Lesson Five: Brown Spirits

Chapter Three: Whiskey from the Americas

When it comes to whiskey’s color, the color lines are simple too: White spirits are clear in color because they are not usually aged in wooden containers; wood containers are the source of the color of brown spirits. Yes, sometimes caramel is used to color spirits, but most of the time the motivation is to ensure that all the brand’s bottles are the same color, and not to provide color per se.

The brandy lesson should have explained why they smell and taste differently. And as with white spirits, a big difference is whether the spirit is made from grape or grain. Yes, it’s a big difference, but not as big as in white spirits. The barrels that darken a white spirit (and flavor it too) add so much character that the raw ingredients may be difficult to distinguish.

But not impossible. Bourbon is a whiskey made mostly from corn. If you want to know what Bourbon smells like, start by opening a can of creamed corn and taking a big whiff. Of course, there are lots more flavors; the barrel has a far more intense aroma than the grain: Since Bourbon must by law be aged in new, burnt (usually American) oak barrels, the flavors and aromas of those particular barrels become a part of the spirit. So Bourbon will offer notes of soot and ash, caramel and butterscotch, coconut and vanilla, along with the creamed corn.

Rye whiskey, on the hand, has much less corn in it so creamed corn is not an obvious aroma; rather, it’s rye grain’s peppery notes that show. Canadian whisky, a whole other thing, doesn’t generally offer as much creamed corn, soot, ash, none of that. It’s a spirit that is generally aged in used barrels, and it’s meant to be softer and smoother, if more neutral. That’s what it tries to be; whether you like that or whether you don’t. Frankly, the sales numbers would suggest that most people like it.

You might recall from the Brandy chapter (Lesson Five, Chapter One) that barrels lose their flavors and aromas the longer they have been used. Bourbon is aged only in new barrels; it’s damned intense and means to be. Canadian whisky isn’t meant to be intense; it’s meant to be soft. Which is better? Well, right now, Canadian whisky producers are lazy and they make a lot of boring whisky. They need to wake up. Bourbon distillers have been kicking ass like they’re young and drunk for a couple of decades. Make no mistake; Bourbon distillers are not particularly young people because the old folks have been in charge for a while. But they’re stoked for the task and Bourbon has been a more exciting and dynamic (read: changing) category than any other whiskey region for quite a while.

The Scots have wakened up and, since they have the world’s most complex whiskies in their cellars, they are doing some amazing things. There will be more about them in the Scotch Lesson (Lesson Five, Chapter Three). The Irish have been playing catch-up and they have suddenly become the flavor of the month among consumers. We’ll explain that in the Irish Whiskey Lesson (Lesson Five, Chapter Four). The Canadians, oh, yeah…

Whisky Or Whiskey?

If you’ve ever stared at whiskey bottles in a clear-eyed state, you know, early in the evening, you’ve noticed that the word whisky is often spelled whiskey. Or vice versa, depending upon when you noticed, or how early your evening began. It’s not like there’s a law, but the Scots always spelled their whisky without an ‘e’ and the Irish have spelled theirs with an ‘e’. Despite offering a gross generalization, it isn’t crazy to say that the Scots had a big impact in Canadian whisky history, and the Irish had a bigger impact in the U.S.A. So Canadian whisky is spelled in the Scottish manner; American whiskey has adopted the Irish brogue: whiskey. So we’re going to try to stick to “whiskey” when it’s appropriate and “whisky” when that seems right, just like on any ordinary evening out. You see, we drink all kinds of whiskies…

As we negotiate through these differing areas, we’ll be focused upon four questions:

  1. What’s it made from?
  2. How is it distilled?
  3. For how long and in which barrels is it aged?
  4. Where is it aged?

A quick synopsis of each of these whiskies:

Canadian whisky is made mostly from corn. Most of the spirit Canadians use is distilled to such a high proof that it’s pretty similar to vodka when it goes into the barrel. That makes it fairly soft and mild when it finally goes into the bottle. Canadian whisky barrels are everybody else’s used barrels, and they don’t age their whiskies for a long time, so again the whisky tends towards mildness. Their warehouses are in middle part of the country, with a continental climate: it gets hot in the summer, and it gets really cold in the winter; that seems to age the whiskies fairly quickly, so six or eight years in barrel renders the whiskey rich with caramel. It tends to be a soft, easy drinking whisky, and it’s what most whisky drinkers above the age of thirty were trained on. It’s supposed to be elegant but some whiskey enthusiasts find it boring.

Bourbon whiskey is made predominately from corn (minimum 51% but usually much, much more). The spirit may be distilled as high as 160 proof but retains a lot of character and then goes into newly charred oak barrels. The Bourbons in those barrels are usually aged for four to ten years, much as in Canada, but it’s definitely hotter in the American Midwest than it is in Canada. There is little that is elegant about it; rather, it has the finesse of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, screaming “Heineken? Heineken’s for pussies!!” leaving you to wonder upon the exact mix of drink and drugs that has brought him to this point.  Perhaps some Bourbon, Mr. Hopper?

Tennessee whiskey is little different from Bourbon whiskey, except that it is supposed to come only from Tennessee and by practice, it is filtered in something called the Lincoln County Process. Again, this is not defined by law, only by habit, but the two Tennessee distillers use a vat ten foot deep and wide filled with sugar maple charcoal, and then drip their spirit through that vat, theoretically removing a few congeners in the process.

Rye whiskey is still a tiny category in sales, but these days if you’re into cool American whiskey, you are down with rye. It has at least 51% rye in the mashbill; there’s often more, but a bit of barley is still part of the mix.

Corn whiskey is the 19th century equivalent of Pepsi in a flask, but it’s a novelty at most. Still, it threatens to return as distilleries pop up like morels in soggy spring and look for something they can claim as their own. It contains at least 80% corn in the mashbill; used American oak barrels are the norm.

Scotch whisky was originally made only from barley, because that’s what they had. Traditionally it was distilled in little pot stills, and some of them were quite portable, so distilling your leftover grains to keep the value of the harvest intact was easy. And with portable stills, it was easy to hide from the British overlords who sought to collect their onerous taxes on stills and whisky. Scotland, especially northern Scotland, is a brown and spare land, but along the rivers there are glens that provide shelter from prying eyes. They also offer cold, abundant water for the cooling needs of the still, the wort and beer. Not surprisingly, the word “glen” pops up now and again on labels.

Originally all Scotch whisky was single malt Scotch whisky. That kind of whisky is powerful and intense, too much for many drinkers (maybe most drinkers). By the beginning of the 20th century, Scotch was moving towards a style called Blended Scotch Whisky, which blended the old Single Malts with something more like vodka, exactly in the same way as typical Canadian whisky is blended.

A century ago Irish whiskey was to Scotch whisky what Canadian whisky is to Bourbon: something softer and milder and sometimes a bit boring in comparison. But that’s unfair to a country that may be the progenitor of the very notion of whisk(e)y: basically barrel-aged, distilled beer. And when it comes to the question of who actually created this category, we’re not able to tell you to whom should be given the credit of making a white spirit into a brown spirit. It’s as David Wondrich describes cocktail history: it’s a history written by inebriates; they’re going to have trouble with the facts.

While most texts describe Irish whiskey as triple distilled in pot stills from unmalted barley and aged for at least three years in used American oak barrels, the reality is far more diverse. Their pot stills are massive; stills which due to their size act more like continuous stills because they create a more moderate, less powerful distillate. Unmalted and malted barley both are used, but so too is corn and even some other grains on occasion. Used American oak barrels are wonderfully affordable for an impoverished people, but with a new, thirsty and well-heeled group of customers, Irish whiskey distillers have eagerly adopted all manner of other barrels: Port, Madeira, Sherry and even new barrels.

Jesh the Facts, Occifer

BOURBON: You will sometimes read that Bourbon is supposed to come from Kentucky or Bourbon County, Kentucky. Nope. Bourbon is a style of whiskey that was born in the Americas, perhaps even in Kentucky, maybe even in Bourbon County, Kentucky. But it doesn’t have to come from anywhere in particular.

However, it has to be made in a particular way. We’ve explained that it’s made from a corn-based beer, distilled to a fairly high proof and then aged in brand new charred oak barrels. Though there are products labeled as Bourbon, what you really want get is “Straight Bourbon”. “Straight whiskey” follows a stricter regimen and “Straight Bourbon”must be aged for at least two years in barrel, though most will opt for a minimum of four years or more, and all that time in a burnt barrel leaves its mark: a reddish color, a powerful nose and mouth. We think that reddish color is why the cowboys in the old westerns used to say, “Hey, barkeep! Give me a shot of redeye!” On the other hand, we are way off subject and making shit up now. Back to our story.

Today, Bourbon barrels are aged in rickhouses (that’s what they call these tin sheds that rise a few stories into the sky), under the hot summer sun or exposed to the cold winter winds. There have been lightning strikes upon these buildings and they just blow up. We mean literally. Run, Forrest, run.

Fortunately, that’s infrequent, so there’s plenty for us to drink. And there are differing styles of Bourbon to choose from as well: some will blend a bit of rye whiskey into their corn based mashbills; some will use gentle wheat for their “small grains”, as they refer to any grain that’s not big fat corn. But with corn making up 80% or so of the mashbill, it’s all about the corn.

Some distillers like to move barrels about in the rickhouses; a barrel might start life out on the ground floor where temperature swings are less extreme, and then might be moved upstairs for a spell. Most others simply pull whiskey from barrels at various levels and areas within the rickhouse to achieve a similar effect. But the mysterious thing is that the barrels will age differently, not only those barrels that are on different levels, but barrels that sit side by side. Some barrels get special; the distillers will sometimes call them “honey barrels” because they get sweet and complex, like honey.

Increasingly, Bourbon producers are offering “single barrel Bourbons” or “small batch Bourbons”. A single barrel is just what it says it is: one single barrel, probably, a pretty sweet honey barrel at that. Small batch Bourbons are not really from a single, small batch; they are usually a collection of damned good honey barrels. We’re even seeing vintage Bourbons now; again, they are usually a bunch of honey barrels that happen to be all from the same year of distillation. The Bourbon producers are smart enough to coax lots of different products from the same barrels and the rest of the whiskey industry ought to watch and learn, and even emulate. Some are.

Canadians are So Nice, Y’know?

But then there’s the Canadians. They make a gentle, polite, nice kind of whisky. No “e”, no brand new burnt barrels, no crazy creamed corn, but straight whisky cut with neutral grain spirit and as a result, their whisky is either bland or soft and cuddly, dependent upon what you like to cuddle up to. Don’t get us wrong; there are some gorgeous Canadian whiskies, but there are not enough of them. The industry makes a crapload (that is an official volume designation, by the way) of whisky; they have an even greater cartload of whisky in barrels and they could produce a lot of lovely whisky if they would only try. Maybe they think they do. Who knows.

But before we start an international incident, let’s accentuate the positive, shall we? The Canadian whisky industry began life much like other whisky distillers: they had grain and it would rot unless they distilled it. So they did and they sent that to their ports for barter and cash. In truth, they weren’t making much more than their own people could consume until their neighbors to the south went crazy and voted in something they called the “Noble Experiment.” The Canadians might have referred to it as the “Noble Exporting” because within a year or two of American Prohibition, Canadian whisky exports had blossomed by four hundred percent. Guess the Canadians had just gotten thirsty, eh?

No, whisky from Canada was pouring across the border, floating on the Great Lakes, or transported under truck beds and in secret car crooks and crannies. A few years ago, it came to light that a massive tube had been laid across the Detroit River bottom; cases of the Canada’s Best safely arrived on the American side. From 1919 to the end of Prohibition and beyond, Americans were drinking not Bourbon but Canadian whisky and they understandably developed a taste for its gentler demeanor. When Bourbon finally got back on its feet in the 1950’s, it offered a strange, aggressive flavor that probably made Canadian whisky seem even more likeable and friendly. Let’s face it, admits this American (by that, I mean a USA-er, my Canadian, fellow residents of North American); they’re nicer than we are. It shows in the whisky.

Maybe nice just isn’t good enough, so Canadian whisky producers are allowed to add flavorings that can add complexity: sherry or wines made from figs, oranges and prunes that intensify the dried fruit character of long barrel aging. With helpful additives like those, Canada’s required minimum of three years in barrel may be all that is needed to make great whisky.

If all this seems to damn with faint praise, consider that Canada’s voluminous barrel stocks contain a healthy amount of lovely old whiskies and the top bottlings have no need for short cuts or additives. Indeed, there are some great old rye whiskies that have provided the base for generations of great whisky; we may yet see more of them someday soon. Make no mistake: most Canadian whisky is comprised of corn, despite Canada’s long standing reputation as a rye based whisky industry. But some of us look longingly to the north and imagine a future in which more and better whiskies are flowing south, based upon rye or just plain delicious.

Old Old Fashioned

Ryan Demonstrates How To Make an Old Old Fashioned.

Old Old Fashioned
In mixing glass add;
1 sugar cube
splash of club soda
muddle thoroughly
add 4-5 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 oz Rye Whiskey
Add ice and stir thoroughly
Strain into pre-chilled rocks glass (without the rocks)
Garnish with Orange zest