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Let’s talk whiskey!


I love whiskey, which makes me feel pretty stupid. All that money and snootiness and bullshit and, really, whiskey is only old stank barrel-flavored vodka. Word.

There are four factors that affect the old stank barrel flavor of whiskey:

What the alcohol is made from
How thoroughly the alcohol is distilled
The container it is aged in
How long it is aged

I suppose you could add “what sort of water it is diluted with afterwards,” but the sort of airy-fairy people who style themselves connoiseurs of the taste of water, for chrissakes, really get on my nerves. So…no. Shan’t.

What the alcohol is made from

Yeasts eat sugar and pee ethanol. Deal with it. So, you can feed yeasts on sugar or molasses (rum), or fruit (wine, brandy) or honey (mead).

Starch can be converted to sugar by enzymes released when grains are sprouted. A malt is a grain that has been sprouted to release enzymes and then heated to arrest further growth. (This is where peat comes in; the malt for some Scotch whiskies is heated over peat fires).

So that adds corn (bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, moonshine), rye (rye whiskey, rye beer), barley (beer, Scotch whiskey), rice (sake)…wheat, sorghum, millet, potatoes. Koolaid. Table sugar. Doritos. Whatever. Any old carb. Most alcoholic beverages are made from more than one of these things, mashed together into a mash.

How thoroughly the alcohol is distilled

If I were to seal you in a box, you’d soon breathe up all the air, replace it with carbon dioxide, and die in a puddle of your own filth, gasping for release. Well, that’s what happens to yeast when it reaches a certain concentration; it eats all its food and drowns in its own pee. That’s why unfortified wine has a maximum alcohol content of around 14%. In technical terms, 14% is the yeast-to-pee death ratio.


To get alcohol purer than that, you need to distill it. Turns out, that’s really very easy (and fairly illegal. Just saying). See, water boils at 212° F and alcohol boils at around 170° F. So, you heat the mash in some kind of alchemical doohickey just until the alcohol turns into vapor but the water doesn’t, then collect, cool and thereby condense the vapor until it turns back into a liquid. Voilà! The miracle of booze!

Commercially distilled ethyl alcohol is getting on for chemically pure. I know you think you can taste the difference between cheap vodka and the expensive stuff, but you can’t. And, frankly, I’m getting pretty tired of telling you so.

For the purposes of whiskey, however, too much distillation would make all that pretentious peaty, single-malty shit look pretty silly. So spirits for whiskey are distilled until they are about 95% pure.

The container it is aged in

Oak barrels, generally. Bourbon, to call itself bourbon, must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels (so does Tennessee whiskey, but its unique attribute is an initial slow filtering through a big stack of charcoal). Scotch whisky (and rum) are often aged in old bourbon barrels. Scotch is also sometimes aged in old port wine or sherry casks. One year, Sandy Claws brung me a sampler of little Glenmorangies aged in different sorts of casks; you really can taste the difference. It was de-lightful and in-toxicating.

How long it is aged

Rum can be aged for as little as a year, though it is usually longer. Whiskies can be aged for as little as three years, but again…usually more. Higher heat and humidity make spirits ‘age’ faster. As whiskey ages, alcohol is constantly escaping from the barrels, enveloping the distillery in a sweet, boozy vapor traditionally known as the “angel’s share.” By the time the barrels are opened, the volume of liquid has been reduced by as much as half. Whiskey at “cask strength” is generally 50-60% alcohol and is then diluted for bottling to 40-46% alcohol, and sometimes (controversially) filtered as well.

So, that’s it. Whiskey is vodka that has been soaking up burnt wood for a decade. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

Before anyone thinks of correcting my spelling, it’s “whiskey” in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and Japan and “whisky” in Ireland and America. Per the ATF, the official American spelling is “whiskey” but everyone ignores the ATF. Hooray for everyone. [Correction! That’s backwards. Other way around. “Whisky” in Scotland, Wales, Canada, and Japan and “whiskey” in Ireland and America. Sheesh.]

Here’s a nice glossary. And here’s a good whisky blog. Here’s another. And here’s information on the American Whiskey Trail, as fine a way to spend a Summer vacation as a weasel ever did hear.


Comment from Lokki
Time: July 16, 2007, 6:55 am

I love Manhattan
Apple Juice runs down my chin
No Green Label though.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: July 16, 2007, 8:46 am

Great lecture, Doktor Weasel.

Funny though, I just can’t stand the stuff. They may be chemical cousins enough for kissing to be right out of the question, but give me a good cognac any day.

Comment from Dawn
Time: July 16, 2007, 10:19 am

I hate the way alcohol tastes. I never found anything that didn’t taste like yeast pee, but I tried my darndest to find something I liked.
I have been a recovering slash everything for almost ten years. I get my chip in September.
Wonder how McGoo is doing?

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 16, 2007, 10:57 am

Interesting. Lots of stuff I have wondered about but never bothered to look up. I remember seeing something about how people distilled spirits in the old Colonial days. It seems they didn’t age thier stuff but sold it right away, which I guess is sorta the same thing as “White Lightning”. George Washington sold a bunch of it. IIRC they still run one of the stills there at Mt. Vernon and you can buy “Colonial Style” hootch.

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 16, 2007, 2:01 pm

Hey, what does rye whiskey taste like? You never see it in the grocery store liquor aisle.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 16, 2007, 2:24 pm

I have no idea. I’ve never seen it, either. I think you have to be some kind of hard-boiled private dick to drink rye, and that sounds WAY too painful…

Comment from Dawn
Time: July 16, 2007, 2:45 pm


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 16, 2007, 2:55 pm

Huh. I’ll have to keep an eye out. I’ve had Jim Beam and Wild Turkey before (not sure what color label, though). I don’t remember ever seeing Overholt. Four years isn’t very long to age whiskey. I bet it’s rough.

On the other hand, I like painful beverages, so what the heck…

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 16, 2007, 3:29 pm

There’s a liquor store on the way home that carries the stuff – both the Old Overholt and Jim Beam I think. I’ll pick some up tonight and give you the full report.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: July 16, 2007, 5:45 pm

Hey Enas – there’s just no end to the sacrifices people will make on this blog 😉

Comment from Dave
Time: July 16, 2007, 7:42 pm

My favorite scotch has to be Lagavulin. It is a single malt Scotch Whisky produced on the island of Islay. I would describe it as the “aristocrat” of Islays. It has an unmistakable, powerful, peat-smoke aroma. It is robustly full bodied, well balanced and smooth with a slight sweetness on the palate. A must for my fellow Scotch Hunters. Slainte!

A great website to check out to find out more about Single Malt Scotch is http://www.scotchhunter.com. They have a great tasting notes section and even a huge star ratings list that really can help pick a great single malt. If you still aren’t sure which one you want, go ahead and send them a question. I did and got back all kinds of great information back the very same day!

Pingback from Booze Bloggering « The Center of the Anomaly
Time: July 16, 2007, 7:53 pm

[…] July 16, 2007 Posted by Enas Yorl in Science & Technology, Art. trackback So, Mr. Stoaty Weasel put up a post about whiskey and the general distillation of spirits.  Iwas curious about the taste of rye whiskey, and astonishingly he’d never tried it!  Well, I have seen it in one of the liquor stores around here so in the interest of science* I said I’d pick up a bottle and give a full report. […]

Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: July 16, 2007, 8:00 pm

Ok y’all – rye whiskey post is up.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 17, 2007, 4:09 am

Thanks for the 411, Dave. I’m always looking for hootch recommendations. The closest I’ve come to Islay is Jura. Though I’m intrigued by Laphroaig, which is supposed to taste like “you have got to be shitting me!”

I shall make a note for Sandy Claws.

Pingback from On weekends, Weasel….drinkeses | Cold Fury
Time: July 17, 2007, 12:15 pm

[…] Mr S. Weasel explains where likker comes from: If I were to seal you in a box, you’d soon breathe up all the air, replace it with carbon dioxide, and die in a puddle of your own filth, gasping for release. Well, that’s what happens to yeast when it reaches a certain concentration; it eats all its food and drowns in its own pee. That’s why unfortified wine has a maximum alcohol content of around 14%. In technical terms, 14% is the yeast-to-pee death ratio. […]

Comment from Ed from Florida
Time: July 17, 2007, 8:58 pm

I had a drink of some peat-flavored or -infused or whatever scotch (Islay?) a few months ago and it was like a mouthful of bandaids. Absolutely disgusting, but there must be those who tolerate it.

My cousin waxed eloquent about the iodine….”delicious”.

Comment from cmblake6
Time: July 18, 2007, 1:40 am

And I presume Absinthe is nought more than the same, with extra ingredients. What a wonderful theory! I simply must try this at home!

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 18, 2007, 5:48 am

Ah. As it happens, we have done absinthe.

My grandma swabbed my mouth out with iodine when I was ill once. Painful memories. But if there’s booze in it, I’d probably like it.

Comment from Lokki
Time: July 18, 2007, 1:25 pm

Single Malt Scotches are an acquired taste – not something to hand to your friend, the casual scotch drinker.

Perhaps the best analogy which follows the received wisdom of the grandparents paradigm (or lack thereof) above is my grandfather’s taste for horehound candy.

Better to start people out on butterscotches, then graduate them to peppermints, and .

My personal favorite scotch right now is Glenfiddich Solara Reserve which is is matured in three types of oak cask: sherry, bourbon and new oak, according to their website.

I first tried it out because I can’t spell, and know it. I was writing an email to a friend and knew I couldn’t spell ‘glenfiddich’. I therefore used my googleictionary – that is – I typed my best guess on the spelling into Google, and accepted what it gave when it came back with “Do you Mean ___ ?”

In this case, I decided to go to the Glenfiddich site for just to be sure (those damn’d Scots can’t spell either (Lagavulin,Laphroaig,glenfiddich) and discovered a little contest going on. The question: What do you think of when you drink our whiskey? The prize? A bottle of Solara Reserve, thank you.

I whipped out something about sitting in the garden remembering where I was 15 years ago and where I’d be 15 years later, and getting sloshed to the gills over the depressing prospects of both my future and my past.

Well, nobody else over the age of 21 entered, I guess, because a bottle showed up in the mail. I was quite proud.
The bad news was that the letter they sent praising my entry had the name of the previous month’s winner in it. Ah, what price fame? Still the whiskey was very good, and I’ve run through a couple of bottles of it since. I prefer it with just a few drops of water and no ice, and I prefer it from my silver christening cup I was given as a child. Prossibly the wrongness of it all is what makes it taste so good, but it’s probably the hint of silver polish that you can never get out of a silver cup.

I don’t drink it exclusively though – I keep a variety of bottles around to drink depending on my mood. What I usually serve to people who aren’t deep into the nuances of impact of different locations in Scotland on the taste is Chivas. Chivas is very nice with ice and can survive soda as well.

For the few who claim to appreciate the distinctions between types of yeast pee, I have a bottle of Johnny Green single malt, and the special few who won’t drink it all I have a bottle of Johnny Blue. I wish I could say that I’ve tried Lagavulin, but I’m going to have to buy sandy claudette some nice jewelry to persuade her I need more expensive liquor.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 18, 2007, 2:28 pm

I can make my Christmas bottle last the whole year. Only the first jigger is the good stuff, then it’s cheaper stuff, then it’s vodka. I obey a similar pattern with my reading material: I start with science books, then move to novels, then true crime. On an especially raucous night, I eventually wind up hitting the comics.

Man, that 50-year-old Glenfiddich is wild. And only £5,000.00 a bottle (a little more than I paid for my last car).

Comment from Theo
Time: March 6, 2008, 7:40 pm

Strange that I knew it was yeast pee but had never appreciated it fully. The only lacunae in your beautifully turned disquisition were the omissions of other methods used for hydrolysing the starch to sugar.

You mention sake, where the grain is not malted but infected with an imperfect fungus which achieves the same effect. Amasake is the sweet rice pudding made if yeast is not added.

Spit is used by many out-of-the-way alewives. Human spit contains amylase, the enzyme that splits long starches into short sugars. I have seen references to this used on starchy roots such as cassava and sweet potato mash that would be impossible to malt.

I love your writing style, please forgive my persiflage, it is late.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: March 6, 2008, 7:53 pm

I knew that, Theo! I had Xtreme difficulty with cavities when I was an ickle baby weasel, and my dentist suggested that my saliva might be unusually embued with amylase. Hence making my mouth a sugar factory.

This is a very satifsying comment. I saw the hit in Google, but I almost never see the hittee.

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