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.

Ohio Man Honors 17th-Century Monks by Consuming Only Beer During Lent

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iStock.com/OkorokovaNatalya

There are no strict rules about what Catholics can and can't give up for the Lent: Observers of the holy season can choose to abstain from everything from fried foods to social media. This year, one Ohio man is making the extreme pledge to give up food entirely, consuming only beer during Lent, Cincinnati news station WKRC reports.

Del Hall isn't just using Lent as an excuse to day-drink for 46 days straight. His decision to limit his diet to beer is an homage to the 17th-century Bavarian monks who made a similar sacrifice during Lent. In that case, they were limited to bock beer, a robust German beer they dubbed "liquid bread." As an employee at the Fifty West Brewing Company in Cincinnati, Hall will have access to beers of all varieties.

Four days into the challenge, Hall told WKRC, "I'm very nervous about it." But he's no stranger to pushing his body to the limit, and compares the challenge to his previous experiences training in the Army and running marathons.

Hall hopes to make it to April 21 subsisting on the all-liquid diet, but he realizes that may not be possible. He'll be monitoring his body and seeing a physician regularly to make sure his fast doesn't pose a threat to his health.

[h/t WKRC]

Sláinte! 15 Facts About Guinness Beer

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iStock.com/Nagalski

Under the guidance of Arthur Guinness and his heirs, Guinness has been brewing pints of its famous stout in Dublin since the mid 18th century. Pour yourself a glass of the black stuff (which actually isn't black at all) and read on for more facts about the legendary brewery.

1. The company originally leased its Dublin brewery for 9000 years.

Arthur Guinness began his beer business in 1759 by renting an unused, four-acre brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin for the next 9000 years. He paid an initial £100 and locked in annual rent at £45. However, the original lease was voided when the company bought the property and the brewing operations expanded to 50 acres.

2. The lease included free access to a water supply.

And the owner was very protective of that privilege. In fact, the one time local authorities tried to make Arthur Guinness pay for his water, he is said to have grabbed a pick-axe from one of the sheriff’s men [PDF] and swore at them until they left.

3. There was once an ale as well.

Guinness started his beer company by brewing two beers: a porter and an ale. However, the Dublin Ale was dropped from production in 1799 so brewers could focus producing more on the increasingly popular stout.

4. It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint of Guinness.

A bartender pours several pints of Guinness
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There are six official steps [PDF] to pouring a pint of Guinness, including waiting nearly two minutes for the beer to settle between the first and second pour.

5. The beer's official color is ruby red.

It’s easier to see the slight tint that comes from the roasted barley if you hold the pint up to the light.

6. Guinness is brewed in 49 countries around the world.

In addition to Ireland, Guinness also owns breweries in Malaysia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. The beer is brewed in a total of 49 countries and served in more than 150. All of the ingredients are sourced locally, except for one: the Guinness extract, a secret mixture that is added to a Guinness brewed anywhere in the world.

7. Ireland isn't the biggest consumer of Guinness.

The country ranks third on the list of places where residents tip back the most Guinness annually, after Britain and Nigeria. Every day, 10 million glasses of Guinness are consumed around the world.

8. The bubbles in a pint of Guinness sink because of the shape of the glass.


When a Guinness is poured, the beer flows downward along the side of the glass, dragging bubbles along with it which then move upward through the middle and form the creamy head. This circulatory pattern is created by the fact that pint glasses are wider at the top than at the bottom giving the bubbles more space to rise from the middle as opposed to from the side.

9. Guinness was one of the first companies to offer employee benefits.

Employees who punched the clock at the company in 1928, just one year before the Great Depression, were entitled to on-site medical and dental care—and two free pints after every shift. Guinness also consistently paid its employees 20 percent more than other brewers and gave them full pensions.

10. The Guinness Harp was one of the first trademarks in the U.K.

The harp, along with Arthur Guinness’s signature, made its first appearance on a Guinness beer label in 1862 and was officially registered in the trademark office in 1876. The harp is a nod to the beer’s Irish roots. The same instrument appears on Ireland’s coat of arms.

11. The patent office noticed the similarities between the two harps.

The Storehouse at Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland
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The government ran into issues when trying to register the harp as a state symbol under international trademark law because the symbol and the Guinness label were so similar. Eventually, the state and the brewery were able to reach a compromise: the harp on a bottle of Guinness would always face right, while in official use, the harp would always be left-facing.

12. Guinness promised every British soldier a pint of beer on Christmas Day during WWII.

Guinness made the statement before realizing that much of the company's work force was also serving abroad at the time. When the company discovered they needed more workers in order to brew enough beer, retirees showed up at the plant to help out. With the help from veterans and workers from other brewing companies, Guinness was able to stay true to its word.

13. The first Guinness Book of World Records was published to help settle pub arguments.

After a particularly unfruitful hunting trip, Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness, mentioned that the bird he and friends had been hunting—the golden plover—must be the fastest bird in the world. When Beaver was unable to locate a reference book that could back his claim, he decided to create one. He stamped the Guinness name on the cover and handed the book out for free to pubs to help customers settle the debates and bets that happen so frequently after a pint.

14. It has been consumed underwater.

As part of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Arthur Guinness signing the lease on the St. James’s Gate brewery, the company held a contest that promised the winners would get to drink a Guinness like never before. A submarine bar was commissioned in 2009 and three years later, the winners went under the Baltic Sea in Stockholm to enjoy their pints.

15. Guinness created its own superhero in Africa.

As part of an advertising campaign, Guinness created a full-length action movie called Critical Assignment that was shown in cinemas across Africa. The story follows the strong journalist Michael Power as he tries to stop a corrupt politician from buying weapons with stolen money. Power gets all his strength from drinking—you guessed it—Guinness.

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