Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch
An introduction to each and a look at the Gold Medal Winners
This past weekend Macallan held their annual Raise the Macallan (raisethemacallan.com) tasting across the country. I attended the May 10th event held at Revel Chicago where guests were treated to a tasting of Macallan 12 (Cherry Oak), Macallan 12 (Double Oak), Macallan 15 (Fine Oak), and Macallan Rare Cask.
Earlier this year, Untitled Supper Club held their Annual American
Whiskey event shortly before the Annual International Whiskey Festival held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. The Untitled event is one of my favorite tasting events and showcased over 75 American Whiskeys. The Hyatt event features the best whiskeys, bourbons, and scotches in the world and sells out quickly so be sure to buy your tickets early for that one.
But if you’re like me, there are just so many different whiskeys, bourbons, and scotches it’s just so hard to keep it all straight. So what is the difference, and why should we care?
Whiskey is generally spelled without the “e” everywhere but the United States. It is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash, and those grains include barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat. Whiskey is generally aged in wood casks / barrels made of charred white oak. The various types of whiskey are usually differentiated by the types and techniques of fermentation, distillation, and aging.
It is believed the earliest practice of distillation took place in Babylon in the 2nd millennium BC. That practice then spread through Alexandria, Greece, to the medieval Arabs, then to the Latins, and then to Ireland and Scotland. From there it spread around the world, including the United States and Japan.
The earliest known mention of Irish whiskey comes from the seventeenth-century. In Scotland, the first evidence of whiskey production is dated back to 1494.
Malt whiskey is made primarily from malted barley. Grain whiskey is made from any type of grains.
Malts and grains are combined in various ways:
Single malt – single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. If the single malt is from one cask only, it is known as single-cask.
Blended malt – mixture of single malts from different distilleries.
Blended whiskey – made from a mixture of different types of whiskeys, possibly from may distilleries.
Cask strength – also known as barrel proof, they are usually only the very best whiskies bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted.
Single cask – also known as single barrel, these are whiskies bottled from an individual cask.
American whiskies include:
Bourbon – made from at least 51% corn (maize)
Corn – made from at least 80% corn
Malt – made from at least 51% barley
Rye – made from at least 51% rye
Rye Malt – made from at least 51% malted rye
Wheat – made from at least 51% wheat
American whiskies must be distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume, and barrelled at no more than 125 proof. They must be aged in new charred-oak containers, except for corn whiskey which does not have to be aged. If it is aged, it must be in uncharred oak barrels or in used barrels. Corn whiskey is usually unaged and sold as a legal version of moonshine. American whiskies that are aged for two or more years are called “straight”, e.g., straight rye whiskey.
Other American whiskey types include:
Blended – a mixture of straight whiskies and neutral grain spirits (e.g. Everclear).
Light – more than 80% alcohol by volume and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers
Spirit – a mixture of neutral spirits and at least 5% of certain stricture categories of whiskey
Tennessee – the main defining characteristics of a Tennessee whiskey is its use of the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtration of the whiskey through charcoal.
Bourbon is a type of American Whiskey that contains at least 51% corn (maize). Its distillation has been dated back to the 18th century. The use of the term "bourbon" for the whiskey has been traced to the 1820s, and the term began to be used consistently in Kentucky in the 1870s, which is the state it is most commonly associated with.
Scotch is simply whiskey that is made in Scotland. Scotch is governed by very strict rules of law. All Scotch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years and any age statement must reflect the age of the youngest whiskey used to produce that product. So a 3 year old Scotch, may contain whiskey that is older than 3 years but cannot contain whiskey that is younger than 3 years. This is why Scotch is often referred to as guaranteed-age whiskey.
Scotch is divided into five distinct categories: single malt, single grain, blended malt whisky, blended grain, and blended Scotch.
Single malt is produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills.
Single grain is distilled at a single distillery but, in addition to water and malted barley, may involve whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals.
Blended malt means a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended grain means a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended Scotch whisky means a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
Whiskey production in Japan is more similar to that of Scotch than any other major style. It began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki.
There are nine active distilleries in Japan:
Yamazaki: owned by Suntory, between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshū
Hakushu: also owned by Suntory, in Yamanashi Prefecture on the main island of Honshū
Yoichi: owned by Nikka, on the northern island of Hokkaidō.
Miyagikyo (formerly Sendai): also owned by Nikka, in the north of the main island, near the city of Sendai
Fuji Gotemba: owned by Kirin, at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka
Chichibu: near Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. This is the new Chichibu distillery, founded by Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the distiller at Hanyu. It opened in 2008.
Shinshu: owned by Hombo, in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshū
Chita Distillery: owned by Suntory and operates from within the Port Nagoya Sun Grain complex. Its products are rarely available outside of Japan but are found in blends such as the Hibiki.
White Oak: owned by Eigashima Shuzou, in Hyogo on the main island of Honshū
Japanese Whiskies hit the world stage in 2001 when Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt won "Best of the Best" at Whisky Magazine's awards.
In 2003, Whisky Magazine in 2003, identified the winners of best "Japanese Whiskies" as:
Hibiki 21 YO 43% (blend)
Nikka Yoichi 10 YO SC 59.9%
Yamazaki Bourbon Cask 1991 60%
Karuizawa 17 YO 40% (pure malt)
The Hibiki 21 YO was ranked 9 overall in the world and Nikka Yoichi 10 was ranked 14 in the world.
At the 2003 International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Yamazaki won a gold medal, and Suntory whiskies continued to win gold medals every year through 2013, with all three malt whiskies winning a trophy (the top prize) in either 2012 (Yamazaki 18 years old and Hakushu 25 years old) or 2013 (Hibiki 21 years old), and Suntory itself winning distiller of the year in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
According to Euromonitor, and Fortune Magazine American whiskey sales have soared by 40% between 2009 and 2014. This is astonishing growth given that industry growth is usually only 2 to 3% per year and that American whiskey had seen a decline in sales for almost 3 straight decades. International sales have grown even faster. Between 2002 and 2013 international sales of American Whiskey nearly tripled to $1 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. It was this rocketing growth that led Suntory, the Japanese spirits and beverage giant, to make a $16 billion bid for Beam Inc., which owns the Jim Beam family of whiskey brands as well as Laphroaig single-malt Scotch, Sauza tequila, and Courvoisier cognac.
"This is probably the best time to be in bourbon since Prohibition," says Tim DeLong, the managing director for global whiskeys at Brown-Forman, which makes Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve. (As quoted by Fortune).
Simply the Best
Hopefully this brief introduction has provided some insight into the world of whiskies, bourbons, and scotches.
Now let’s see which have been named the best in the world (2016 Winners):
Whiskey of the Year, Best Single Malt, and Best Single Malt (Highlands) – Glenmorangie Signet
Best New Scotch – Kiln Embers
Best Peated Whiskey, Best Single Malt Scotch (Islay) – Kilchoman Machir Bay
Best Blended Scotch – Johnnie Walker Double Black (rated higher than Johnnie Walker Blue)
Best Blended Whiskey (all categories), Best Blended Scotch 13-17 years old, Best Blended Malt Scotch – Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year
Best Blended Scotch Whiskey 12 year old – Dewar’s Scratched Cask 12 Year
Best Single Malt Scotch 13-17 Year – Craigellachie 13 Year
Best Single Malt Scotch 18 Year – The Glenlivet 18
Best Single Malt Scotch 20 Year – Prometheus 26 Year
Best Single Malt Scotch (Islands) – Jura Superstition
Best Blended Scotch 18+ Year – Teacher’s 25
Best Scotch under $30 – Johnnie Walker Red Label
Best Bourbon, Best Small Batch Bourbon – Chattanooga Whiskey 1816 Cask
Best American Rye Whiskey – Sazerac Straight Rye
Best American Whiskey – Battle Cry Oloroso Sherry Finish Sons of Liberty
Best American Super Premium – Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Best Irish Whiskey – Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy
Best Blended Irish Whiskey – Writers Tears Pot Still Blend
Best Single Malt Irish Whiskey – Barr an Ulsce Single Malt
Best World Whiskey – Mackey Tasmanian Single Malt Whiskey
Best Indian Whiskey – Antiquity Blue Ultra Premium Whiskey