Whiskey, Wonder and Water

I am a big fan of whiskey and can recall vividly when my appreciation for it began.  It was one evening when I tried Oban for the first time.  Not being new to whiskey, but still quite inexperienced, I discovered something that I had never been able to uncover before.

Whiskey, Scotch Whisky (note the lack of the letter ‘e’ when referring to Scotch) in particular is made from what is essentially beer.  No beer enthusiast would consider this base, the mash, an enjoyable beer as it lacks hops and any other intriguing additions. However, a quality mash equals the foundation of a quality whiskey.  The mash is a combination of milled grain—barley being the principle grain—along with corn (the principle grain for Bourbon), rye, wheat, rice, and water. The mash is heated to break down the starch into sugars.  The resulting liquid nectar is called wort.  From there, one will ferment a ‘beer’ which can be distilled into whiskey.

I like barley based drinks.  Beer has been my favorite beverage for years, and it seems logical that this would be a jumping point towards whiskey.  My exploration of whiskey began with Bourbon as it is indeed America’s Spirit.  Something just wasn’t clicking and my exploration efforts returned to beer for a time.

The crisp image of golden liquid in a crystal glass with perfectly transparent ice cubes breaking the surface like an iceberg in an unexplored ocean is deeply appealing.  Everyone knows what I am talking about since we have all seen these advertisements in print.  Admittedly seduced by the slick marketing of my own industry it was only so long before I had to find out what I was missing.  It gave me an excuse to pick out a really nice glass at least.

Ice seemed to ruin my dram.  Aromas were subdued.  The first sip was cold, almost too cold to taste.  Following tastes were watery, stretching the flavors thin and dulling the bite.  I declared myself a neat drinker.

A neat finger of Oban smelled lightly of fruit with sea salt and a waft of smoke.  Somehow this whisky wasn’t as sharp as I had remembered others being.  A rich flavor brought out subtle fruits, a touch of sweetness and a dry malt with delicate smoke.  It was the complexity I had been missing, the depth of flavor and the transformation from sip to sip.  I knew I had immediately joined the ranks of whiskey fanatics and that there was much to discover.

Some months passed and it seemed like new Bourbons were finding their way to the shelves every day.  With so much energy surrounding the American Whiskey market I had to expand my whiskey experience and passion before I fell too far behind.  Bourbon and American whiskeys, especially rye, were a bold departure from Scotch yet familiar and multifaceted.  Oak rules in America and spicy flavors wrapped in toffee and vanilla are expected in most Bourbons.  Something that influenced which whiskeys I gravitated towards was the strength of these spirits.  Bourbon, although barreled at no more than 125 proof, often finds its way into the bottle at well over 80 proof.  The higher abv can be rough on your pallet, shading the subtle flavors.

A notable result of over-proof spirits is that the flavor tends to be more robust, as the liquor hasn’t been watered down prior to bottling the way that most are to meet the unofficial 80 proof standard.  As a self declared neat drinker, I was reluctant to use water to soften a strong whiskey, arguing that the master distiller had bottled the precise representation of his work that he wanted consumers to see.

Speaking with a Boston area Master of Whisk(e)y I asked what he thought about barrel strength whiskey and if he had an opinion on adding water.  Excitedly, he opined that the stronger forms of whiskey demonstrated what the product really was, and that by adding a small amount of water not only was one able to ‘open up’ the spirit but also to customize their dram to exactly their taste preferences.  He warned to be very careful with your prized liquid and to add spring water only a drop at a time.  Most water is fine to add to whiskey however metals, especially iron disagree so bottled water is a safe choice.

A new path of exploration had just opened up and a drop of water or two is now a consideration with all of my drams.  This history is just the beginning of a wealth of experiences that can be had with fine whiskeys from all over the world.

I have since spent a lot of time selecting stock for Colonial Spirits and enjoying classic whiskys and modern whiskeys alike.  I am proud of the selection we can offer at the store and hope to thrill enthusiasts from far and near.  Whiskey is an adventure and American distillers are bringing some fantastic new whiskeys to market every day to join the world class offerings of traditional Scotch and Bourbon.

With well over 100 Single Malt Scotches, several dozen Bourbons and a rapidly growing American Whiskey section there is a lot to ponder along the fifty feet of shelves towards the back of the store.  I’d be happy to talk with you and share my passion for whiskey the next time you stop by.


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