It can be intimidating to walk into an unfamiliar restaurant and not see a single bottle that you recognize behind the apron-clad barkeeps. As bartenders, these moments are some of our favourite because they allow us to get to know the guest beyond the initial formalities of welcoming them, and allowing them to get situated. Explaining the unknown is a fun way to subtly guide the guest on a journey through the world of spirits and cocktails. Our bartenders in this city are committed and devoted to educating themselves on their booze and are happy to answer any of your questions.
I would like to address something that has been consistently coming up over the years—the differences between the various styles of whisk(e)y.
Note: Whiskey with an ‘e’ is used when referencing Irish, Canadian, or Japanese whiskies. Whisky without the ‘e’ points to everything else.
There are hundreds of books out there for readers to drink up, but here I will offer a condensed version to take with you to the liquor store, pertaining to the most popular styles, and the information I sense is unknown to some.
Did you know “whisky” comes from the Gaelic phrase uisqe beatha? The Romans translated this as aqua vitae, or “the water of life,” during their occupation of modern-day Britain. Whiskey is produced from grains such as rye, wheat, barley, corn, other malted cereals, and unmalted grains. As well, most whiskey is required to spend time in oak barrels. There is a five-step process to making whiskey: mash preparation, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and blending/bottling.
It all comes down to what is called a mash bill. Among other factors like the country the whiskey is distilled in, and the amount of time it is aged for; the mash bill determines what it is. A mash bill is the distiller’s recipe. The recipe allows us to call, for example, a distilled spirit made from 100 percent rye grain, Rye Whiskey. Here are the facts:
Single Malt Scotch Whisky is distilled solely from malted barley and nothing else.
Irish Whiskey is distilled from a mash of cereal grains, stored in oak casks for no less than three years in Ireland.
Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but must be made from at least 51 percent or more corn and aged in new, charred American Oak casks. To be Straight Bourbon Whisky, it must stay in oak for at least two years. Tennessee Whiskey is technically a type of bourbon that is made using a maple sugar-charcoal filtration process called the “Lincoln County Process.”
Rye can be made anywhere in the world, but must be made from at least 51 percent or more rye grain, and in the U.S., the same standards apply to rye as bourbon.
Canadian Whiskey is made from a mash of fermented cereal grains, aged for no less than three years in Canada. Canadian Whiskey and Canadian Rye Whiskey are used interchangeably, and the mash bill does not need to contain any rye at all. Roughly 9 percent of additives that aren’t Canadian Whiskey are allowed, but whatever is added must have been aged in wood for two years.
Japanese Whiskey was originally made to imitate Scotch, but since then Japan has developed its own style. They employ very long ferments on their barley, and use various types of malts and cereals in their mash bills.
The variety in flavour and texture among each different category is what makes whiskey such an enduring tipple of the masses. Try it neat, with a single cube, a drop of water or two, or a crystal-clear king cube. The aromas and flavours will invade your olfactory systems and you’ll begin to sense what countless others have before you.