Everything old is one day new again. After years spent languishing on the top shelf, whisky – from Kentucky bourbon to Scottish single malt – is back in fashion.
For proof, look to the growth of whisky-centric bars like Coley & Punch on Auckland's waterfront, home at last count to around 260 different whiskies. I sat down with Coley & Punch's bar manager Katie Cramphorn and Sam Snead, a Montana-born whisky fanatic whose House of Whiskey is the largest store of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, for a quick primer.
To be considered bourbon, whiskey must be made from 51% corn (the remainder can be rye, wheat or malted barley, or a combination) and be aged in charred virgin American oak barrels. The charring creates caramelised sugars in the wood, giving bourbon its characteristically sweet taste and golden colour. By law, bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA but 95% of production still comes out of Kentucky, home to Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill and many more world-famous brands.
Katie and Sam recommend: Four Roses bourbon
Try it in: a Mint Julep or a Boulevardier
Katie: “A Boulevardier is currently my favourite cocktail. It's like a negroni, with campari and vermouth, but using bourbon instead of gin. I use Buffalo Trace.”
Tennessee whisky is the same as bourbon, but with one big difference: the spirit is slow-dripped through a huge stack of sugar maple charcoal before barrelling.
The whiskey gets an extra-sweet taste from that sugar maple, while the charcoal filters out impurities.
The result: a soft, sweet easy-drinking version of bourbon.
Katie and Sam recommend: Jack Daniels
Whereas bourbon has to be at least 51% corn, the leading ingredient in rye whiskey has to be – you guessed it – rye. Emphasing rye gives the whiskey a drier and spicier flavour than other American whiskies.
Katie: “That hot and spicy flavour makes it a better choice in cocktails – it doesn't get lost in the mix.”
Katie and Sam recommend: Willett rye whiskey
Try it in: an Old Fashioned
Unlike their American cousins, Canadian whiskies are usually blended. They won't win many prizes for taste – they're generally lighter and blander than other whiskies – but if you want something to mix with ginger ale, Canadian whiskey is it.
Katie and Sam recommend: Crown Royal and Canadian Club are the big guns.
Try it in: a CC and dry
Lesson one: the difference between a blend and a single malt. “Single malt” on a label means everything in the bottle is from the same distillery, but not necessarily from a single barrel. A blended whisky, meanwhile, contains a number of single malts, typically with some grain (usually corn) to give it a sweeter taste. At least 90% of the world's whisky production goes into blends. There's a reason single malt whiskies are so sought after – they're the best of the best.
Lesson two: why some whisky has a smoky (or “peaty”) taste. All single malts are made using just malted barley, yeast and water. To produce a smoky flavour the wet barley is first laid in a kiln and dried using peat smoke.
Sam: “The beauty of peat is that it doesn't burn – it smolders, casting off a heavy, dense smoke. The barley grains act as sponges, absorbing all that smoke. The longer the barley stays in the kiln the more “peaty” the flavour of the Scotch it produces. Two days will give you a less peaty flavour, like a Springbank or a Talisker. A super-peaty whisky – a Laphroaig for example – will get five days.”
Katie and Sam recommend:
Non-peated Scotch – Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas
In the middle – Springbank, Talisker
Peaty Scotch – Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin
How to drink it: Neat, neat, neat!
Sam: “Would you put ice cubes in a great red wine? No? Then don't add ice to single malts. If you want a whisky and ice, drink bourbon or Irish whisky.”
Katie: “If you put ice in your Scotch, you kill the flavour. I always suggest people have a glass of water on the side instead, to cut the alcohol. But of course, the customer is always right. If that's what they want, no problem. I've had customers order whisky and cokes made with $50 single malts.
Try it in: There are good Scotch cocktails – like a Rusty Nail, a mix of Drambuie and Scotch – but but you're throwing your money away if you use a single malt.
A blended whisky like Monkey Shoulder is ideal for cocktails, or try a smoky blend like Islay Mist if you like a more peaty taste.
The difference here is triple distilling. The whiskey goes through the copper still three times; in Scotland, it's twice. The result is a very creamy, very smooth whiskey.
Katie and Sam recommend: Red Breast, Jamesons
Whisky in Japan is aged in barrels made from the native mizunara oak, a much more porous oak than that used in American bourbon. The whisky penetrates deeply into the wood, resulting in a unique flavour profile with hints of sandalwood, nutmeg and vanilla.
Sam: “If you had a scale with Scotch on one end and American bourbons on the other, Japanese single malts would lie around the middle – they're not as sweet as bourbon but they're not as specific as the Scottish single malts.
Want to be ahead of the pack? Become a Japanese whisky aficionado. Right now Japanese whisky is a
“cult phenom”, says Sam.
Sam and Katie recommend: Suntory and Nikka are the two big players, and a great introduction to the style.