Firewater fascination

Though styles vary, whiskey is appreciated across centuries

Though styles vary, whiskey is appreciated across centuries

August 09, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Colonials near Pittsburgh were willing to go up against George Washington's troops for their beloved whiskey during the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.

More than a century later, Prohibition-era bootleggers at Blue Blazes Still outside of Thurmont, Md., struggled to keep their clandestine moonshine operation secret - that is, until they were raided by police. Historians say one raid resulted in a shootout.

No wonder they call it firewater.

Whiskey has been putting hair on people's chests for centuries. Much like its convoluted history - one with ties to Western Maryland - whiskey decisions have grown more complicated throughout the years.

Today, there are countless options at the bar. Though U.S. laws outline nine distinct types of whiskey, there's still wiggle room for variations within a specific brand. The Wild Turkey Bourbon brand, for example, sells at least a dozen varieties of whiskies.


But under the surface, whiskey isn't that hard to figure out. The whiskey-making process shares many similarities with a grade-school science lesson in evaporation and condensation.

The rest is all a matter of personal taste.

Kinds of whiskey

Whiskey can be lumped into two basic categories:

The American stuff - Bourbon whiskey, rye, wheat, malt and rye malt whiskies. These have at least 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley or rye and are at least 80 proof when they are bottled. More specifically, corn whiskey is made of at least 80 percent corn grain (cracked corn) and is stored in uncharred wooden barrels. Straight whiskey is whiskey aged for two years. By U.S. law, whiskey made outside of the U.S. cannot be referred to as bourbon. Examples of U.S. whiskey: Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey Bourbon.

The foreign stuff - Scotch whiskey is a distinctive product of Scotland and is made in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom. It's even against the law for Scottish distillers to make any whiskey other than Scotch. Irish whiskey is a distinctive product of Ireland. Canadian whiskey is a distinctive product of Canada. Examples: Dewar's (Scotch), Bushmills (Irish whiskey), Crown Royal (Canadian whiskey).

How it's made

Though ingredient choices and variations in the distillation process account for the different types of whiskey, all forms of whiskey undergo a similar process.

Strained, fermented mash - usually a mixture of grain, yeast, starch and water - is heated in a kettle. The resulting steam travels a maze of pipes and kegs and is eventually condensed back to liquid. The final product in the distillation process is the liquor, explained Debra Mills, park ranger at Catoctin Mountain Park, home of the now defunct Blue Blazes Still.

But that's only part of the process.

"There's no still that makes whiskey," Mills said. "In order to make whiskey, you have to age it."

Whiskey is aged in oak barrels, which are sometimes burned on the inside to add flavor and affect color. By law, "straight whiskey" is anything stored for two years. Most whiskies are aged for five to eight years, said Craig Spriggs, a general manager at The Corner Pub in Hagerstown.

"They say the best whiskies are aged 10 years," said Spriggs, who is well-versed in matters of whiskey.

A matter of taste

In addition to working with firewater on a daily basis, Spriggs has acquired what he refers to as the whiskey bible and has learned even more through golfing ventures with whiskey-makers of Wild Turkey Bourbon.

Let's just say the man knows his whiskey.

"When a distiller tastes whiskey, do you know what he does?" Spriggs asked. "He splashes it on his hands, rubs them together and smells it."

The distiller's gut feeling from that process, Spriggs said, determines whether the batch of whiskey is blended with a larger batch, is among a select group of barrels known as a "small batch" or is so special that bottles will be made from that single barrel - the most expensive and rarest of kinds.

Aside from the ingredients, the distillation and aging processes influence a whiskey's overall taste.

Irish whiskey, for example, is made of malted barley that is roasted in kilns, "just like a big tumbler, like a coffee maker," Spriggs said. Grains for Scotch, on the other hand, are roasted in a peat-laced kiln, giving the beverage its signature "grassy" flavor (or in whiskey talk, making it taste "peaty").

How much the oak barrel is charred also affects the flavor during the aging process. Not surprisingly, the more char inside, the more smoky the flavor. A "mellow" whiskey is generally older, darker and less sweet, Spriggs said.

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