Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!

Review: Highland Park Einar

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If you’ve spent much time in travel retail shops, you’ve encountered Highland Park’s “Warrior” series, which comprises eight whiskies, each with the name of a Viking warrior. (Some of these are very small releases, so you may legitimately only encounter two or three of them.)

The theme of the Warrior series is wood, with Svein barreled exclusively in bourbon casks and Thorfinn aged completely in sherry. Various whiskies live in between, varying the percentages of bourbon vs. sherry casking. Einar is just one step up from Svein, comprising primarily bourbon casks but adding in a small portion of European oak sherry casked spirit, too.

Einar doesn’t get a ton of love in the market (which is probably why I got it on deep discount), but I have considerable affection for the finished product. The nose offers an interesting mix of citrusy sherry notes, plus unusual notes of smoldering hay, molasses, and cooked vegetables (admittedly weird at first, but it’s so unique it grows on you). On the palate, a bold and rounded body ventures toward butterscotch, salted caramel, and a very light touch of peat. As the finish develops, that vegetable note develops into a sort of mushroom character, lightly earthy and smoky all at once, before a gently sweet, sherry-flecked finish comes to the fore once again.

Ultimately I like how Einar takes you on a little journey. It’s admittedly brief but it’s nonetheless wholly worthwhile — a whisky day trip, if you will.

80 proof.

B+ / $60 (1 liter) / highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery – Jericho, Lossit, and Towiemore

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The Lost Distillery Company is an endeavour which aims to recreate the long-gone whiskies of the dozens of “silent stills” that dot the Scottish countryside. For better or for worse, the group aims to blend up various single malts in an effort to mimic what these lost spirits might have tasted like. How? By researching still types, barley strains, wood sources, and more.

The Lost Distillery hit the scene a few years back, and it’s been diligently making historical drams ever since. The latest trio, which bring the “Classic Selection” line up to six whiskies in total, are reviewed below. All are bottled at 86 proof. (Compare to the 92 proof expressions that dropped a few years ago.) No batch information is provided.

Lost Distillery Jericho – Also known as Benachie in the U.S. (and apparently on some labels of this recreation), this eastern Highlands distillery closed in 1913. The recreation is quite a gentle expression, loaded with cereal notes, a bit of bitter orange, and some mushroom on the nose. The body moves into sweeter territory, offering a more straightforward caramel note, a bit of coconut, and some milk chocolate. Short on the finish but nonetheless enjoyable, it drinks much like many a reasonably young but otherwise standard Highlands or Speyside whisky produced today. B

Lost Distillery Lossit – A long-dead distillery, Islay-based Lossit went south in 1867. Here we have a rather classic, young Islay — this may very well be Laphroaig — though it’s quite mild on the peat. Backing up the mild smokiness are notes of fresh orange, banana, and some cotton candy, leaving the whisky with a finish that is considerably sweeter than you’d expect. What lingers on the back end isn’t smoky peat but rather a chewy, lingering experience that integrates some cooling fireplace embers into a core of butterscotch and ginger candies. There’s no way they had it this good in 1867. B+

Lost Distillery Towiemore – Born in the heart of Speyside, near Dufftown, died in 1931. The deep amber color immediately connotes sherry cask aging, and a nose full of bitter orange, old wine, and lightly musty wood notes only drives the point home. Bold on the palate, the whisky starts with a slight medicinality and moves into notes of fresh cereal, nougat, tobacco leaf, and barrel char. Though the nose says fruit, this one turns out to be all about the grain and the wood, though the finish offers just enough of a hint of tantalizing lemon and orange peel — plus a touch of mint — to send on your way with a smile. B

each $50 to $60 / lost-distillery.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Highland Park FIRE Edition 15 Years Old

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First there was ice. Now there is fire — thanks to Highland Park, which is concluding its two-whisky elemental series with this 15 year old spirit matured completely in refill Port wine casks. Some ephemera:

Highland Park is proud to announce the release of a limited edition single malt Scotch whisky. FIRE Edition is a special bottling that delves into the world of classic Norse mythology and celebrates the Viking roots of Highland Park’s Orkney islands home. Matured exclusively in 100% refill Port wine casks, FIRE Edition follows the release of ICE Edition which was awarded 99/100 and the Chairman’s Trophy in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2016. FIRE Edition completes the two part series inspired by the stories of the Ice and Fire Giants and their battles against the Gods to rule the world.

Jason R. Craig, Global Brand Director, commented: “Maturing our distinctive whisky in 100% refill Port wine seasoned casks is a first for Highland Park and the result is a vibrant, 15 year old single malt with an ABV of 45.2%.  FIRE Edition has a slight reddish hue, (which is its natural color), intense aromas of ruby red fruits, light smoke and a long, lingering finish. However, it is still, unmistakably, Highland Park.”

The bespoke crimson red colored glass was specially commissioned to represent the fierce and molten world of the Fire Giants from Viking mythology.  The bottle is encased in a distinctive black wooden cradle with accompanying black wooden stopper.  A booklet, also included with the bottle, recounts the story of the realm of the Fire Giants and their epic battle against the Gods to rule the world.

According to Viking legends, Surtr was an evil Fire Giant who ruled the Fire Realm.  He would sit at the edge of the kingdom, defending the land by holding a burning sword, which shone brighter and hotter than the sun.  The culmination of these tales is an apocalyptic battle between the Gods and the Giants. Surtr led the sons of Muspell across the bridge of Bifröst, burning everything in sight at Asgard (realm of Gods; Thor, Loki, Freya and Odin) and destroying the world at Ragnarök, heralded as ‘The doom of the Gods.’ The world perished in a blazing and burnishing ball of flames and from the ashes, a new earth was recreated.

FIRE Edition, a special release of 28,000 bottles globally with 4,398 bottles in the US, will be available from specialty spirits retailers in the US beginning in December 2016 at a SRP of $300.

Highland Park and Port sound like a great combination, and sure enough, here they combine to provide a very compelling, but quite unique, experience. The nose on this orange-pinkish whisky is loaded up with sweet cereal up front, plus secondary notes of raisins, honeycomb, and mild menthol notes. On the palate, a more curious character emerges, malty but also quite fruity, with notes of apricot and nectarine showing strongly. The finish sees a more characteristic Highland Park character come through — light iodine and a lick of peat, with some gentle hospital notes emerging as the experience fades away.

What’s funny is that the Port character is relatively lacking here — I get an impression more akin to sweet white wine than a fortified red — but ultimately sitting in the chilly environs (hardly “fire”) of Orkney for 15 years is likely to have a far greater impact on the finished product than a little bit of Portuguese plonk in the mix, no?

90.4 proof.

A- / $300 / highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Cambus 40 Years Old Limited Edition 2016

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At last we come to the final bottle in the series of ten 2016 Diageo Special Releases. For the third time ever, Diageo has included a single grain whisky in the series, this time going with Cambus, which was closed in 1993.

This 40 year old bottling is the oldest official distillery bottling ever released. Distilled in 1975, it was aged wholly in refill American oak hogsheads. (Compare to last year’s 40 year old release of The Cally.)

As it does with any single grain release, this cuts a much different profile than the single malts in this series. The nose is heavy with sweet butterscotch notes, backed with lacings of tropical pineapple and coconut — largely typical of single grain. On the palate, a rather different profile emerges, but again it’s even more unmistakably grain-focused. Initial elements of clementine oranges, nutmeg, and pears quickly give way to a hefty cereal-focused character, intense with malt and loads of surprisingly raw granary notes. It’s amazing that after 40 years, you just can’t age the grain out of this whisky’s resolute core… for better or for worse.

105.4 proof. 1812 bottles available worldwide.

B+ / $1150 / malts.com

Review: Brora 38 Years Old Limited Edition 2016

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When Diageo includes old Brora — which was shuttered in 1983 — in its Special Release series, it’s a cause for celebration. Like Port Ellen, this one fortunately makes a regular appearance on the roster, and with this 38 year old expression, the oldest release of the 15 bottlings in the series, we get the chance to experience Brora at its grandest. Distilled in 1977, the whiskey is a blend of refill American American oak hogsheads and refill European oak sherry butts.

Ah, what a grand, expressive, and lush experience it is.

A traditional Highland-style malt whisky, the nose kicks things off with notes of golden raisins, fresh citrus, a touch of citrus, and a light lacing of barrel char — not quite smoky, but not woody either. On the palate, the body is lush and supple, rolling across the tongue with an initial rush of salt spray, followed by a rapid-fire attack of gingerbread, lemon peel, and golden raisins (again). Subtle with its Sauternes-like sweetness and clever with its integration of woody barrel notes, everything quickly comes into extreme focus, balancing beautifully on the tip of a pin.

And like that, it’s gone. No lengthy, lingering finish here — it’s an as ephemeral a dram as I’ve ever had, but damn if it isn’t beautiful while it lasts.

97.2 proof. 360 bottles available in the U.S.

A / $2200 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2016

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Though the Islay distillery closed in 1983, Diageo cranks out a Port Ellen Special Release every year. This is the 16th installment of the whisky. Distilled in 1978 and aged for 37 years, it is also the oldest Port Ellen ever released… and likely the most expensive, too.

As is common, this release is a vatting of refill American oak hogsheads and refill European oak sherry butts.

Old Port Ellen is always a beautiful experience, and this year’s release is hard not to love. The nose quickly moves well beyond simple peat smoke and into notes of banana, fresh brioche, and lavender. In time, nostalgic notes of brewed coffee, furniture polish, and antique-store-old wood arrive. On the palate, the smoke is beautifully laced with floral notes, plus ample notes of fresh herbs — more lavender, thyme, and rosemary. Lightly bitter orange peel coats the sides of the mouth, while petrol notes linger after everything else fades away.

The pricetag of Port Ellen has long been headed in only one direction, so you can be forgiven for passing this by if the price isn’t right. That said, the overall experience is highly worthwhile, taking you on a journey from Islay to the ether and back again.

110.4 proof. Less than 550 bottles available in the U.S.

A / $4000 / malts.com

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