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Whiskey 102: All your whiskey questions answered.

Become acquainted with this beloved brown spirit.

Every whiskey lover has a drink that first turned them on to the good stuff. Maybe it was a homemade Bulleit Old Fashioned, Hibiki with a splash of water, or a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch Whiskey

For me it was a glass of 18-year-old Caol Ila I was so kindly introduced to back in 2006 while writing a story called “Whiskey 101.” True story. 

Regardless of how you got there, whisk(e)y is a drink worth diving into at a more-than-beginner rate. Bourbon. Scotch. Barrel-aged. You know the basics, now it’s time to dig into the world of this bold brown spirit so you can discover your next go-to favorite.

What's the best bourbon to drink straight?

Whatever you want. Seriously. Whiskey nerds like to drink bourbon straight to best appreciate the individual flavors. Once you find a bourbon you like, you can do whatever you want with it. Nobody says you have to enjoy an expensive whiskey only neat or turn a cheap one only into cocktails. You own the bottle, and nobody gets to tell you how to use it.

Is bourbon smoother than Scotch? Is any whiskey smoother than any other?

That depends how you define “smooth,” which is a texture and not a flavor. If “smooth” means “burns less going down,” that has more to do with proof than anything else—higher proof = more burn, no matter what whiskey we’re talking about. 

One reason a drinker might prefer bourbon to Scotch comes down to the charred oak barrels many bourbons are aged in. These add color and a sweet oaky flavor or more quickly than Scotch.

Do grains affect flavor?

The grains that go into a whiskey are a major determinant of its flavor, and bourbon—made from at least half corn—tends to be fairly sweet and mild in general. (Think of cornbread versus wheat or rye bread), but the remainder of the mashbill is important. 

If it’s dominated by wheat—like in the legendary Pappy Van Winkle—you get an extra-sweet whiskey. If there’s a lot of rye—as in the bottlings literally labeled “high rye” from distillers including Redemption and Jim Beam—you’ll get more fruity, cherry notes and peppery spice. 

Pro-tip: If you want to get *fire emoji* spicy, I highly suggest trying an American rye whiskey like Basil Hayden for a party in your mouth where everyone’s invited.

What about Scotch?

If Scotch was your way into whiskey (err, whisky, as they spell it in Scotland), you’re a fan of barley. Single malt Scotches must be made from 100 percent malted barley, while blended Scotches are a mix of different whiskies made from other grains that still highlight barley notes. 

(“Malting” is a process of letting barley grains sprout and then drying them out, which releases a starch-digesting enzyme necessary for fermenting both beer and whiskey.)

The big split in Scotch is between brands that use lots of malted barley dried over burning peat and those that use little to none. Peated Scotch has smoky, mineral flavors that might be described as anything from pulled pork to Band-Aids (a real note often used to describe Laphroaig especially).

Peated whisky tends to come from the rugged islands off Scotland’s west coast, especially Islay, which is home to nine distilleries. Scotch made without peated barley highlights fruity flavors and warm spices. This is the signature of distilleries in the Highland region of northern mainland Scotland, especially its central Speyside area. 

As a mix of peated and unpeated whiskies, blended Scotches have a balance of both styles that varies from brand to brand.

Knowing what you like to drink comes down to knowing what you like. Whether it’s a smooth Kentucky bourbon or “burnt rubber” Scotch, becoming an expert means exploring the world of whiskey – one glass at a time.

Jason Horn has been writing about food and drinks for more than 15 years. He is a former senior editor at Liquor.com and currently a commerce writer for The Spruce Eats. Find more at http://themessyepicure.com/

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