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There are a lot of whiskey drinkers in Charleston, and we'd be willing to bet that most of them don't really know a whole lot about their favorite friday night fix. Many people just happen accross one in college and stick with it. Others learn from their parents or grandparents. Whether it's Jack & Coke, Makers neat, or Dewers on the rocks, there is something unique and delicious about all of them. Read on for a closer look at a few different types of whiskey, and we'll even throw in some cocktail suggestions you can try that bring out the best in each.

So what is whiskey?

Whiskey is somewhat generic term that means alcohol that has been distilled from fermented grain mash. Many people use the terms "whiskey" and "Scotch" or "Bourbon" interchageably, but that is incorrect. Scotch and Bourbon are two types of whiskey. Tennessee, Irish, grain, and malt are also types of whiskeys. In general, all of these "whiskeys" must be distilled to a minimum of 40% ABV. Let's take a look at a few of the types.

Bourbon

The defining traits of all Bourbons are that the mash must be at least 51% corn, it is made in the USA (not necessarilly from Kentucky), and that it is aged in NEW charred oak barrels. Most bourbons are from Kentucky, but it's not a requirement. As noted above, the mash must be at least 51% corn. But other grains can also be used. A typical mash might consist of 80% corn, 10% of a flavoring grain, and 10% malted barley. The precise breakdown is known as the mash bill.

The flavoring grain is most commonly rye, which adds an assertive, spicy flavor to the whisky. Popular examples of rye bourbon include Bulleit, Basil Hayden, and Evan Williams. Some bourbons, however, use wheat as the flavoring grain, which gives the whiskey a mellower, sweeter flavor. Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller, and Pappy Van Winkle are all popular wheated bourbons.

Straight bourbon refers to a bourbon that has aged for 2 or more years.

Popular bourbon cocktails:
Old Fashioned - The original cocktail- Bourbon, citrus, sugar, bitters, and water

Rye Whiskey

In Canada, there must be some rye in the mash. In the USA, however, there must be at least 51% rye in the mash, and they must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Like bourbon, straight rye is a rye that has aged two or more years. Rye can be no more than 80% alcohol (160 proof) and no more than 62.5% when put into casks for aging in new charred oak barrels.

Popular rye cocktail:
Sazerak - A New Orleans classic - Rye, absinthe, sugar, bitters

Irish Whiskey

Yup, you guessed it… whiskey made in Ireland. It must be distilled to an ABV of less than 94.8%. Additional rules are that it must be aged three or more years in wooden barrels, and if two or more distillates are used the whiskey must be labeled as a “blend.”

Popular Irish Whiskey cocktail:
Irish Coffee - Perfect after dinner - Irish whiskey, coffee, sugar, cream/whip

Scotch

On the surface, Scotch is pretty simple. It must be made from barley mash. It must be from Scotland, and it must be aged in oak barrels for three years or more. You wouldn't generally use a scotch in a cocktail, but they can be incorporated to amazing effect. Kind of like the term "whiskey" though, with scotch the devil is in the details. Here is some common terminology:

  • Single Malt: Basically means that the whiskey is the product of a single distillery. A single malt Laphroaig can contain whiskey from several barrels, but it must contain whiskey only produced at Laphroaig.
  • Blended Malt: Also known as vatted malts, these are a blend of single malts from two or more distilleries.
  • Single Grain: Very misleading. It means barley and one or more other cereal grains were used, produced only at a single distillery (similar to single malt).
  • Blended Grain: Blend of single grains from two or more distilleries.
  • Blended Scotch Whisky: A mix of both single malt whisky and single grain whisky, sourced from several different distilleries.
  • Single Barrel: This is a whisky from a single barrel, unmixed with other barrels. Very rare.

Regional Flavor

There are essentially four main regions of scotch production in Scotland, and each region has flavors that are often typically associated with their scotches.

  • Speyside: fruity and delicate. The valley of the river Spey is often associated with flavors like vanilla, honey, apples and pears.
  • Lowlands: fresh, light. These malts are fragrant, floral, taste of cereal and are light in color.
  • Highlands: smooth and floral. In the west, you have some maritime influence in the flavor, and in the central highlands you get some honey and heather.
  • Islay/Skye Islands: peaty and briny. These robust malts are laden with the medicinal / iodine aromas of the sea.

In conclusion,

All of these delicious whiskeys deserve to be tried. A regular scotch drinker may find some bourbons that will quickly become the new go-to drink, and someone who just LOVES Jack & Coke may begin starting their night with a peaty Islay just to keep things interesting.

Cheers!