From Behind the Bar: More On Whiskey

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Terekhov Igor on Shutterstock]

Of all the spirit categories I know, none confuses people more than whisk(e)y. Even the spelling causes problems; Scotch and Canadian whiskies leave off the final "e" in the word, while Irish and Americans include it (unless you're Maker's Mark bourbon, which inexplicably spells "whisky" in the Scottish way). Why is this the case? I have no idea, but that's what is done, and it further muddies an already complicated issue.

Since it's finally whisk(e)y drinking weather (if you need weather to justify drinking whisk(e)y, which I don't), it seems appropriate to expand a bit on last week's post on the topic. At the hundreds of whiskey events we've hosted at the bar, the most common question I hear is, "What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?" Or Scotch. The answer is both very simple and supremely complicated, and involves the entire process of distillation, as well as the legislative forces that nations exert to protect their native products.

Last week we defined whisk(e)y as a spirit distilled from grain and aged in oak barrels, but it's clearly not as simple as that. Whiskey as a category is the super-set. Just as humans, whales, dogs, and raccoons are all mammals, Canadian Club, Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch, Booker Noe's Bourbon, and Yamazaki Japanese are all whiskies. What distinguishes them from one another is the grain from which they are distilled, the type of barrels in which they are aged, the number of years they spend in those barrels, and the country in which this all occurs.

Of course, these differences are interconnected, and the execution is what makes the whiskies vary. Scotch, both blended and single malt, must by law be produced in Scotland. Temperature and humidity are major factors that affect barrel-aging whiskey. The long, cold winters in Scotland keep the pores of the barrel from opening up. The flavor that the wood imparts is limited in cold, dark climates (like Scottish winters), while it is accelerated in warm, humid ones (like Kentucky).

While it is a myth that all bourbon must be produced in Kentucky, much of it is. Bourbon's brand-new, charred-oak barrels soak up and push out large volumes of distillate on a daily basis, while the used barrels containing Scotch spend entire seasons locked down, waiting for the summer sun to re-emerge and open those pores back up for interaction.

As a result, it is not uncommon to see single malt Scotch aged for twelve, fifteen, or twenty years, with extremes reaching thirty years and beyond. Most bourbons are bottled between four and eight years. It is the difference in local climate that determines why Scotch starts to come in to its own at twelve years while bourbon is often past its prime at that age.

The fact that bourbon must be aged in new wood, while Scotch can be aged in used, has an enormous impact on flavor, too. Where did those used barrels come from? Most likely, America, and they probably contained bourbon the first time around. The most common type of barrel utilized to age the world's whiskey is used bourbon barrels. The United States is the only major whiskey-producing nation that dictates new barrels by law. If you're a bourbon producer, what do you suppose you're going to do with all of those beautiful once-used barrels? Sell them to the Irish, the Canadians, the Scots, and the Japanese.

Taxes on distilled spirits are a massive source of revenue, so it is no surprise that Scotch whisky (and its spelling) are ensconced in Scottish law. Jameson is defined by the laws of Ireland. The United States Code describes the legal definition of bourbon.

As Americans, bourbon is our native spirit, and was instrumental in the formation of our country as we know it. (Remember George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion?) I am glad it is protected in trade agreements and defined by law to be produced right here in America. Bourbon is a gift that America gave the world, quite literally. Many of the barrels used to age your Canadian and Irish whiskeys, your Scotch whiskies, even many rum and tequilas, have contained good old American bourbon.

If there was ever a more pleasant way to spread the influences of a culture, I haven't heard of it.