W IS FOR WHISKEY, OR WHISKY
By Matthew Latkiewicz
W is for Whiskey with or without the e. I like it both ways.
There are a lot of rules for whiskey and what it can be called, most of these rules established for reasons similar to the ones that govern wine: locking in a certain style so that no one else can make it that way. I’m partial to American whiskey, probably because marketing works, but I’ll enjoy a whiskey from just about anywhere. I’ve even had an Indian whiskey, which I unfortunately don’t remember well because before that I had been drinking American Wild Turkey Rare Breed and was very drunk.
Whether it comes from America, or Scotland, or India, all whiskeys share a few things. One, they are made from some type of grain. In Scotland, it’s mostly malted barley; in America, it’s mostly corn, in Canada, it’s all blended for some reason, etc. And two, all whiskey–white lightning notwithstanding—must be aged. This is true by law, and it’s true in practice. While the earliest whiskeys in Scotland were un-aged and by all accounts awful, they discovered early on that the whiskey which had been stowed away in barrels, or even better, taken a long sea voyage, tasted way better. Like magically better. Ask a whiskey distiller today, and they’ll tell you that 60-70% of whiskey flavor comes from the barrel. The barrel!
I’ve been waiting to talk about barrels so this is exciting for me. We don’t give barrels enough credit. They were a huge invention at the time! Before the barrel, if you wanted ship something, it was in either a shitty ancient sack or a wooden box, neither of which stands a chance against a good barrel in a durability contest. Or a beauty contest for that matter. Look how it bows out so nicely making it easier to roll. I think we can all agree that barrels are a pretty cool invention.
So people were shipping all kinds of stuff in barrels is my point, including booze. because in addition to being easier to roll, these barrels didn’t leak! I’m telling you, great invention. So it’s the colonialism period, as we’ve mentioned, and the Europeans shipped whiskey, and rum, and wine and all sorts of booze barrels across the sea where they got hammered by storms, sun and salt; where they were exposed to extreme temperatures and humidity, and were also just straight up sloshed around alot. And when they finally opened up the barrels, after years on the sea, they realized the whiskey in particular had been aged to perfection.
It turns out that whiskey likes the tumult. It likes extreme temperature swings, and sun burn, and agitation. It likes these things because they encourage interaction with the barrel. While in the barrel—white oak is the wood of choice the alcohol works as a solvent and pulls flavor molecules out of the wood. According to Amy Stewart, whose book Drunken Botanist is a look at the plants behind the booze, “white oak releases the same flavor molecules found in vanilla, coconut, peach, apricot, and cloves.” And when you char the inside of your barrels first before putting them together—something coopers did to more easily bend and shape the wood—you caramelize those flavors, “so that caramel, butterscotch, almond, toast, and warm woodsy essences emerge.”
But each barrel is also a unique interaction between wood and whiskey. The two elements work on each other for years, even decades. And depending on what that barrel goes through, the same batch of whiskey tastes different. Distillers have noticed over time that whiskey aged near the window tastes better, for instance. And that ship thing was no joke. All that weathering leads to quality.
So the whiskey distillers of today are putting money into, you guessed, barrel tech, which I’m of course super pumped about. They’re working out how aging works and trying new techniques, including smaller barrels to increase the amount of whiskey that is in contact with the wood, open air warehouses with complicated climate control, and in the case the distillers at Jefferson Bourbon, actually lashing some barrels “above deck on a Russian trawler that had been converted into a shark-research vessel” and sending it on a three year sea voyage.
It’s easy to take the aging process for granted with whiskey, forget about how long it sat in a barrel before arriving on a shelf at your liquor store or in the well at your bar. But it sits in that barrel a long time. And it’s time that makes it what it is. You heard the distillers: most of the flavor comes from the barrel. So you got to give whiskey time. And in that time, the whiskey benefits from a little adventure. There’s a-whole-nother barrel story about Buffalo Trace and a tornado that we’re not gonna get into now, so I’ll just point you to the article where I read it: “The New Science of Old Whiskey,” by Wayne Curtis in the Atlantic. It’s great. Suffice it to say here, some barrels survived a tornado and the whiskey inside was bomb.
And I love that about whiskey. Not to throw liquor shade but #liquorshade, unlike Vodka, which aspires to this eternal delicate consistency, whiskey is about time and chance and impurities, it’s about being lashed to the mast and flung around the sea a bit and coming out the better for it. And I not only admire that, I aspire to it and I find it beautiful.
So W is for Whiskey.
My drink of choice for this ride.