Real Food Encyclopedia | Whiskey

Whiskey is also known as water of life and nectar of the gods. It’s the stuff of mint juleps, the Wild West and classic cocktails. And while it’s as American as apple pie (George Washington had a distillery at Mount Vernon), whiskey’s roots reach back to Ireland and Scotland (via Europe, via Arab alchemists, via the Greeks).

Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. That grain can be corn, rye, wheat or barley. The liquid starts off life as a clear liquid that gains its characteristic caramel color while aging in oak barrels. And is it whiskey or whisky? It’s complicated. While both spellings are correct, it depends on where you’re getting it. If it is distilled in the United States or Ireland, it’s whiskey with an E. (There are a few exceptions.) But those in Scotland, Canada and Japan prefer to drop the E.

Is bourbon whiskey? Here in United States, distilling was so ingrained in the rural culture and economies of western Pennsylvania that they revolted against the newly formed American government rather than be taxed. In the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, many distillers simply moved shop to Kentucky, then the far reaches of the frontier, and started producing a variety of whiskey called bourbon.

The last 15 years have brought a major renaissance of distilling in the US. Whiskey, specifically bourbon, is big business and demand is so high that it’s outstripping production. So much so that your fancy “craft” bourbon aged 10 years may have started out life in an Indiana factory that cranks out whiskey to meet insatiable demand. Caveat emptor.

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Fun Facts about Whiskey:

  • Whiskey is Anglicized from the Gaelic uisge beathaor, water of life.
  • As whiskey ages, a small percentage evaporates. This is called the angel’s share.
  • In 1964 Congress enacted a resolution that declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” As a result, bourbon whiskey for sale in the US has to be produced in the US.
  • They used to burn women at the stake for making whiskey.

What to Look for When Buying Whiskey

There’s a lot of lingo to brush up on so you can discern your bourbon from rye, your Canadian style from Tennessee the next time you’re at the liquor store. The following are the most common varieties and terms you’ll find in the US:

Bourbon whiskey: For whiskey to be bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in oak barrels that have been newly charred in the interior. While historically bourbon was produced in Bourbon County, Kentucky, any whiskey produced in the US can call itself bourbon if it is at least 51 percent corn, by law.

Rye whiskey: Bourbon’s spicier cousin, must be at least 51 percent rye grain and also aged in new charred oak barrels. Traditionally from Maryland and Pennsylvania, rye nearly disappeared after Prohibition and, worse, was often confused for blended Canadian whiskies that contain very little of the grain. Thankfully rye is enjoying a renaissance as Americans rediscover this historic spirit.

Tennessee whiskey: Often confused with bourbon, which is an easy mistake to make as they are nearly identical. But Tennessee whiskey takes it one step further and filters the spirit with charcoal, also known as the Lincoln County Process. It’s also claimed that Tennessee’s limestone-rich waters give the spirit a distinctive flavor.

Canadian whisky: Historically Canadian whiskies have been been a blend of two spirits — a base and another for flavoring — hence the unflattering nickname, “brown vodka.” The craft cocktail renaissance may be changing that up, but the major Canadian brands are blends.

Scotch whisky: Before there was bourbon there was scotch, a smoky forefather made from malted barley distilled exclusively in Scotland. Scotch comes in two varieties — single malts and blended, the former of which must adhere to rigorous standards. By law single malts must be distilled in copper pots and contain only malted barley and water. Blended scotch, on the other hand, can use a mixture of grain and barley and be made in column stills. Both varieties must be aged for at least three years in oak casks. In addition, scotch gets its distinctive flavor from the peat fires used to dry out the malted barley. That said, not all scotches have been peated.

Irish whiskey: Ireland has a rich history of distillation that includes single malts and pot still whiskeys, both made from different percentages of malted barley. Single malts are very similar to those produced in Scotland, but it’s not common for Irish whiskeys to be peated, which is to say use malted barley that has been dried over peat fires. There are, of course, the rare exceptions. Historically pot distillation was the most common way whiskey was made in Ireland. Irish whiskies can also be made from a blend of malted barley and other grains such as corn, wheat, or rye.

Japanese whisky: Japan has been making whisky for nearly a century and learned the skill from the Scottish. Therefore Japanese whiskies tend to be aged single malts distilled from barley, although you can find whiskies that are distilled from corn or rye.

White and corn whiskey: Don’t let these fancy names fool you. White and corn whiskies are moonshine with a rebrand. By US legal definition, moonshine is a clear, unaged whiskey that is made primarily from at least 80 percent corn. Despite its long, storied past that includes illegal stills and unregulated (i.e., dangerous) quality, moonshine has been getting a second look by modern distillers.

Straight whiskey: Whiskey produced from different barrels.

Single barrel: Whiskey produced from a single barrel, which in turn commands a premium price.

Single malts: Whisky produced from a single barrel and made from a mash of malted barley.

Single pot still: This traditional method uses a single copper pot still to distill whiskey. In Ireland and Scotland, by law, whiskey must be distilled using a pot still.

Bottled-in-bond: You’ll only see this label on American whiskies in which the government vouches for the quality of the whiskey and has been doing so since the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act.

Sustainability of Whiskey

Whiskey and Water Usage

There’s a lot of hidden or “virtual” water in a 100-proof bottle of whiskey, which simply means the amount of water it took to make the whiskey. It takes water to grow the corn, water for the mash, water to distill to the water used to make the electricity — everything adds up. In fact, distilleries have one of the highest water footprints in the industry according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable.

Whiskey needs a lot of water to distill and traditionally distilleries have been situated next to natural springs, going to great lengths to protect the quality of their water. Kentucky, for example, is famed for limestone filtered natural springs and some argue that’s what makes it home to some of the best bourbon in the country.

According to “The Green Blue Book” by Thomas Kostigen, a 1.5 fluid ounce shot of whiskey contains 19 gallons of water. However an internal report by Diageo, producers of such brands as Bulleit Bourbon, Crown Royal and George Dickel, list the water footprint of a .84 ounce measure of Johnnie Walker — which works out to less than a shot — at 4 gallons of water. (That works out to 158.5 gallons of water in a bottle.) Pernod Ricard, makers of Glenlivet and Jameson whiskey, report that they cut water use by 12 percent from 2010 to 2017 and strive to reach 20 percent by 2020. But a 2015 report by the Scottish Protection Agency revealed that two Chivas distilleries, owned by Pernod Ricard, were siphoning off more water than they were permitted.

The Maker’s Mark distillery, situated on a nature preserve, has gone to great lengths to protect their water from agricultural runoff. They even turn their waste into energy, using the heat from anaerobic digestion to heat stills. Scottish distillers are also going to lengths to cut their carbon footprint, too. Tuthilltown, a micro distillery in New York State, was one of the many businesses integral to getting the state to ban fracking in 2014.

Whiskey and GMOS

In the US, the majority of corn grown is genetically modified — around 90 percent — and corn is the primary ingredient in bourbon. Many bourbons on the market have a “mash bill” of about 70-80 percent corn, so it’s likely that most whiskies in the US are distilled containing genetically modified corn. (Rye whiskey in the US, with its mash bill of at least 50 percent rye, contains smaller amounts of corn along with barley, yet likely contains genetically modified corn.)

For many distillers, GMO corn is a matter of cost and availability. It’s simply cheaper and easier to source. Plus, non-genetically modified or heirloom varieties can’t meet rising demand, producing lower yields than their genetically modified counterparts. As whiskey demand continues to boom both in the US and abroad, GMO corn serves a market need.

That said, some distillers are going out of their way to produce GMO-free whiskeys in the US either out of principle or to serve a niche. At present, there are only three major whiskey producers using non-GMO corn — Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace.

Whiskey also contains varying amounts of rye, barley and wheat, crops that are not genetically modified. Further, as of 2015, it’s illegal in many European Union nations to grow genetically modified crops, which includes corn. So your Scottish single malt and pot still Irish whiskey is GMO-free.

Whiskey and Geography

Whiskey production has spread beyond Ireland, Scotland, the US and Canada, to countries where corn, rye, and barley also grows. In Japan, whisky is big business, so much so that Suntory, Japan’s largest whisky maker, recently purchased Beam Inc., makers of iconic bourbon Jim Beam. Although whiskey has maybe gotten a little too popular;  consumers are reporting a shortage and distilleries struggle to keep up with demand. Some are even importing bulk scotch, which means your Japanese whisky may not be Japanese … or whisky. (It may have started from rice.)

While Japan has been distilling since the 1920s, other countries have started producing whisky as interest has caught on in the last twenty or so years, countries that include Australia, Germany, Denmark, India, Italy and Taiwan. Since the 1990s, the Australian state of Tasmania has been home to a fledgling but growing whisky industry. India, the country that consumes the most whisky according to a 2014 report, started producing a single malt in 2004. (Note that most Indian whisky is actually distilled from molasses and flavored, which is not a whisky in the truest sense.) Italy also got in the game in 2010, founding its first whisky distillery in the Alps, which was modeled on the whisky production in the Highlands of Scotland.

Eating and Drinking Whiskey

Storing Whiskey

Unopened, a bottle of whiskey will last a century. Once opened, you maybe have about five years before oxidation takes hold.

Cooking with Whiskey

As a beverage, whiskey can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or blended in a cocktail. Try an Old Fashioned, a muddled mixture of rye, sugar, a slice of orange (or orange peel), and bitters on the rocks. The Manhattan, another classic cocktail, is made with rye, vermouth, bitters and served in a coupe glass. A whiskey cousin of the gin-based Negroni, a Boulevardier mixes rye with bitter Campari and vermouth. Whiskey goes well with soda, too. Try it in a whiskey-ginger highball (referred to as a Jack and Ginger when made with Jack Daniels). Or how about an Earl Gray-bourbon punch. The Mint Julep, synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, serves bourbon and simple syrup over shaved iced and a mint garnish. If you prefer your whiskey warm, you can cozy up to winter with a Hot Toddy with whiskey, lemon juice, honey and hot water. And if enjoying scotch, a whisky that’s sipped neat, a little water is recommended to help open up the flavor of the spirit.

Whiskey isn’t just for drinking. Bourbon balls are a classic Christmas treat, and you can’t get any more southern than pecan pie with bourbon whipped cream. Or how about apple-pecan bourbon-caramel pie? If you’re on a sweet kick, you can make brown butter bourbon cookies. As for savory, next time you’re making barbecue, whip up a batch of bourbon and brown sugar barbecue sauce. You can also use a cheap bottle of whiskey to deglaze a pan after cooking a roast.

Whiskey has a long history as a folk remedy, aiding anything from coughs to sore throats. During Prohibition, the only people that were legally allowed to make whiskey in the US were those that sold it as prescription medicine.

Pro tip: Despite what James Bond told you, it’s better to stir that whiskey cocktail in a shaker instead of giving your arms (and your drink) a vigorous workout. Invest in an inexpensive cocktail spoon and churn your Manhattan for about 20 seconds in a shaker filled with ice. The water will smooth out the flavor.

Whiskey Nutrition

Okay, let’s be honest. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. While the occasional cocktail has been known to boost one’s constitution, alcohol has a well-deserved reputation as a potential troublemaker.

Short-term effects after a shot of whiskey include impaired motor skills. Alcohol is a depressant and slows down the central nervous system. Toss a few more back and you’re looking at dehydration, slurred speech, increased heart rate, inability to walk straight and sleep disruption. Take it one step further and you’re at risk for alcohol poisoning and blacking out.

Long-term effects, especially in alcoholics, include inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Chronic drinking also can lead to heart disease, cancer and pancreatitis. Of course, always drink responsibly. Never drink and drive.