Learned #22: Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch

In which we learn all about ⇈ ⇈ ⇈

Jack and Coke. That was my thing. I didn't really know why, I just knew that it sounded cool, like something Hemmingway* would drink (turns out, Papa's favorite tipple was a Gin & Tonic). Maybe Frank Sinatra. Probably Hunter S. Thompson, too. Basically, lots of guys who possessed a cool factor that transcended generations and culture lines.

So, when a friend of a friend of a friend offered to buy us booze, we said sure. When he asked what we wanted, I gave him a twenty and asked for a bottle of Jack. Just like that: a bottle of Jack. Like I knew what I was doing. We ended up with our bottle and quite a few others besides. And we learned real fast that most booze tastes like crap. Including Jack.

But I'm stubborn, especially when there are people watching.** So, I added some Coke to the cup and took a drink and passed it around like I'd done it a thousand times before. Over the course of the evening, the ratio of Coke to whiskey grew until, by the end of the night, we young Turks had drunk four liters of soda to get through a fifth of booze.

Time moves on. I don't drink either Jack Daniels or Coke anymore, but I still enjoy the occasional whiskey; I drink it as a highball, which is the default method here in Japan.

Which brings us to the reasoning behind this week’s topic: whiskey is at an all-time high in its popularity. New brands are appearing everyday, and established brands are being presented in new flavors and combinations. It can be a little confusing.

CAVEAT

It ought to go without saying, but, well, this is the internet, so: This week’s issue is about alcohol. It is meant to be a small guide to people who are interested in whiskey. Obviously, there are different legalities that must be considered so please take your local laws into account before buying or drinking whiskey. And, lastly, it’s totally okay not to drink and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

In this week's issue:

  • What We're Learning: Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch

  • What We're Reading:

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Drinkin’

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

Differentiation

Whiskey fans will expound, at length, on the differences between the three basic forms of whiskey (or, whisky), scotch, and bourbon. But at the end of the day, the main differences are more geographic and legal and less about process and product.

But, before we get too deep into all that, let’s check in with Wikipedia:

Whisky…is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak.

Okay, so, from there, what are the differences?

Mental Floss has an excellent write-up:

The main difference between scotch and whisky is geographic, but also ingredients and spellings. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, while bourbon is whiskey made in the U.S.A, generally Kentucky. Scotch is made mostly from malted barley, while bourbon is distilled from corn.

Everything else, and I do mean everything, is down to:

  • legal distinctions - the mash must be at least 51% corn in order to legally be called bourbon

  • local customs - which is why both “whiskey” and “whisky” are correct spellings but assigned to different labels

  • lengths of aging - longer is generally better

  • distillation processes - the more times it’s been distilled, the smooth it is

To put that all into context, I’ve got a bottle of Monkey Shoulder here on my desk. The label states that this liquor is, “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky.” What this tells us is that Monkey Shoulder is made by taking whiskies from different producers and combining them in the distillation process to make a new taste profile. (For the record, it’s very smooth and has a mild caramel taste; I recommend it.)

There’s a good explanation of blended vs. single malts here, on Serious Eats.com.

But why so many?

At the moment, whiskey production companies are flooding the market with all kinds of small batch, small volume, flavored products that are making an already confusing classification system that much more complicated. Thus the aisles of the liquor store are packed with weird little bottles that have names like “Whistle Pig” (good), and “Buffalo Trace” (not bad), and “Ardbeg Uigeadail” (no idea, but I really want to try it).

Whiskey has an amazing ability to pick up and enhance subtle flavors. Thus, you can get whiskies that are spicy and taste like autumn, ones that burn like cold fire and taste like smoke, ones that remind you of your grandmother’s homemade pie and taste sweet and a little sad…

Whiskey, like coffee, is an acquired taste. And, like coffee, there can be a lot of snobbery around whiskey. There are lots of “experts” out there who just can’t wait to tell you what you can and can’t drink and how you have to drink it. Ignore them. They don’t have your tastebuds, nor your life experiences.

Which means you can take your time, try lots of varieties, and figure out what kind of whiskey and which brands you like. In this week’s rabbit hole, I’ll have a few suggestions for how you can drink whiskey, but that’s all they are: suggestions.

In the meantime, got a favorite whiskey, scotch, or bourbon? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Quotated (via First We Feast):

  • “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” - Mark Twain

  • “There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” - Raymond Chandler

  • “The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it.” - Winston Churchill


*In recent years, Hemmingway, Sinatra, and a whole lot of those other cool guys have become somewhat problematic: they did not treat women very well, and more than one of those dudes was more than a little racist. But, back in the day, for literary-minded 16-year-old boys, the default template for "how to be a writer" looked a whole lot like Papa, the Doctor, and every last one of those godforsaken Beats.

**They weren't. But that's the hardest part of being a teenager, remember? Feeling like you're on stage all the time, like everyone expects you to know what you're doing even though you couldn't possibly.

What We’re Reading:

Mark Twain Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852 - 1890

by Mark Twain

Sometime in the middle of fifth grade I was barred from doing any more book reports on Ray Bradbury books. I had had a pretty good streak going, but Mrs. Tucker wanted me to branch out. So, I did. I did my next four book reports on Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Tom Sawyer, Detective.

By the time Mrs. Tucker had figured out that I had no intention of moving to yet a third author, school had ended for the year. But my love of Mark Twain never did. Over the years, I found myself reading less of his fiction and more of…everything else. The essays, letters, and speeches - especially the speeches - were erudite, funny, and, more than anything, clever.

This particular collection is published by Library of America. I’ve got several volumes that they have put out over the years. Each one is handsomely put together and has withstood the test of time. Although there is a Kindle edition available, this book really benefits from being out where it can be leafed through during down times, something to take off the shelf and ponder during slow nights.

Trust me, you’ll like this one.


Elsewhere:

joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

There are lots of ways to enjoy whiskey (or scotch, or bourbon). As I said above, here in Japan, the highball is the method of choice, but every country has their own customs. All are good, all are interesting, pick the one that works best for you.

Neat

The cowboy walks into the saloon. Card players hold their breath and gunslingers let fingers dance on the hilts of their .45s. The cowboy ignores them all, just leans against the rickety counter-top like he owns the place. The bartender puts a shot glass on the table and pours out a single measure of whiskey.

The cowboy takes the drink, rolls the amber liquid around the glass then slowly drains the glass. He pulls a silver dollar out of his pocket, real slow, then flips it to the bartender. He walks into the night and the cardplayers resume their game.

On the Rocks

It’s late. Deadlines weigh Jimmy down like a cross on the neck of a beautiful woman. He makes quick phone calls filled with all the right excuses, all the same excuses, the excuses that are no longer as believed as he wants them to be.

They call it a slump. Or a slough. But he knows they’re all just being kind. He’s washed up. Done. He might as well pack it in, hand in his resignation and hit the dole line…his eye catches on the amber bottle sitting under last year’s trophy. It’s resplendent. And…and triumphant? Sure, that’ll work.

Jimmy digs reaches into the ice bucket on the cocktail tray. Not much left, but enough. He drops a couple of cubes into the glass. Clink. Clink. The amber liquid flows like ideas from a pen. (gif)

Highball

Janie has never liked corporate get togethers. As if having to be in an office with all these people everyday was not enough of a torture chamber, now she has to use her precious free time on them?

“Highball.” The bartender raises and eyebrow like he’s going to say something, but Janie doesn’t have the patience for that. Not right now. She’s got her note cards in her purse, not that she needs them. You don’t win every Toastmaster award they’ve got by needing your note cards.

The cocktail smooths out the rough edges of her voice. Makes her feel just slightly warmer inside, like she might actually be able to like these people. Time to put on a show. Janie pulls her smile out of the bottom of the glass, takes the stage, and shines.

Advice We’re Following:

(Source)

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.