It's no secret that whiskey has a prominent spot in the hearts and bellies of American Jews. Between the Kiddush clubs, holidays and simchas, there's always an excuse to have a l'chaim. In fact, The Atlantic had a well-researched piece a year ago on the Jewish ties to bourbon.
This year, the Whisky Jewbilee returns to Chicago on Sep. 1, one month before Rosh Hashanah. That gives you the opportunity to find that perfect spirit to impress family members at the dinner table.
Whether you're new to the whiskey world or you love it and just don't know much about it, there are a few things you should know that will at least make you conversational in whisk-ese. The first thing to understand is that whiskey encompasses the entire category. As long as it's from a fermented grain mash, you have whiskey.
Now, how do you determine the different types of whiskey? Here are a few criteria to look at.
There are some regional variations that are straightforward. Irish whisky is made from Ireland, Canadian whisky is from Canada, etc. Believe it or not, even Israel has its own version. (Side note: whisky is the correct spelling outside of the U.S., otherwise it's whiskey). However, scotch and the American whiskeys (bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey) are named based on geography as well.
Legally, scotch has to be made in Scotland and bourbon has to be made in the U.S. Most believe that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky, but that's not the case. While it is advantageous to make bourbon (and rye) in Kentucky due to the exceptionally hot summers and frigid winters, it's possible to make bourbon outside the state.
The only whiskey that must be made in a particular state is Tennessee whiskey (which only applies to Jack Daniels and George Dickel). These must go through an extra step before aging called the Lincoln County Process. For the sake of brevity, I'll let you check out that Wikipedia link if you want to know more.
All whiskey has some combination of wheat, corn, rye and barley. The combination tells you what kind of whiskey it is.
For instance, bourbon has to be at least 51 percent corn, rye needs to be 51 percent rye and scotch needs to be 51 percent malted barley. Generally, whiskeys will have a dominant grain and two of the three others depending on the taste a producer is looking to achieve, but it's not mandatory. Accordingly, some whiskeys are going to be similar to scotch or bourbon as far as the mash bill is concerned.
Distillation and Bottling
Proof refers to the percent of alcohol by volume. Divide the proof in half and you get the percent alcohol.
The biggest difference here is between American whiskey and scotch. Bourbon can't be distilled higher than 160 proof and must enter the barrel no higher than 125 proof. Scotch, on the other hand, can be distilled as high as 190 proof and has no bottling restrictions other than having a minimum strength of 80 proof (just like American whiskey).
Not surprisingly, the proof has a lot to do with the taste of the whiskey. The proof for any given whiskey is decided based on how much the brand wants to filter or water down the whiskey coming from the still. Anything in the 80-90 proof range is generally going to be much smoother and easier to drink. That said, many top whiskeys have something called "cask strength." This means it came straight from the barrel and isn't watered down.
Many whiskey fanatics prefer cask strength because the full flavor is retained and the strength can be decided by the drinker. Adding a few drops of water does a lot of good things to the taste.
For whiskey, it's not only a matter of how long it's aged for, but what it's aged in. For instance, Canadian whisky needs to be aged in wood barrels no larger than 700 liters for at least three years. Same goes for Irish whisky. Bourbon, on the other hand, must be aged in new charred American oak barrels, but there's no age restriction (though it needs to be aged two years to be referred to as "straight bourbon" and at least four years to not require an age statement). Rye and Tennessee whiskey have those restrictions as well.
Scotch has similar laws to Canadian whisky but must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years in a maximum-capacity 700-liter barrel. Scotch also has additional rules for aging because it has what's called "blended" and "single-malt" styles. Single-malt means the water and malted barley have to be produced at a single distillery. (There is also single-grain, but we'll skip that for this post.) Blended means multiple scotches from different distilleries. There are also different types of blends, but the important detail to remember is that the age statement on the bottle must reflect the youngest whiskey used.
Flavor and Kashrut
Last but not least is flavor. American whiskey and scotch differ slightly in that American whiskeys cannot have flavors or colorings added while scotch can have caramel coloring. Canadian and Irish whiskeys don't have these rules, which is why you might see a lot of Canadian whiskies with honey or maple added.
From a kashrut standpoint, this should make almost all whiskey kosher. However, there are a few curveballs:
1. The trend of "infused" whiskies or "shooters" (e.g. the Fireballs of the world and apple-infused bourbons)
2. Whiskey that is aged or finished in a wine cask.
Flavored whiskeys are the bigger issue as far kashrut. They are generally considered not to be kosher without a hechsher. This tends to be practiced much less stringently compared to kashrut around meat, cheese and wine, but those who are strict will avoid flavored alcohol of any kind.
The topic of whiskeys aged or finished in wine casks was actually the subject of an hour-long class I led during Shavuot a year ago. The question essentially boils down to whether or not the taste the wine cask that whiskey might be aged in is transferred to the taste of the whiskey itself. (If you'd like to see my source sheet explaining both sides of this debate in greater detail, feel free to email me.) The abridged explanation is it depends on who you ask. For what it's worth, Chicago kosher restaurants won't serve whiskey aged in a wine cask, but the ones in New York will.
And there you have a somewhat shortened version of Whiskey 101. There are many books on Amazon that are much more comprehensive and many of them are great reads. You can take a look at the many options here.
Now that you've got the basics down, join me at Whisky Jewbilee at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sep. 1 at Architectural Artifacts, 4325 N. Ravenswood Ave. Oy!Chicago readers get a 10 percent discount on tickets with the promo code OY216. Get more info and register here.