"You're not going to like this," says Bobby Heugel, pausing for effect while an expectant crowd giggles semi-nervously. "When it comes down to it, whiskey is the same thing as vodka." The crowd laughs, unsure of exactly what to make of this statement. "And you know how I feel about vodka," Heugel adds.
While potentially confusing, this terse statement gets to the heart of the matter, and does so in a hurry. Whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain, just like vodka. It's what's done to the grain beforehand (malting), and the spirit afterward (aging), that makes the difference. It also provides a good jumping-off point for discussing the differences between different styles of whiskey, as Heugel would go on to do over the next two hours.
While our tasting ranged over wide geographical areas and covered an extremely differing array of spirits, it is interesting to note that we didn't taste a single bourbon, or a single malt Scotch. The point is that the world of whiskey is complex - much more complex than most people realize. Styles change and morph even within styles. It's a testament to the depth, breadth, and quality of today's whiskey market that Heugel was able to hold such a tasting, skipping lightly over the two most widely known and popularly exalted forms of the spirit.
The first, a clear and slightly musky glass of Death's Door White Whisky, provided insight into the basic nature of whiskey as a spirit. Basically un-aged, Death's Door gets a scant three days in oak barrels, in order to avoid the "Moonshine" label. It tastes almost exclusively of the grain from which it comes.
As Heugel explained, whiskey is unlike vodka in that its fermentable base includes malted grains. This gives the spirit its essential character, and it comes through cleanly in Death's Door. There's a hint of sweetness along with subtle banana and raisin. Cereal qualities, like sticking your nose in a bag of raw flour or oats, come through, along with a subtle and balancing bitterness. It contains hints and elements found in most of the whiskey's I've ever tried. It's not my favorite, flavor wise, but was definitely one of the more intriguing offerings, and an educational drink.
From there we moved on through a discussion about how the different grains and their percentages of the total mash bill affect the finished product. We sampled a Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, which takes its rounded sweetness and thin body from the high percentage of wheat, and limited barrel aging.
The Bernheim, whose bottle design changed recently, replacing a copper medallion with a plastic version, gave Bobby a soap-box for expounding on what to look for to predict declining quality in your spirits. "Anytime they change the packaging, it means that a change in the contents is probably coming, too." When you see a different bottle, expect a different whiskey. Makes sense to me.
The granular study continued with Bulleit 95 percent Rye Whiskey, a much more aggressive spirit with a darker profile. The differences possible by altering the mash bill really stood out in comparing this with the previous glass. Where the former was sweet and mild, this one was aggressive and peppery, with a much more noticeable booziness.
Continuing the whiskey trail, we moved north to Canada, and a no-holds-barred assault on the state of Canadian whiskey. Crown Royal took the full brunt of Heugel's ire, before he put forth the only Canadian whiskey worth buying, Caribou Crossing (produced by Buffalo Trace). As Heugel explained it, Canada's problem is a combination of lax quality standards dating back to Prohibition and loose definitions for whiskey (up to 9 percent "other" ingredients can be added, and there is no stricture on the grains allowed in the mash bill). With no standard for malted grain percentages, Canadian whiskeys tend to be less grain-focused, and don't pick up their character in the barrel, due to the use of used wood, which has already been stripped of most of its flavor.
A domestic single malt (Hudson Valley) brought a discussion of the definition (whiskey made from 100 percent malted barley), which was quickly compared to Irish whiskey (which uses a blend of malted and unmalted barley). The focus of single malts makes them very grain-forward, this one coming closest in base flavor to the Death's Door we'd sampled at the beginning. Redbreast 12 year, on the other hand, was clean, mild, and sweet in comparison, with only a hint of overt grain flavor.
My favorite whisky of the day came from the other side of the world, in the form of a Yamazaki 18-year-old single malt. As Heugel explained it, the propensity in Japanese whisky is for complexity as king. Since the majority of Japanese consumers drink their whisky over ice, Japanese spirits tend to have a wide range of flavor and aroma components, in order to stand up to the chill.
A more focused spirit like an American-style Bourbon would lose its character when chilled, tasting flat. The result of this is an amazing bouquet of flavors. I picked up flowers, peaches, pineapple, brandy, a hint of smokiness, acetone, and a grainy duskiness that was its primary link to more traditional single malts. It was delicious.
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The day closed with a Sheep Dip vatted malt, a blend of three different single malts. Vatted malts can be an incredible bargain, as they offer the experience of multiple high-quality single malts, at a significantly lower price. This one came across as smoky, leathery and nutty, with just a hint of balancing sweetness.
The goal of the day was to give an understanding of whiskey, applicable to an appreciation of the spirit in all of its forms. Most significant in that experience was the White Whisky, reducing the spirit down to its skeletal structure. Armed with the memory of that spirit, I've begun noticing the subtle and not so subtle differences between types and bottles of whiskey in a much more pronounced fashion. The grains veer from the baseline, tilting the finished product toward sweeter or drier. Wood aging adds complexity of flavor. Blending different whiskeys together allows for a nearly endless array of sensations. In all of these, though, you can taste through to that essential "whiskeyness." Once you know what it is.