Category Archives: Education

Scouting out what you need to know to impress your friends and win over that hottie at the end of the bar.

Blanton’s Corks

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon is one of the more delicious bourbons out there. It is smooth and accessible, a treat for the aficionado as well as the novice. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about the bottle. Or, more significantly, the cork. Blanton’s has one of the most easily recognizable bottles on the shelf, with its hand grenade shape and horse on top of the cork. What might not be known to everyone pulling out that stopper to pour some of the whiskey out is that there are actually eight different cork designs. Well, actually seven.
Blanton's Bourbon L CorkLet me explain. In the lower left corner of every stopper is a circle with a letter in it. One for every letter in the word “Blanton’s.” That’s eight letters, although the “N” stopper is the same for both letters in the name for a true count of seven different designs. What makes this the absolutely coolest stopper design is that each letter has a unique horse position, sort of 3-D film strip! The first letter, “B” has the horse in a walking position. The letters L-S (with the two N’s appropriately placed) show the horse in a run.

So the next time you have a glass of this tasty treat, take a look at the stopper! Here’s a look at the L-S loop!

Blanton's

Single Malt’s Dirty Little Secret

I was having a discussion about whisky (I know, weird) with a bartender. We were discussing Johnnie Walker Blue Label and The Dalmore King Alexander III. He pointed out that of course Blue Label was a blend and, well, The Dalmore was a single. It was pure Scotch. I didn’t really have the heart to tell him that King Alex could be considered just as much a blended Scotch as Blue Label.

What blasphemy doth I speak?!

You can find a more in-depth discussion about the types of Scotches here, but I’ll give you a quick recap. A blended Scotch has a mix of malt and grain whiskies from different distillers. A single malt contains only malt whisky from a single distiller. On the surface it sure sounds like a single malt is more, well, singular. Oh, what a tangled web of marketing we weave.

Take the aforementioned King Alex. Yes it is distilled only from malted barely, but it is a blend (or vatting, to be WC [whiskey correct]). Let me explain.

The vast majority of single malts are not from a single barrel, and if they are, the bottle will boldly proclaim it to be so. Most single malts are from a wide variety of years and barrels. An age statement (if provided) only describes the youngest whisky in the mix, many age-declared whiskies have much older components than what is labeled on the bottle.

Back to the royal dram in question. King Alex is a vatting of six different barrel types across an unspecified age range. The folks at The Dlamore took whiskies that had been aging in bourbon barrels, Matusalem oloroso sherry wood, Madeira barrels, Marsala casks, port pipes and Cabernet Sauvignon wine barriques. Quite a range! But the whisky that went into those used barrels was distilled at The Dlamore and aged in their warehouses (not necessarily the same facility) so it is a “single” malt.

The Dlamore is certainly not an exceptional case. Some single malts contain an even greater range and variety.

Glenfiddich has taken an interesting approach for their 15yr Solera Vat expression. Aging for 15 years in bourbon barrels, sherry barrels, and virgin oak, these whiskies are then dumped into a huge vat (the Solera Vata, duh) from where it is then bottled, but the vat is never emptied completely. The new whiskies entering the vat are *ahem* blended with the older whisky mix to help create a smooth flavor experience. Every infusion creates a more nuanced blend vat.

For most people, the illusion that single malts are superior is from total ignorance. Some with a little more knowledge will say its because the grain whisky in blends is only there because it’s cheaper. And we all know more expensive is always better.

The truth is, no one who actually knows whisky will ever discount a blend just because it’s a blend. But this attitude is probably the quickest way to spot a whisky douchebag!

Label Extras

You’ve read all the articles about Scotch, learned what little details make a bourbon, and figured out how to spell whisk(e)y. At last you felt like you had the knowledge to bravely face the whiskey aisle at your local spirit supplier. You reach for a bottle and something catches your eye. “Small batch,” the label proclaims. Huh? You look at the bottle next to it, from the same distiller. “Single barrel,” it promises. Hesitantly you pick it up with your other hand. Looking back and forth between the two, you are left wondering, WTF? You’re smart, you can figure this out, that is until the “bottled-in-bond” bottle falls off the shelf and conks you in the head.

Laying on the floor of Aisle 5, you curse yourself, pull out your smartie-phone, and read this article. Next time, check here first!

Single BarrelSINGLE BARREL
This one is surprisingly straight-forward. It means that all the whiskey in the bottle came from the same barrel. Often the barrel is identified on the label in a cryptic, but satisfying, numbering system. Single barrels can be an interesting experience. Other whiskeys are mixes of barrels and ages (yes, even single malt Scotch) to help create flavor and maintain consistency to a greater or lesser degree. A single barrel has none of this. That means the experience from one bottle to the next can vary greatly, as individual barrels will have been subjected to different micro-climates as it aged. Each barrel will also have its own characteristic flavor profile. Single barrels are great for those looking for a little adventure, and those who aren’t afraid to have a “favorite” fall flat on the next go-round.

Small BatchSMALL BATCH
Small batch is a nebulous designation. There is no official (i.e. “legal”) guidelines describing what exactly constitutes a small batch. What it means in general, though, is that the whiskeys used to create this bottle were from a localized area of the rickhouse. Sometimes this is a single floor, or a certain side, or the center. Again, unless the distiller specifically states what their small batch consists of, you really don’t know. Theoretically it will be from the “best” section or barrels.

BOTTLED-IN-BOND
This is a specifically American designation having its own law, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Originally created to ensure quality, it is more of a marketing decision today. The whiskey must be produced during a single year at a single distillery, then aged in a government-certified bond warehouse for at least four years, and be bottled at no less than 100° proof.

STRAIGHT
As an American designation, straight just means it has been aged at least two years. If it has been aged less than four years, an age statement is required as per the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (just TTB for some reason).

Cask StrengthBARREL STRENGTH / CASK STRENGTH / UNCUT
Most whiskey winds up in the battle at around 80° proof. This is not the way it comes out of the barrel. In fact, the whiskey that comes straight out of the barrel is not entirely uniform from barrel to barrel, even at the same age. This is a result of non-uniform aging. Before bottling, whiskey is usually “cut” with water to bring it to the desired proof. These designations mean you get what came out of the barrel (or cask). It is always some high, eye-watering proof. Many times the proof is listed per bottle because of the aforementioned variation of in-cask whiskey.

Whiskey by Any Other Name

The most common discussion I have with people about whiskey in a bar centers around the confusion about what whiskey is and how whiskey, bourbon, and Scotch are different. Is Bourbon a Scotch? Is it a whiskey? While the preponderance of styles ultimately helps the consumer more readily identify what to expect from a bottle, at first it can be overwhelming.

The sad thing is that the vast majority of web searches on this topic pull up articles from what should be reputable sources that contain massive factual errors, so if you didn’t read it here, it’s probably wrong!

If you haven’t read about who and how “the rules” are made, give this article a read. It will help you understand the legal dynamics at play. (And also demonstrate where TheWhiskeyScout.com gets its facts.)

WHISKEY
First off, let’s define what we mean by “whiskey.” If you’re wondering about the difference between the “whiskey” and “whisky” spellings, take a read here. Whiskey, at its most basic, is a spirit distilled from a fermented mash made with grains such as barley, wheat, oat, rye, or any other of the cereal grains. The clear spirit condensing from the still is the most basic form of what might be called whiskey.

This is also the beginning of the controversy about what is and is not whiskey. Many people do not call this clear spirit whiskey at all, but rather “new make.” Some other terms are “white dog” and “white whiskey.” While many producers are putting the term “moonshine” on their labels, purists are calling foul as moonshine is a term usually reserved for illegal versions of new make. And we know who usually wins when language purists take on marketers.

At this point, many whiskey experts point out that new make is barely distinguishable from vodka and insist that it is the aging process that truly defines a whiskey. And they have a point, especially when you consider that both vodka and whiskey can be made from grains. What comes off the still is very similar.

This is where regional laws come into play. In the US, the word “whiskey” can be applied to:

1) A spirit made from at least 80% corn with no aging in wood barrels (it may be aged, but not required)

or

2) A spirit from other grains stored in barrels, but there is no legal length put on the aging process. As such, some American bourbons and whiskeys are aged for times less than even one day.

Other locales, however, are not so lenient. The EU requires spirits to have been aged for not less than three years in order to qualify as whiskey. A spirit aged for less than three years can still be sold, it just cannot be called whiskey. So what may be called whiskey in America is not whiskey in other parts of the world.

AMERICAN
The Americans have the most varied categories available to them for whiskey production. The most basic, of course, is just “whiskey.” According to US law, whiskey is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof . . . stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.” A grain-distilled spirit not meeting these requirements is just a “grain spirit.”

Corn whiskey has a free pass on aging requirements (such as they are) and is “produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; and also includes mixtures of such whisky.”

Bourbon, the most recognizable American variant, has the added distinction of being required to have been produced in America. Anywhere. Some people believe it must come from Kentucky, or Tennessee, or the contiguous US. All lies! It must, however, be made from at least 51% corn and produced at not exceeding 160° proof . . . and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers.” Notice the lack of length of aging requirements. This is one area where many sources screw up and claim some random number of years a bourbon must be aged. Many also erroneously claim bourbon must use white oak. The type of oak required is never specified, although it must be new, never used. After the first batch, the barrel cannot be used for bourbon ever again. They are usually sold to the Scots. No additives are allowed (color, flavor, etc.).

Rye/wheat/etc. has the exact same requirements as bourbon, except that the 51% must be the grain on the label, naturally.

Straight bourbon/rye/corn/wheat/etc. meets the above definitions with the added requirement of having been aged for at least two years.

Tennessee Whiskey is a bit of a muddle. It is not described in federal legislation and is having a hard time of it in Tennessee state law. The basic attempt here is to create a unique brand. The requirements for Tennessee Whiskey are the same as for bourbon with the additions that it is made in Tennessee and is filtered through maple charcoal. This process is called the Lincoln County Process. While some people argue that a Tennessee Whiskey is also a bourbon, that is incorrect. A bourbon cannot have additives; the Lincoln County process is a flavor additive, and thus no bourbon for you!

The irony is that the only distiller in Lincoln County (Benjamin Prichard’s) does not use this process but is grandfathered into still using the name Tennessee Whiskey. It’s a mess, and the whole law is currently being challenged by Diageo, a global alcohol behemoth.

SCOTCH
There are exactly five Scotch variants as defined by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Unlike their American cousins, the Scots do not have a “catch-all” whiskey category. If it does not met the requirements of one of the five “Scotch Whiskies,” you cannot make it in Scotland. There is no such thing as “whisky from Scotland.” All Scotches must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels and may contain “plain caramel colouring.” For a more in-depth discussion, see this article here.

Single malt Scotch whiskies are made from 100% malted barley and come from a single distiller, but can still be a mix of varying ages and barrel types.

Single grain Scotch whiskies are made from other grains but still come from a single distillery. The “single” does not refer to a single grain, but a single distillery. A single grain Scotch contains multiple grain types.

Blended malt Scotch whiskies are made by blending single malts form different distillers together.

Blended grain Scotch whisky is a blend of single grain whiskies from different distillers.

Blended Scotch whisky is a blending of single malt and single grain whiskies.

CANADIAN
The Canadians are far less technical when it comes to their whisky. Three years as a minimum age is about it. It may contain coloring and flavoring. It is often labeled as “rye” for traditional reasons and not for any actual rye content. They also require “small wood,” as in barrels of 700L or less.

IRISH
Like the Canadians, the Irish have few regulations beyond the three-year rule and that it is “distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume.” Most of the “rules” people may refer to (e.g. triple distilled) are merely traditional practices and not requirements.

Even this is simplified, but you get the main points. As with all laws, they change and are filled with nuances that would take way, way too much space to go into. Hopefully this gives you a good start balancing the need to avoid going into irrelevant minutia but not being too simplistic.

Whiskey and Your Health

It’s always a good thing to know what you’re putting into your body. Here at TheWhiskeyScout.com, we can help.

CALORIES
The caloric content of whiskey is almost exclusively a result of the alcohol content, and it comes out to 7 calories per gram. Once you know the proof, you can estimate the calories in your drink. This does not include any mixers or chasers, however. That whiskey sour has a few more calories in it. Just sayin’.

Proof Calories
1 oz
(30 ml)
1 shot
1.5 oz (44 ml)
70 Proof 56 85
80 Proof 64 97
86 Proof 70 105
90 Proof 73 110
94 Proof 76 116
100 Proof 82 124

Keep in mind that other than bourbon, whiskies may add colorings that have the potential to add a few calories. All bets are off with flavored whiskies.

CARBS
Whiskey does not contain carbs.

GLUTEN
Does whiskey contain gluten? Well that depends on why you’re asking.

If you don’t eat gluten because you have a sensitivity to gluten, then you’re fine to enjoy a glass of whiskey. According to the Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign, “a cocktail made with a distilled spirit is safe.”

CCA_logo

The Canadian Celiac Association backs this up, saying, Rye whisky, scotch whisky, gin, and vodka are distilled from a mash of fermented grains. Rum is distilled from sugar cane. Brandy is distilled from wine and bourbon is distilled from a grain mash including corn. Since the distillation process does not allow proteins to enter the final product, distilled alcohols are gluten free.

For those whom gluten posses a severe health risk, however, it is advisable to go slow, if at all, when trying whiskey. Different distillers use differing distillation techniques which may vary the purity of the final product. In addition there is a high danger of cross-contamination, so even if the final product is gluten free, what winds up in the bottle may not be. Many celiacs have reported symptoms with even the most theoretically gluten-free spirit.

As with all things relating to your health, go slow, go careful, and always err on the side of caution. Some with gluten allergies have reported no issues with a glass of bourbon, while others have reported rapid intoxication and severe hangovers from even slight amounts. Click here for more information about gluten and whiskey.

HEALTH BENEFITS
Rod of AsclepiusHealth benefits from whiskey? This has to be a joke, right? A page torn straight from the “Too Good To Be True” playbook. Well read on, O Ye Disbelieving Heathens, and be enlightened!

When taken in moderation (about two drinks for guys, one for the ladies) alcohol can bestow upon its imbibers these benefits:

Reduced risk of heart disease
Reduced risk of ischemic stroke
Reduced risk of diabetes
Reduced risk of dementia
Reduced risk of gallstones

Sources: Mayo Clinic, Medical Daily, LiveStrong, Organic Facts

Who Makes the Rules?

When talking about whiskey, inevitably the conversation will turn to the rules for bourbon or the rules for Scotch. But who makes these rules? How are these rules enforced?

Simply put, the rules for such things as bourbon and Scotch are codified into law by individual countries. For instance, the US has a set of laws on what can bear the label “bourbon.” If the bottle in question does not meet those rules, it cannot be sold in the United States and call itself bourbon.

Does this mean someone in India can put a mystery liquid in a bottle and sell it as bourbon? Well, yes. Maybe. They certainly could not export it to the US and still call it bourbon.

SWA LogoSimilarly, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has a set of rules for what qualifies as Scotch. So can someone in Kentucky slap the word Scotch on a bottle and sell it? No. But why do the rules set up by the SWA mean anything to the United States? The key is trade agreements.

When signing international trade agreements, a fair amount of quid pro quo goes on. What this means is that when the US signs a trade agreement with say, the EU, they both agree to protect the product Trade Agreementcategories defined by individual countries. This means that the US gets to decide what “bourbon” is (and that it must come from the US) and the Scots get to decide what “Scotch” is (and that it must come from Scotland, of course!). There is actually a very complicated list of regionally restricted categories covering every conceivable type of alcohol embedded in these trade agreements.

Any country becoming a signatory to one of these trade agreements binds themselves to abide by these regional restrictions. Our enterprising distiller in Kentucky would not be allowed to sell his “Scotch” anywhere. Which is why Japanese single malts that taste indistinguishable from Scotch single malts will never be called Scotch. They are just Japanese single malts, though many bars will list them under Scotches. For shame!

Here are “The Rules” in their official form:

Bourbon / other American

Scotch (SWA) / The scotch Whisky Regulations 2009

Canadian

Irish

Many other types do not have specific rules other than they must be from the indicated location.

The Myth of Flavor Zones

images
Even science books lie sometimes

It’s always a blow to our trust in humanity when we learn we’ve been lied to our whole lives.  Even more so when it was by the very people we trusted to shape our hearts and minds, and tongues. The idea of the flavor map of the tongue is total bunk. A quick internet search will produce gobs (a highly scientific unit of quantity) of results, but here’s one from Live Science to get you started.

Since taste is obviously an important part of our enjoyment of whiskey, it’s a good thing to have at least a cursory understanding of how we perceive taste. The basics are simple, the tongue can perceive all tastes across the tongue. There are some variations, but these are more linked to differences between individuals rather than any intrinsic tongue topology.

This misconception was propagated by a poorly understood work written in 1901 by German D. P. Hanig. The graphic we all recognize was an attempt by others to generalize his research that did show slight variations. The problem was that those variations are not so well-defined, nor are they exclusionary, nor are they significant. The first cracks in universal belief in the map came in 1974 in a paper written for Perceptions & Psychophysics by Virginia Collings, which basically says the above backed with a whole lotta numbers. After this paper came out, more and more people started to look at this more critically, and we arrive today where no one supports the flavor map idea.

The problems with the flavor map are legion. First, the traditional map doesn’t even include all the flavors we are capable of detecting. That makes any map of the “four” flavors woefully inaccurate, even if the idea of zones was valid. It leaves out “umami,” a Japanese word that translates loosely as “tastes like chicken.” More or less. OK, it’s a meaty, protein flavor. Another problem lies in the fact that we have taste buds all around our mouth, not just on the tongue. So once again, the tidy graphic shoved down our throats (sorry, couldn’t resist!) would be wrong even if the basic concept were true, which it’s not.

Just be aware that anyone telling you their product “directs the spirit onto the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is perceived,” is spouting total marketing BS. One of the biggest perpetrators of this is specialty glass manufacturer, Riedel! It’s a shame that even Maker’s Mark touts the flavor map in their mobile app. Let’s get it together, people!

For further reading:
New York Times article
US National Library of Medicine article
Aroma Dictionary.com article