7 Burning Questions About Whiskey, Answered

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Fire water, water of life, juice—whatever you call it, whiskey (also spelled “whisky”) is having a moment. But with so many different whiskeys available, learning the particulars of even one type can be challenging. To help out, we’ve put together a list of answers to your most frequently asked questions about the brown spirit. Consider this your Whiskey 101 cheat sheet.

1. WHAT IS WHISKEY?

The answer is trickier than you might expect: What can be labeled "whiskey" varies from country to country. Many of the moonshines and white whiskeys available in the U.S. can’t legally be labeled as whiskey elsewhere, for example, because they haven't been aged. Exactly how long the spirit must age to be called whiskey varies by country, but all whiskeys do have one thing in common: They're made from grain.

2. WHY IS WHISKEY SOMETIMES SPELLED WITHOUT AN E?

You’ve probably noticed that some whiskey labels read “whiskey” while others are spelled “whisky.” The current convention is that Irish and American whiskeys are spelled with the e, and that Scottish, Canadian, and Japanese whiskys are spelled without. But some bourbons and Tennessee whiskies—including Maker’s Mark and George Dickel—are spelled without the e. Go figure.

3. WHAT IS BOURBON?

To be considered whiskey in the U.S., the spirit must be distilled from grain and be between 40 and 95 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) [PDF]. Usually it is distilled twice. Unlike other countries, there is no minimum aging requirement for most types of American whiskeys.

In the States, bourbon is king. To be called bourbon, the product must not only meet the baseline definition of whiskey, but must also be distilled from at least 51 percent corn. It must be under 62.5 percent ABV once it goes into a barrel, and it must be aged in charred new oak containers. To be called “straight bourbon" (or "straight" whiskey of any kind), it has to aged for at least two years. As far as taste goes, bourbon is typically thought to be sweeter than other whiskeys (such as rye or Scotch), and has a slight smoky flavor.

And last but not least, bourbon has to be made in the United States. It is so ingrained (no pun intended) in our culture, even NAFTA restricts the word "bourbon" to whiskey made in the States.

4. IS BOURBON THE SAME AS TENNESSEE WHISKEY?

Tennessee whiskey is not to be confused with bourbon, although legally, there are only a couple variances between the two. In addition to meeting all the federal requirements for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must also be produced within the state’s limits. Since 2013, it has been required that all Tennessee whiskey is “filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging,” which is known as the Lincoln County Process [PDF] (although one distiller received an exemption from the law).

Aside from these two huge categories, the U.S. also produces rye whiskey (which must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye), wheat whiskey (which must be distilled from 51 percent wheat), unaged white whiskeys, and grain whiskeys made from everything ranging from corn to quinoa, which isn't a grain at all.

5. SO, WHAT IS SCOTCH?

Like American whiskey, Scotch varies greatly in terms of its taste—although it's generally thought to be smokier and peatier than its cousins. By law, it must be made in Scotland and aged for no fewer than three years in oak containers.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of these containers are former bourbon barrels. As American law requires bourbon to be aged in “new oak,” used bourbon barrels are frequently shipped to Scotland for use in making Scotch. Traditionally, all Scotch whisky was made using malted barley.

6. WHAT IS MALT WHISKY?

Malt whisky must be made from a mash of malted grain (usually barley), which means the grain has been soaked, allowed to start sprouting, and then roasted to halt the process. The whisky's level of smoky, savory peat flavor comes from how long the barley is dried over a peat-fueled fire: The longer it's over the fire, the smokier the whisky is.

A single malt means the whisky was made at only one distillery. So, a single malt Scotch is whisky made in Scotland using malted barley in a single distillery.

7. WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES PRODUCE WHISKEY—AND WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT THEIR PRODUCTS?

The other biggies in terms of whisk(e)y production are Canada, Ireland, and Japan. Here are the basics:

Canada: Of all the whiskey-producing countries in the world, Canada (arguably) is the most misunderstood, and it’s not hard to see how it got a bad rap: 75 percent of all Canadian whisky that’s produced is shipped to the U.S., but only about 10 percent of the premium products leave Canada (which means Americans are usually tasting the less-than-stellar stuff). One of the most common misconceptions about Canadian whisky is that it was popularized within the U.S. during Prohibition. Not so, says Canadian whisky historian Davin de Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. According to his research, whisky's generally anesthetic properties made it useful during the Civil War, and since many American distilleries were burned down during the fighting, we needed to turn to our neighbors to the north for our supply.

Legally, the regulations surrounding Canadian whisky provide distillers and blenders a lot of leeway in creating new products. Here, whisky must be distilled from grain to no less than 40 percent ABV, and be aged in wood for at least three years. Canada was the first country in the world to require a minimum age for whisky, which it did in 1887; Britain would follow suit about 25 years later.

Ireland: Ten years ago, there were only three whiskey-producing distilleries in all of Ireland. Thanks to the craft spirits movement, 13 others have opened up since 2006. Irish whiskey must be aged for three years, most is distilled three times, and it must be distilled to at least 40 percent ABV (as in the U.S.).

Japan: Although it’s been produced since the early 1920s, Japanese whisky has only recently become available in the U.S. And as it’s become more available, its celebrity has also grown: The 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (Murray has ranked the world's best whiskeys since 2003) named a whisky from Yamazaki Distillery as the best in the world.

All images courtesy of iStock.

How Prohibition Paved the Way for a Ku Klux Klan Resurgence in the 1920s

Topical Press Agency, Getty Images
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

The motivation behind ratifying the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 was clear: Alcohol was a corruptive, corrosive lubricant, and America would be better off without it.

On the 100th anniversary of this societal shift, it’s worth noting that Prohibition had another, lesser-known consequence: It opened the door for hate groups to gain a greater foothold in America.

Making the sale and transportation of alcohol illegal was supposed to contribute to a strengthened moral fiber in the 1920s. But the sentiment behind it had roots in racism. "The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems," according to Tennessee's Museum Center at 5ive Points. They argued that immigrants from Europe were importing their drinking habits and contributing to a relaxed social standard that organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed a “saloon culture.” Before long, they reasoned, the U.S. would be overrun by Catholic foreigners contributing to societal decay. Bootleggers couldn’t be arrested fast enough.

That’s where the Ku Klux Klan stepped in. The organization was originally founded in 1866 to resist the Reconstruction period of a post-Civil War America. When their sentiments were drowned out by support for civil change, their numbers dwindled before being revived in the 20th century. As part of a sort of recruitment strategy, the Klan began mixing their message of discrimination against minorities with support for Prohibition. Advocacy for clean living was intermingled with the idea that immigrants were responsible for the hedonism associated with alcohol and so many of America's other wrongs.

In communities around the country, Klan representatives succeeded in creating concern by insisting that Catholics, Jewish community members, African-Americans, Hispanic people, and immigrants were feeding the continued disregard for the law. Rather than blanket towns with unfiltered hate speech, they convinced residents that minorities were responsible for illegal alcohol trafficking, speakeasies, and flagrant disobedience of the ban.

The Klan then took it a step further, convincing Prohibition supporters that they could pick up the slack left by overworked police who were struggling to stop bootleggers from flourishing. Evangelical Americans, stirred by fear over the Klan’s depiction of a bad element taking over the country, began to support their cause. If people were in favor of Prohibition, then it only made sense to be anti-immigration, too. The Klan even found federal support for its ambitions, supplying foot soldiers in attacks on Italian alcohol barons in Herrin, Illinois in 1923. Violence and planted evidence were common complaints among those targeted.

Any raids the Klan performed on bootleggers were rarely about seizing alcohol—and if they did, they typically drank it themselves. Instead, it was an excuse to terrorize Catholic neighborhoods in a display of power. Such groups, the Klan argued, were violating Prohibition and had to be stopped. As a result, Klan factions—including some for women and children—sprung up across the country. If supporters weren’t inherently racist, then they could get behind the blanket message to enforce the law.

Either way, Klan numbers grew, with an estimated 2 to 5 million members pledging their commitment to the cause between 1920 and 1925. The erupting violence during raids eroded those numbers in some communities, as people finally caught on that harassment of immigrants—not the betterment of America—was the Klan's primary goal.

The Klan’s ability to piggyback on Prohibition was lost in 1933, when the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. The group wouldn’t be seen as a formidable force again until the rise of the civil rights movement. But for a good portion of the 1920s, they were able to grow in strength and numbers based on the promise of moral upkeep. The “noble experiment” of banning alcohol, which was intended to curb salacious behavior, would forever be associated with the malevolent intentions of the Klan.

Craft Beer is the Latest Casualty of the Government Shutdown

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nearly three weeks in, the butting of heads in Washington has nullified a number of federal operations. National parks have fallen into disarray; Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees are calling in sick rather than show up to airports to work without pay. Now the government shutdown has claimed yet another casualty: craft beer.

According to Business Insider, the federal approval process for new beers has been halted as a result of the impasse over the contested funding for border security. Labels and recipes for new beers, wines, and other alcoholic beverages are reviewed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has closed during the shutdown. Without the bureau's stamp of approval, new and seasonal varieties of craft beers cannot be distributed or sold across state lines.

While this is not an issue for larger, mass-market offerings like Budweiser, smaller breweries that rely on an assortment of new flavors are feeling the impact. Interboro Spirits and Ales of Brooklyn releases new beers weekly; If the shutdown continues, their February sales will suffer, eating into their revenues.

But even an immediate resolution to the situation is no guarantee breweries will rebound. Because the bureau is still accepting applications for labels and even new brewery locations requiring certification, breweries will have to wait for the backlog to be cleared before being given approval to resume normal operations. Come summer, that could mean fewer craft beer options and reduced profits for small businesses that depend on a rotating selection of beverages to drive interest and fuel gatherings.

Until the shutdown is resolved, it appears a lot of craft beer will be sitting in inventory, with brewers hoping the political head-butting won’t break any records. The longest government freeze in history came in 1995, when Republicans advanced a budget met with resistance by President Bill Clinton. That lasted 21 days. Clinton later had a craft beer named in his honor, Exile Chill Clinton, which was distributed in Des Moines, Iowa. The brew was infused with 750 hemp seeds.

[h/t Business Insider]

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