Understanding the Wonderful World of Whiskey (and Whisky)
Learn about the nuanced differences between Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and Japanese whisky.
It's a relatively simple recipe: Ferment some grains, distill them into alcohol, put the alcohol in an oak barrel for a while, then drink. And yet, simple as it all may seem, a person could spend an entire lifetime studying and tasting the whiskies of the world and still not know all there is to know about this fabled spirit. For that reason, it can be completely daunting for someone who isn't ready to commit to years of study to simply buy a bottle of something to enjoy by the fire or pour into a cocktail. That's why we're here to cover the basics of whisky.
So, Is It Whiskey or Whisky?
Luckily, this is one question with a straightforward answer: The spelling simply depends on the country of origin. If it's made in Ireland or the U.S., it's spelled "whiskey." If it comes from Scotland, Japan, or Canada, it's "whisky." Just like wine, whisk(e)y is characterized by terroir—a unique expression of the earth where the grains were grown, the water source, the fuel that's used to finish the malting process, the wood of the aging barrels, and the air that circulates around the whisky barrels as they age.
All About Scottish Whisky, Otherwise Known as Scotch
Scotland has a whisky tradition stretching back over 500 years, and there are over 130 distilleries currently operating in a country that's less than one-fourth the size of California. Scotland is divided into five distinct whisky-making regions: Speyside, Lowland, Highland, Islay, and Campbeltown. Each region is known for the unique characteristics of its whisky. Drinkers who are new to Scotch may prefer to begin their journeys with Lowland whisky, which is soft and smooth, whereas seasoned Scotch drinkers may gravitate towards the smoky, peaty products of Islay.
But what is peat? It's a plant-rich soil cut from bogs (soggy, swampy swaths of land) that's then dried and used for fuel, as it has been for centuries. Peat contains different vegetation (grasses, mosses, tree roots, and so forth) depending on what area of the country is comes from, thus it has different flavors and aromas. For example, peat from some parts of the Scottish Highlands contains heather. Distillers control the time and intensity of the barley's exposure to peat smoke depending on the finished product they're aiming to create. The heating process creates chemical compounds called phenols, which imbue the whisky with flavors like smoke and iodine. Peated whiskies have a PPM (Phenol Parts per Million) number, which indicates how intense the peat characteristics are in each bottle.
Interested in trying Scotch whisky? Glenmorangie "The Original" ($35.99, wine.com) is an elegant, floral Highland single malt that will make you fall in love with Scottish whisky. When you're ready to sink your teeth in try Caol Ila. Smoky, salty, peaty, this Islay whisky is bold at 12 years old ($69.99, wine.com) and nuanced at 25 years old ($209, klwines.com).
All About Irish Whiskey
Right now, Irish whiskey takes the title of most rapidly growing spirit in the world. That's pretty impressive staying power for a beverage that dates back to the 12th century—any Irish person will be happy to point out to you that Irish whiskey predates Scotch. Modern Irish whiskey regulations are not as rigid as those in Scotland, which means that the whiskeys coming out of Ireland vary vastly from distillery to distillery. In general, however, Irish whiskeys have a reputation of being lighter and sweeter than Scotch.
For mixing, try The Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey ($39.99, drizly.com); it comes from the masterminds behind one of the best bars in the world and The Dublin Liberties Whiskey Company. Both teamed up to create a proprietary blend just right for cocktails or everyday tippling. For sipping, the Redbreast 15 Year ($91.99, wine.com) is spicy, fruity, and complex—this is a great all-around sipper for after-dinner or fireside contemplation.
All About Japanese Whisky
Japan has been producing silky, exquisitely crafted whisky for a century, but its merits were virtually unknown in the U.S. until just a few years ago. A Japanese whisky (Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask) brought home the title of World's Best Whisky in 2015 and it created a sensation throughout the beverage world. Soon, there was a worldwide shortage of Japanese whisky; prices doubled and tripled seemingly overnight. There are many kinds that are simply unavailable right now. That's the perpetual problem of the whisk(e)y boom in general: Demand is always several years ahead of the supply. You just can't rush an 18-year-old whisky, not for any amount of money.