Photo Credit: libraryrachel
My love affair with whiskey has its origins, like whiskey itself, in the British Isles. I’d promised myself a trip abroad after I finished high school, and when I saved enough money, chose to go to England and Scotland. Among various other misadventures, I went out one night with an inexplicably attractive Scotsman — he had terrible teeth, nice eyes and a flair for telling stories, and if he had asked me to run away with him to a godforsaken moor, I would have.
I asked him to get me a whiskey and coke, not realizing the cultural faux pas I had just committed.
The Scot, when I made my request, looked pained. “You cannot ask me to go up to that bar and order you a whiskey and coke. I’m Scottish. We don’t do that.” It was like I had asked him to barter oral sex in exchange for my drink.
I was eighteen at the time and had never even been in a bar before that trip. “Whiskey and coke” was what I drank at my friends’ parties. (I had also been known to mix whatever was on hand, including some vodka and rootbeer one time. I was definitely not picky.)
Eventually, as a sacrifice to international goodwill, he bought my classless drink. For himself, though, he had ordered straight Scotch, with a few drops of water added to the tumbler. The scent of it — warm, mossy, smoky — bloomed across the table, reached into my brain and imprinted on it. I transferred all of my infatuation from that Scot to the amber-colored liquid in his glass in that moment.
It’s a love affair that’s lasted the last ten years, marked like the stratigraphy of a sandstone cliffs, eons and eras of tastes and fads: there was the Jim Beam period when I was twenty and didn’t know any better, the Year of Scotch, the summer of Hell Yes Mint Juleps.
Whiskey has a way of garnering loyalty, in a way that tequila and gin don’t. They have their enthusiasts, for sure, but whiskey-nuts rival winos in their obsessions. There’s never been a Gin Rebellion, but Alexander Hamilton attempted to levy a tax against whiskey distillers under George Washington’s presidency. Since whiskey was used as a secondary currency, he nearly got an armed insurgency for his trouble. (Google “Whiskey Rebellion 1791” if you don’t believe me.)
People have always taken whiskey seriously. Just look at the etymology of its name: whiskey has its roots in the Gaelic uisge or uisce, meaning water. But it was most often referred to as uisce beatha or “water of life.” Whiskey originated on the British Isles, which were unsuited to growing wine grapes because of Britain’s famously crap weather. Whiskey was instead distilled from other grains, particularly barley.
Modern whiskey, however, is usually made from a conglomeration of distilled grain spirits, not just barley: rye, wheat and corn are also used. Most bottles of whiskey have more than one type of grain in them, and the ratios of the different grains are one of the things that distinguish different types of whiskey. Bourbon, for example, is made from a mash that consists of at least 51% corn. Also taken into consideration are how many times the liquor is distilled, how long it’s been aged, whether it’s from a single distillery or a blend from several, whether it uses malted grains or not, and what other additives are introduced into the mix — many Scotches, for example, have a distinctively smoky flavor because the mashes are treated with peat smoke.
One distillery can produce fantastically different whiskies. A great example is Koval Distillery here in Chicago. I was lucky enough to go on one of their tours this past summer, which included a free tasting. They produce five different so-called “white whiskeys,” which are unaged. (The familiar amber color of most whiskeys is a byproduct of the aging process, in which the liquor is left in wood caskets for a certain amount of time, and in certain cases, coloring agents.)
Unaged whiskey is strange if you’re used to drinking Maker’s Mark or Jameson. It has the familiar burn of vodka but a lingering undertaste of the grain mash used to produce it. Without going too far into woo-woo foodie-descriptor territory, it has an oddly round, sickly-sweet feel on the palette and is harsh going down. It has a rough edge, courtesy of the non-ethanol alcohols still floating in the bottle. As the saying goes, it’ll put hair on your chest.
Koval also produces two different kinds of aged whiskeys using two different kinds of oak barrels. One is “toasted,” and the other is “heavily charred.” The actual logistics of this distinction weren’t explained during and are probably kept secret. Most distilleries’ recipes are protected by patents and trademarks, just as they used to be protected by inventive curses and fighting monks. Or so I like to imagine.
Maybe now is a good time to admit that I’ve been drinking while writing this. You can imagine me on a barstool, clutching a lowball glass full of bourbon, sobbing about how much I love whiskey, no but really, you don’t understand. It was true love in that bar in Inverness, Scotland, where the heavy peat scent reached out to me, through the haze of cigarette smoke and sweat and my inexplicable crush on a guy with bad teeth but really pretty eyes.
A month later, while staying in the Isle of Skye, I went on my first distillery tour. I bought a bottle of single malt and drank it leisurely that evening in the comfort of a backyard fire pit with a dozen other travelers.
“Why are you drinking straight out of that bottle?” an Australian guy asked.
“I don’t have a glass,” I said coolly and lifted the bottle back to my lips.
Like all love affairs, it didn’t exactly have a most auspicious start. But it has gotten better with age.