Spirit aficionados know that a dram or two of quality whiskey makes for a rich and warming quaff on a cold winter’s night not only because it is as rewarding served warm or on ice, but also because the best are complex and thought provoking and a lovely social lubricant. All are reason enough for this two-part journey on quality whiskeys, starting with the two most influential whiskey nations, Scotland and the United States.
At its base quality, whiskey is a grain mash that is fermented, distilled and aged in oak barrels. But, as with most things, the real interesting devils are in the culturally influenced, scientific and artistic details.
With scotch the first thing to know is that you are looking for the term malt whisky not grain whisky on the label because this will be the traditional version made from malted barley that has been peat-smoked and distilled twice in a copper pot. Peat-smoke levels vary from area to area and the good stuff stays true to the classic double distillation and retains flavors.
Scotch malt whisky is required to be aged a minimum three years in used oak barrels, usually bourbon barrels, even if there is no age indication on the label. This barrel process contributes significantly to the spirit’s flavor by adding coconut, vanilla and spice and complementing the heather, leather and bite that are the calling cards of fine scotch.
Single-malt versions come from a single distillery — not from a single barrel — and are typically labeled with their barrel-age years. This creation process is incredibly time and resource intensive and the terroir where the barley and peat grow is considered the gold standard. Yes, the best scotch whiskies rival Grand Cru wines in price. The good news for many is that a quality blended scotch malt whisky, which indicates it comes from multiple distilleries, can be of top-shelf quality, as well, and there are values to be had.
High-end American whiskey is equally delicious and complex, but quite different in style and flavor profile. This is because they are not peat smoked, the aging barrels are new and the primary grain is corn. The outcome is a richer whiskey with some sweetness from the new oak, deep caramel and fruit flavors and the same vanilla, coconut, spice of malt scotch. Tennessee, aka Lincoln County, whiskeys are filtered through maple charcoal giving them a smoky and smooth profile. The best Americans also bring solid structure making them age worthy although they tend to peak earlier than Scotch.
When I give whiskey presentations, people are always amazed how much the differences between top-notch scotch and American whiskeys parallel the differences between Old- and New-World wines — and as with wines, vive la difference.