight years in 53-gallon, charred American oak barrels sourced from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. The ocean and marine haze prevalent on the island certain times of the year adds a touch of salt to the bourbon, which is complimented by notes of mild vanilla, sweet corn, and a touch of honey. After more than 8 years of “beauty rest,” the bourbon is brought to 88.8 proof (get it: Triple Eight Distillery?) before bottled by hand.
SOMETHING OF NOTE: The Nor’easter Bourbon bottle flies a flag from International Maritime Signal Flags symbolizing the letter W (for whiskey). The same flag also signifies “requires medical assistance” which could also translate as “in need of more whiskey”!
Suntory Whisky Toki
While the history for production of Japanese whisky doesn’t date back quite as far, it is almost a century-old history encapsulated in the Japanese philosophy of harmony that exists between nature and people. This includes the its pure water, the variety of the four seasons, making and preparation of the casks used for aging, diversity in their malt whisky production and lastly the team spirit and legacy behind the whisky artisans.
Inspired by Scotch whisky with a firm foundation on terroir and a sense of place, Suntory Distillery looked for the same in their native homeland. Toki means “time” in Japanese. and this blended whisky brings together the respect for Japanese heritage and tradition with its innovative spirit to remain world class in its category. Three separate, distinctive distilleries (Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita) each add a component to this blend to create balance, harmony and oneness that has a silky, subtle sweetness with a hint of white pepper and ginger. The most popular way to drink this by Japanese tradition where you have an artful blend of whisky and freshly opened sparkling water over a generous serving of ice – simple, stylish and refreshing.
High West Distillery Bourye
Next up in the saddle is a masterful blend from High West Distillery is located in the world-class winter sporting location of Park City, Utah. Bourye is a unique, premium blend of their rich bourbon and rye whiskey (which must be made from at least 50% rye mash), making for an ultra-luxury sipping whiskey and soon to be one of your all-time favorites. The name is a combo of the two key ingredients: “Bou” for bourbon and “rye” for rye whiskey. In order to better understand the flavor rye adds to bourbon, think of the last time you had a perfectly toasted piece of rye bread. Rye is mainly used as a flavoring grain and adds a spicy, almost cinnamon flavor to the final blend. The taste is full of vanilla, caramel and a long finish of dried orange peel and potpourri. Bourye is best enjoyed sipping it straight (no rocks at all) or with just a few drops little water.
Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey – 12 Year Old World
Before the American Revolution, the United Stated was well known for its production (and consumption) of American Rye. It fell by the wayside for many generations and was replaced by the sweet, easy to grow corn used to make whiskey as rye is much more difficult to distill. Whistle Pig Distillery, located in Shoreham, VT, has set out to rekindle the American spirit and make the world’s finest whiskey as a ‘grain to glass’ operation. This 100% pure, aged rye is much more flavorful, complex, and delicious than most corn-based whiskey. Whistle Pig has taken their rye production one step further by creating the 12 Year Old World in which American boldness meets European elegance. After studying the best techniques of the old World (especially Scotch whiskies), they decided to pair their 12 year old rye with premium European casks used to make Madeira, Sauternes and Port. The marriage of these three finishes highlights the distinctive flavors of each to create an exceptionally balanced spirit – 63% Madeira, 30% French Sauternes, 7% Port.
This is just a nimble of the fine exploration that can be done to expand your whiskey repertoire. It’s a tough whiskey business, but someone’s got to do it and you might as well be the one during the autumn weeks ahead.