Real Food Right Now and How to Drink It: Whiskey

Whiskey, also known as water of life and sweet nectar of the gods. It's the stuff of mint juleps, the Wild West and classic cocktails. For something as American as apple pie (George Washington had a distillery at Mount Vernon), whiskey's roots reach back to Ireland and Scotland. But you may be wondering, is it whiskey or whisky? We'll get to the bottom of this intoxicating mystery!

A Brief History

For as much of the stuff as we drink, spirits are relatively new. Europe didn't figure out how to distill until around the 1200s, likely learning from Arab alchemists who learned it from the Greeks. Even then it was a science whose wisdom was kept within the confines of the church and used more for medicinal purposes than happy hour.

Thankfully some clever soul figured out how to distill fermented grain into delicious whiskey, likely a monk in Ireland or Scotland. By the mid 1500s, after Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, whiskey making passed from church to laity. For the next three centuries, whiskey was the mainstay of the working class. All that changed in the 1800s.

Historically, the rich man's tipple was brandy or cognac. But a series of devastating Phylloxera epidemics ravaged much of France's vineyards in the mid to late 19th Century. It is said that between 2/3 and 9/10 of the vineyards in France were destroyed. No wine meant no brandy or cognac. Looking for alternatives, elite drinkers turned to single malts from Scotland. Et voila! Whiskey was now in the big leagues.

Here in America, rye was the spirit of choice during the Revolutionary War when rum became scarce. And distilling was so ingrained in the rural culture and economies of western Pennsylvania that they revolted against the newly formed American government rather than be taxed. In the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, many distillers simply moved shop to Kentucky, then the far reaches of the frontier, and started making bourbon.

Whiskey also had a major quality problem in this country, especially by the 19th Century. With zero regulation and standards, your shot of courage in a western saloon could be a mixture of water, neutral spirit and flavoring — or something far more toxic. In 1897 that began to change when the US passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act, which created a standard of quality and tax incentives for distilleries to comply with. Twenty years later Prohibition dealt a major blow to the industry, which took decades to recover. Many companies simply ceased to exist. Others got mixed up in bootlegging or legally produced whiskey for "medicinal" purposes.

The last fifteen years has brought a major renaissance of distilling in the US. As an offshoot of the craft beer movement, interest spread to distilling. People rediscovered rye and started to make small batch whiskeys for their classic cocktails. Now whiskey, specifically bourbon, is big business and demand is so high that it's outstripping production. So much so that your fancy pants "craft" bourbon aged 10 years may have started out life in an Indiana factory that cranks out whiskey to meet insatiable demand. Caveat emptor

Factual Nibbles

  • So, is it whiskey or whisky? While both spellings are correct, it depends on where you're getting it. Distilled in the United States or Ireland? It's whiskey with an E. (There are a few exceptions.) But those in Scotland, Canada and Japan prefer to drop the E. A way to remember this is that both the US and Ireland have the letter E in their names; Scotland, Canada and Japan do not. People have strong feelings about the E versus no E thing.
  • Whiskey is Anglicized from the gaelic uisge beatha or water of life.
  • Your whiskey starts off life as a clear liquid that gains its characteristic caramel color while aging in oak barrels.
  • As whiskey ages, a small percentage evaporates. This is called the angel's share.
  • It's said that bourbon gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Although that’s in dispute and there's strong evidence that it actually takes its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
  • In 1964 Congress enacted a resolution that declared bourbon "America's native spirit." As a result, bourbon whiskey for sale in the US has to be produced in the US.
  • France consumes the most whiskey of anyone in the world, about 2.5 litres annually per capita. 
  • Apparently they used to burn women at the stake for making whiskey. Not cool.

Cultivation

Depending on the type of whiskey you're sipping, it began life as corn, wheat, barley and/or rye, the exact mixture of which is called a mash or grain bill. Here's how Uncle Sam sees it:

  • Bourbon whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn
  • Corn whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 80% corn
  • Malt whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted barley
  • Rye whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51% rye
  • Rye malt whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51% malted rye
  • Wheat whiskey is made from mash that consists of at least 51% wheat

And once you have your grains and your water, you heat it in a cooker to break down the sugars. The mash is then fermented, distilled and stored in new oak barrels that have been charred in the interior. In three years — presto — whiskey!

Environmental impact

Love whiskey? Love the environment? Hate to break the bad news — there's a lot of hidden or "virtual" water in your 100 proof hooch. In fact, distilleries have one of the highest water footprints in the industry according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable

Traditionally, distilleries have been situated next to natural springs. Kentucky, for example, is famed for limestone filtered natural springs and some argue that's what makes it home to some of the best bourbon in the country. Factoring in the water used to grow the grains in your mash — corn has a notoriously high water footprint — you've got a water hog of a cocktail.

While no reliable statistics exist for the exact water footprint in a shot of whiskey, it's likely at least 10 gallons. Yikes! And in a time of drought and unstable climate, whiskey may become environmentally and economically unsustainable.  

It's not just water that you need to keep an eye out for. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 88 percent of the corn in the US is genetically modified and corn is the primary ingredient in bourbon. At present, the only two bourbons on the market that use GMO-free corn — Four Roses and Wild Turkey.

On the flip side, distilleries have a history of environmental stewardship to protect the quality of their product. The Maker's Mark distillery, situated on a nature preserve, has gone to great lengths to protect their water from agricultural runoff. They even turn their waste into energy. Tuthilltown, a newer distillery in New York State, was one of the many businesses integral to getting the state to ban fracking in 2014

Characteristics

Whiskey — it's brown! But in all seriousness, there's a lot of lingo to brush up on so you can discern your bourbon from rye, your Canadian style from Tennessee the next time you’re at the liquor store. Let's break it down:

  • For whiskey to be bourbon, it has to be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in oak barrels that have been newly charred in the interior. 
  • Rye whiskey, bourbon's spicer cousin, must be at least 51 percent rye grain and also aged in new charred oak barrels. Traditionally from Maryland and Pennsylvania, rye nearly disappeared after prohibition and, worse, was often confused for blended Canadian whiskies that contain very little of the grain. Thankfully rye is enjoying a renaissance as Americans rediscover this historic spirit.
  • Tennessee whiskey is often confused with bourbon, and it's an easy mistake to make as they are nearly identical. But Tennessee whiskey takes it one step further and filters the spirit with charcoal, also known as the Lincoln County Process.
  • Canadian style whiskies have historically been a blend of two spirits — a base and another for flavoring — hence the unflattering nickname, "brown vodka." The craft cocktail renaissance may be changing that up, but the major Canadian brands are blends.
  • Before there was bourbon there was scotch, a smoky forefather made from malted barley distilled exclusively in Scotland. Scotch comes in two varieties — single malts and blended, the former of which must adhere to rigorous standards. By law single malts must be distilled in copper pots and contain only malted barley and water. Blended scotch, on the other hand, can use a mixture of grain and barley and be made in column stills. Both varieties must be aged for at least three years in oak casks. In addition, scotch gets its distinctive flavor from the peat fires used to dry out the malted barley. That said, not all scotches have been peated.
  • The other progenitor of bourbon and rye is Irish whiskey, which by law is distilled in Ireland and stored in oak barrels for at least three years. Prohibition and political strife did a number on what was once a thriving industry.
  • Whiskey production has spread beyond Ireland, Scotland, the US and Canada. In Japan, whisky is big business, so much so that Suntory, Japan's largest whiskey maker, recently purchased Beam Inc., makers of iconic bourbon Jim Beam.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Okay, let's be honest. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. While the occasional cocktail has been known to boost one's constitution, alcohol has a well-deserved reputation as a potential troublemaker. 

Short-term effects after a shot of whiskey include impaired motor skills. Alcohol is a depressant and slows down the central nervous system. Toss a few more back and you’re looking at dehydration, slurred speech, increased heart rate, inability to walk straight and sleep disruption. Take it one step further and you're at risk for alcohol poisoning and blacking out. Don't do that.

Long-term effects, especially in alcoholics, include inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Chronic drinking also can lead to heart disease, cancer and pancreatitis. In addition, alcohol is the leading cause of regrettable decisions and youthful misadventures.

Of course, always drink responsibly. Never drink and drive.

What to Do With It

Whiskey can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or blended in a cocktail (try an Old Fashioned), with soda (Jack and Ginger) or in a punch. The Mint Julep is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. If enjoying scotch, a little water is recommended to help open up the flavor of the spirit.

Whiskey isn't just for drinking either. My family would make bourbon balls at Christmas for instance, and you can’t get anymore southern than pecan pie with bourbon whipped cream.

Storage

Unopened, your bottle of whiskey will last a century. Once opened, you maybe have about five years before oxidation takes hold. Avoid excessive heat and direct sunlight.

Pro tip

Despite what James Bond told you, it's better to stir that whiskey cocktail in a shaker instead of giving your arms (and your drink) a vigorous workout. Invest in an inexpensive cocktail spoon and churn your Manhattan for about 20 seconds in a shaker filled with ice. The water will smooth out the flavor. 

Recipe

It doesn't get more classic than the Manhattan, which is my favorite cocktail (they make a pretty mean one at The Breslin in New York, NY). When done correctly and with the right ingredients, the Manhattan is a perfect balance of rye whiskey, vermouth and angostura bitters. My ingredients of choice are Rittenhouse Rye and Dolin Rouge vermouth. 

You can garnish with a twist or a maraschino cherry (Luxardo cherries are worth the upgrade). Serve up in a martini glass or coupe.

I've also included a few worthwhile variants below on this old school cocktail.

The Manhattan

Ingredients:

3 oz Rye whiskey
1.5 oz Sweet vermouth
Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry or lemon peel

Equipment:

Cocktail shaker or highball glass
Cocktail spoon or long spoon for stirring
Strainer
Jigger

Method:

1. Add whiskey and sweet vermouth to shaker plus a generous dash of bitters.

2. Fill partly with ice.

3. Give the shaker a stir for about 15-20 seconds.

4. Pour through cocktail strainer into coupe or martini glass.

5. Garnish with cherry or lemon peel.

Variations:

Most recipes call for a 2:1 whiskey to vermouth ratio and you can edit this to your liking. Some people prefer less vermouth, while others like their Manhattans "perfect," which is a 1:1 ratio whisky to equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. Another twist on a classic is The Brooklyn, a cocktail that subs in maraschino liqueur and amaro. Speaking of amaro, it's fun to sometimes switch the vermouth for amaro when making your Manhattan. Enjoy!