From Behind the Bar: On Whiskey

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.


[Photograph: Christin Slavkov Ltd. on Shutterstock]

What I'm Drinking: Willet Family Estate Single Barrel Bourbon (Aged 10 Years)

There is much about the changing seasons that I will never understand. I know that spring is when the flowers grow, you sweat while you're sleeping in summer, autumn is when the leaves change, and winter is when your eyebrows freeze, but as a native of Southern California, I didn't truly learn this until later in life. When I was young, my father would make a snowman from tumbleweeds and spray-paint it white. I didn't see actual snow until I was in my twenties.

I've been living with actual seasons long enough to own a proper winter coat, but I have yet to develop seasonal rituals over what I drink and when. If it's cold out, I might still enjoy a cold beer. If it's warm, I might drink my bourbon with no ice. This year in New York, September 30th was balmy and beautiful. October 1st was rainy and cold. Autumn happened overnight, and the only thing anyone in the bar wanted to talk about was whiskey.

Whiskey is a spirit distilled from grains. Corn, rye, wheat and barley are most common, though I have seen them made from spelt, millet, and other grains. In essence, if you take the beer you have sitting in your refrigerator (also made from grain) and run it through a still to condense the alcohol, you get whiskey. The other defining characteristic of whiskey is that it is aged in barrels. Time spent in wood mellows out a raw spirit, imparting color, depth, and flavor.

Barrel staves are made of wood, and wood is porous, so you can think of a barrel as a lung. When it's hot, like a Sunday in July, the pores in the wood expand, thus soaking up whiskey from the barrel. The alcohol and congeners (essentially the leftover "stuff" from which the spirit is distilled) in the liquid both oxidize and chemically react with the barrel. At night, or in winter, the pores in the wood close up and the liquid is extracted. As months or years pass, the liquid is constantly drawn into and out of those pores. This is where bourbon whiskey gets its color and distinctive flavor.

Speaking of bourbon, the United States Code dictates the kind of barrel in which our native spirit must be aged. By law, bourbon whiskey must be aged in brand new, charred, American oak barrels. This defines the essential quality of "bourbon-ness" that is found in no other spirit in the world. It is logical that new wood will impart the most flavor, so when people talk about bourbon, they talk about tasting honey, vanilla, and spice, all of which are due to the influence of new oak. Since the inside of the barrel must be charred, that layer of charcoal acts as a natural filter. Much like the Brita pitcher in your kitchen, the constant passage of the raw spirit through this layer helps mellow out the harsh edges of the raw distillate.

The more time a whiskey is aged, the more opportunities it has to pick up flavor, which is not always a good thing. Overly-aged whiskies can have a rancid, tannic harshness that is not at all pleasant. If bottled before this point, though, whiskies with some years on them can acquire incredibly nuanced flavors. When people mention caramel, caraway, stone fruit, and baking spices while tasting whiskey, they are noticing the subtle flavors imparted by time spent in oak barrels.

To be perfectly frank, I don't often taste a lot of those flavors. Every palate is different, and some people are naturally able to distinguish the taste of mango and note of pepper on the finish of a bourbon. Did anyone else get dill on the nose? I didn't. I got whiskey. My tasting radar starts at "Awesome" and ends at "Sucks." There are many levels between those extremes, but I don't always have the vocabulary to describe what I like and for what reason.

If you are blessed with a naturally discriminating palate, consider yourself lucky. If you are like me, don't consider this a liability. You might not sound as cool at a whiskey tasting, but that in no way hinders your enjoyment of beautiful spirits.

Got a favorite whiskey for fall? What have you been drinking lately?