Expect an epiphany when delving into the mysteries of the “Big Three”
First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2012 edition)
In my lapsed Catholic psyche the drinking of whisky can at times best be regarded as a religious experience. I reckon you’d have to delve back some two millennia, when Jesus turned water into wine, to find a more apparent divine hand in the creation of a beverage. There’s good reason why it’s known as the ‘golden nectar of the gods’. Whisky too, like the religion of its progenitors, has a trinity: Scotch, Irish and American – the big three of the whisky world, prominent in all places of worship. As a novice drinker I was as mystified by this spirituous threesome as I had been by their spiritual counterparts. Beyond the obvious, what was the difference? Familiarity might breed contempt, but in this particular case I had anticipated delight instead, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Let’s take a short-cut through the catechism.
“In the beginning was the malt, and the malt was with barley, and the malt was barley” Anon. Whisky by convention, and in many cases by law, is defined as a spirit distilled from cereal grains, the most reputed and famous of which is malted barley. Whilst there are of course many other points of difference, it is this, the grain from which it is made, that on a basic level most clearly distinguishes one denomination of whisky from another.
Single malt, the high priest of Scotch, is made from malted barley which is often peated i.e. dried over a peat fire rather than a coal fire as would be the case with an unpeated malt. The influence of the peat is evident in a smoky flavour, of which Islay whiskies are striking examples. Whilst Scotch is not exclusively smoky (by any means), and whilst smoke is not exclusively Scotch, it is a broadly identifying feature, its bindi if you will. There is a cult of Scotch whisky fans so devoted to this peated style that they have become known as ‘Peat Freaks’. Sound appealing? You’d do well then to try the most heavily peated whiskies on the market, said to be Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie) Octomore and Ardbeg’s aptly named Supernova.
The Irish too have a tradition of single malt, although theirs are most commonly unpeated. However, their most emphatic prophet, whose rich, sweet and spicy flavours are converting untold numbers to the faith, is the single pot still, made from a recipe of predominantly unmalted barley. This is the master component in the Jameson blend, Ireland’s most prolific whiskey by some distance. The Midleton Distillery, producer of Jameson and currently the only exponent of this style, has just released the Midleton Barry Crocket Legacy, which at some €170 (≈R1770) a pop is the most premium single pot still available today. I was lucky enough to taste this splendid whiskey late last year, and whilst I’m tempted to tell you more, it would be akin to speaking in tongues such is my gushing, uncontrollable admiration.
American whiskeys (and Canadian whiskies), of which Bourbon is probably the best known, generally have softer, sweeter, buttery flavours, a product of the largely corn based recipes (with rye in the minority adding a spicy kick). Notably American whiskies are also somewhat fundamentalist. They’re distinct from each other and from other whiskies not only by grain but also by age and by maturation. An American whiskey must have been aged for a minimum of two years to be called a straight whiskey, and maturation of straight and other legislatively “named” whiskies must take place in virgin oak. Iconic examples include Jack Daniels, a specialized Bourbon-style known as Tennessee whiskey, and Jim Beam, but those who’ve concluded their rites may prefer more complex and sophisticated options such as the highly-acclaimed George T. Stagg, or Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbons.
Each region has endured its reformation and travelled its own path, but it’s worth giving some consideration to the similarities as well as the differences. That only grain, yeast and water, as rudimentary a recipe of ingredients as can be imagined, could yield such an astounding array of flavours, is inarguably cause for unifying wonderment no matter what your sectarian persuasions. In the worship of whisky, each mass, wherever it may be held, is an enriching prospect. May the dram be with you!