Know your whisky and bourbon
Shannan Schimmelmann - Mar 25, 2021 - Columnists

Photo: Contributed

If you are a whisky drinker or bourbon lover, there’s a good chance you have heard it before: All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon.

There is often confusion over the distinction between each, with common errors made even by seasoned whisky drinkers. We want to level up your whisky knowledge and bourbon facts.

Let’s start with whisky, a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash. Grain varieties include wheat, rye, barley and corn, and are aged in wooden barrels. Whisky is made all over the world, and there are many popular styles, including Canadian whisky, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and American whiskey.

Whisky is known to aficionados as the ‘water of life’ and is one of the most expensive spirits on the market. There are many factors that determine a bottle’s price, which include age, rarity and uniqueness. The Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 became the most expensive bottle of wine or spirit ever sold, smashing auction records for a whopping $1.9 million on Oct. 24, 2019. This is the second time a vintage bottle of this kind has made history. In 2018, a bottle from the same Macallan batch broke the same record, selling for $1.2 million at Christie’s in London.

Travelling monks migrating from mainland Europe are said to have shared their knowledge of the whisky distillation process in Scotland and Ireland. The monasteries in Scotland and Ireland lacked vineyards and grapes, so the monks began fermenting grain, producing the first distillations of modern whisky. Around 1405, the first written record of whisky appeared in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, a chronicle that documented events in Ireland from prehistory to A.D. 1408.

Did you know that John Molson, who is best known for brewing, is also credited with first introducing whisky to Canada in 1799? Canadian whiskies are often blended, multi-grain liquors with a large percentage of corn spirits, and known to be lighter and smoother than other whisky styles. Canadian distillers began adding rye grain to their mashes, and many people simply call this a rye. Canadian whisky and ‘rye whisky’ are used interchangeably.

The most popular form of American whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon’s main characteristic is its sweet flavour, but it also has hints of smokiness due to the charred oak aging process. Bourbons made with higher proportions of corn are generally sweeter than those with more abundant doses of rye. Aside from being sweeter than most Scotch whiskeys, bourbons are often heavier in texture and offer notes of toffee, cinnamon and vanilla.

The fermentation process makes bourbon unique compared to other types of whiskeys. The fermentation process begins by mixing mash from an already fermenting batch, a process known as sour mash, which was developed by Dr. James C. Crow in 1823. After the mash is completed, the barrel aging process begins. Bourbon is aged in new, charred, white oak barrels and distilled to no more than 80% alcohol, or 160 proof.

The name “bourbon” was officially given in 1840, when a distiller by the name of Jacob Spears was the first to label his product “Bourbon Whiskey.” Prior to this, it was often labelled “Bourbon County Whiskey” or “Old Bourbon County Whiskey.” By the 1960s, the United States Congress had declared bourbon whiskey as the country’s official distilled spirit and established the regulations that had to be met in order to be labelled a bourbon. Like most whiskies, bourbon has its unique taste and colour, made possible with the specific rules set for all distillers. Every distillery in Kentucky and other states must observe the government’s strict bourbon production rules in America.

Rules for making bourbon:
• It must be produced from at least 51% natural corn.
• It should be aged in a new, unused, charred barrel.
• The barrel aging begins at more than 125 proof.
• Bourbon should be bottled between 80 and 160 proof.
• It should not have any additives like flavour and colour.
• The whisky should go into the barrel at 62.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) and into the bottle at a minimum of 40% ABV.

Bourbon is an iconic American spirit, but it wasn’t always thought of so highly. There’s a growing popularity of bourbon enthusiasts. Two common bourbon terms are white dog and fake tan.

White dog: Sometimes referred to as white lightning, it is un-aged bourbon. Before bourbon is left to age in an oak barrel, it is the fresh whiskey off the still. It is a clear grain spirit that some distillers have started packaging for sale. It’s called white because it hasn’t browned in a barrel. The flavour is corn-forward and lacks sweetness and tannic body.

Fake Tan: Though adding artificial caramel colouring to deepen flavour is a banned practice in the bourbon world, some drinkers insist there are distillers who give their bottle a “fake tan.” Why? Whiskey goes into a barrel as a clear spirit and comes out somewhere on the yellow-gold-brown spectrum. The longer bourbon ages in a new charred oak cask, the deeper the hue. Many drinkers equate age to quality, and a deeper colour is a desirable trait.

We have only touched on a few terms, but there is an entire world of whisky and bourbon lingo. For whisky and bourbon enthusiasts in the Okanagan, there are several local whisky tasting societies that were formed by groups of enthusiasts who gather to share their knowledge and appreciation of various distilled spirits known around the world as whiskey (or whisky). Further, there are a variety of courses, events and festivals held throughout the year by local distilleries each offering incredible tasting experiences and tours that explore the elements of craft whisky production. We encourage you to check out the Craft Distillers Guild of British Columbia and visit a local distillery.

Shannan Schimmelmann first fell in love with B.C. wine and spirits while studying hospitality at Camosun College in Victoria, and she has spent the past two decades exploring more than 100 wineries and distilleries in B.C. and beyond. She is a business leader and consultant skilled at partnership development, export strategy and supply chain management. She has an MBA from Royal Roads University, a wine business management certificate from Sonoma State University, a restaurant management diploma from Camosun College and Canadian Wine Scholar WSET-1 accreditation.

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