Quality Whiskeys, Part II

First commercial whiskey distillery.

The Emerald Isle is our first stop on Part II of our world-wide-whiskey tour. Ireland is the original home of commercial whiskey and is the home of Old Bushmills Distillery No. 1, the oldest licensed distillery in the world. The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic term uisce beatha, which means water of life.

Read Part I online. Click on Wine Column under Local Flavor.

As with fine scotch, quality Irish whiskies start with malted barley and are aged in old barrels for a minimum of three years. They differ from scotch in that they rarely undergo the peat-smoke process and are usually distilled at least three times making for a smoother and more accessible palate especially when young. Irish whiskey offers enough similarity and enough uniqueness to make them a high-quality alternative to Scotch whisky.

Next, we fly across the pond and visit our polite neighbors to the north to share a dram or two of their smooth and beloved Canadian whisky. These velvet devils are often labeled as rye whisky, although there is no legal requirement for them to contain any rye at all – those whacky Canucks. They rarely do contain high percentages of rye, but that notwithstanding, these blends do tend to be crowd pleasers and real values, as well.

Real rye rocks.

This begs the question: What is rye whiskey and where is it commonly made? Rye whiskey in the U.S. contains high percentages of that spicy grain and that spice bite is what really sets it apart. Rye whiskies are commonly made in Kentucky in bourbon distilleries and feature the same distilling and ageing processes but end up not only spicier but feature a drier finish, as well.

When I teach a whiskey class, I always include a rye because it really stands alone in the world of quality brown spirits.

Leaping across the Pacific pond, we are off to the land of the rising sun where for 20 years the Japanese have disrupted the world of whiskey on the high end. They take advantage of their coastal climates — similar to Scotland’s and Ireland’s — to grow barley and use the same processes of making fine scotch, making them specialized in long-aged versions of whiskey that, to my palate, combine complexity and ethereal smoothness like no other. Did I mention to bring your checkbook? Even without venturing into the high-end spirits shops where the four- and five-digit-priced bottles reside, one can get sticker shock looking at Japanese whiskies on the top shelf of the local grocer where entry-level bottles are $50 or more.

So, there you have it, just in time for snuggling-by-the-fire season, the diverse world of fine whiskey where a winter warmer is just a sip away.