The Wide World of Whiskey: What’s Trending, How To Drink It, and More

Photo courtesy of Surdyk's
Photo courtesy of Surdyk's

Whether you’re brand-new to the world of whiskey or are a seasoned whiskey veteran, there’s no denying the popularity of this amber-colored alcohol. For this issue, we asked local liquor and cheese shop Surdyk’s in Minneapolis for their guidance on all things whiskey.

Whiskey or Whisky? Bourbon or Scotch? What About Irish Whiskey?

“Whiskey or whisky (spelling depends on country of origin) is a sweeping category of grain distillates divided into numerous fashions and styles by how they are made,” says Bill McCleary, an expert consultant for Surdyk’s.

Generally, “whiskey” is found in America and Ireland, while “whisky” (without the “e”) comes from Scotland, Canada, and Japan. But it’s more than just the spelling, and here’s where things cross over a little. Whiskey (and whisky) will also vary based on how many times it’s distilled. Generally, in America and Scotland, it’s distilled twice, but in Ireland it’s distilled three times.

“All are whiskeys by differing grain recipes and distilling techniques,” says McCleary. “Grains (wheat, rye, barley, and corn, plus others) have a huge impact, as does the storage barrel size and the wood used for finishing and maturing the various whiskeys.”

For example, bourbon must be made of mostly corn to be considered in that category (51% minimum) and by law must be made in the U.S.A.. On the other hand, Scotch includes both malt whisky and grain whisky, and must come from Scotland.

Also, bourbon must be made in a new, charred oak barrel every single time (this is part of why you see so many other things labeled as “aged in bourbon barrels” for flavor, like wine, cheese, etc. Those one-time-whiskey-use barrels get used for other foodstuffs), whereas Scotch can re-use barrels.

And what about Irish whiskey? That’s made with mostly barley and is typically aged longer, at least three years to American whiskeys’ two. It also usually has a lighter flavor than most American whiskeys, though American whiskey generally has more variety.

Where Do You Start and How Do You Drink It?

If you’re new to drinking whiskey, it can seem a little overwhelming to dig through all the options. Whether you’re looking at bourbon, Scotch, rye, Tennessee, Irish, or Japanese whiskey (just to name a few), there are a LOT of choices.

“Your taste tolerance should guide you to what you like best,” says McCleary. He recommends a few good starting whiskeys for beginners.

For bourbon, he likes Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam, which are all classic distilleries from Kentucky. If you want to try Scotch, he recommends Balvenie or Johnnie Walker Red. For Canadian whisky, give Windsor or Canadian Club a try.

McCleary’s best advice? “High price doesn’t mean better whiskey/whisky. Don’t start with the highest price from these producers. See if you like the style and then move up as your taste and palate matures.”

As for how to enjoy your whiskey, there are a few ways (we’ll get to cocktails toward the end). You can order it “neat,” which means your drink is pure whiskey, not even ice in the glass (some bartenders also call this “straight,” so ask if you’re unsure). Or, you can order it “cut,” which means a few drops of water are added (but no ice). Last, you can order it “on the rocks,” which means with ice included.

Each way will change the taste of the liquor. Neat will be the strongest/most intense, because the alcohol isn’t diluted. Adding a few drops of water will mellow the liquor a little, while adding ice will mellow it even more. And of course, the longer you let your ice melt, the more diluted your whiskey will be. Experiment and see what you like best!

Whiskey’s Rise in Popularity

The liquor industry is reporting a surge in sales of whiskey-type drinks, thanks to the interest in the vast diversity of this type of alcohol, plus the rise of distilleries both locally and worldwide. New distilleries, including micro distilleries, are offering original labels to compete with the giants of the industry like Jack Daniels, Glenfiddich, Jameson, etc.

“More countries are entering the whiskey market (Taiwan, New Zealand, India, Japan, and many more),” says McCleary. “A global explosion in whiskey popularity is flooding retailers with new products. Minnesota alone has dozens of new distilleries: Tattersall, J. Carver, 11 Wells, Vikre, Far North, O’Shaughnessy to name just a few.”

What’s Trending, According to Experts

“Scotch, made with burnt peat moss and earthy barley grain, will never go out of style!” says McCleary. “Bourbon made with corn, and only new oak wood barrels, while more popular than ever, has always had a loyal following. And of course, Irish whiskey is a must have on every St. Patrick’s Day.”

Along with these whiskeys, McCleary notes that premium ice is all the rage at bar scenes and even home use. Premium ice are the large, clear, glass-filling cubes and spheres you see decorating whiskey drinkers glasses. “They certainly elevate the cocktail experience,” he says.

Speaking of cocktails, another thing that will elevate your drinking experience? Higher quality ingredients, including ice.

“Ice, as mentioned above, is more important than most people think,” says McCleary. Which makes sense — the quality of the liquid you add to your liquor, even frozen, will affect its flavor.

McCleary also recommends looking at your supporting ingredients when opting for cocktails. “The better the quality of the supporting ingredients (vermouth, bitters, garnishes) the more you improve the final cocktail’s taste.”

But perhaps the most important ingredient? Your environment. McCleary says:

“Don’t forget that who you are [with] for conversation and friendship adds a big difference in cocktail enjoyment.”

As for his favorite cocktail? “A classic Manhattan,” he says. “It’s easy to make, and you can sit and sip on one while you watch the leaves turn to ‘whiskey’ colors!”

One last aside:[1]  this writer prefers her whiskey neat and honors her Irish roots with Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, but for cocktails, chooses a good whiskey smash.

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