23 November 2008

Uisge, Uisge Everywhere And Plenty a Drop to Drink

I'm a bit befuddled sometimes when I order a cocktail. Sometimes it's easier to order something with a frou-frou name from the 'specialty' menu, than to navigate into unknown territories of mysterious libations.

When I was in college, it was common to drink Rum and Coke. It didn't matter what kind of rum; there was only one: cheap! A Seven & Seven was something a little more sophisticated, but the first time I ordered one, I was asked if I wanted the well brand or Seagrams. Uhhh? Yeah, I said, not having a clue. Scotch aficiandos might find it scandelous that, over the years, I've come to like Scotch & Seven, rather than Seagrams or any other kind of whiskey with 7-Up.

Martinis were something that my dad drank and I learned how to make them when I was about 12. Couldn't stand the taste, though I made them per directions for my dad frequently. When I came of drinking age, I always preferred whiskey drinks over anything made with gin. My mom always said that my dad's family drank alcoholics' drinks - Manhattans, Martinis, Old-Fashioned. Aren't they all made from alcohol? I remember thinking. It wasn't until I was older that I understood what she meant - drinks that were a mix of liquor and liquor, rather than liquor and something non-alcoholic.

Last week, I ordered a Manhattan, one of my favorite cocktails. Maker's Mark okay? the waiter asked. That's fine, I thought, although since I had recently posted some drink recipes for Charlotte, I knew that a Manhattan should be made with whisky rather than with bourbon. But, what is the difference between the two? I wouldn't have been able to tell you.

Uisge or Uisce is the Gaelic word for water. Uisge beatha is a Scotch word literally meaning water of life. Whiskey (with the e) generally refers to American or Canadian Whiskey. To be a Bourbon, a US whiskey must be distilled in Kentucky, aged at least three years and one day in an uncharred new oak barrel, and be at least 51% corn. A Tennessee whiskey is almost identical to a bourbon, but is filtered through a sugar maple charcoal. To understand this difference on the palate, compare a sip of Jack Daniels with a sip of Maker's Mark. Canadian whiskies are often called 'rye whisky' but aren't required to have any specific proportion of rye.

Scotch whisky is made from barley and must be made in Scotland and matured for more than three years in oak casks. Single-malts are the creme de la creme of Scotch, although many brands of Scotch are blended malts. Irish whiskey is similar to Scotch, but is usually distilled three times and usually distilled in a pot still. Some Irish whiskey is peated and the aroma is distinct. If you've ever been in Ireland when peat is being burned, your sense of smell will transport you back when you open a bottle of a peaty Irish whiskey. There is a cocktail that I like -- a Rusty Nail -- that has a bit of an urban legend surrounding it. Made of whiskey and Drambuie, a liqueur made from a secret recipe of honey, spices and Scotch, a Rusty Nail supposedly earned its name from irate Irish bartenders who thought that by diluting a good whiskey with a Scotch liqueur was like stirring a drink with a rusty nail.

Taste Test: Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon.
(l to r) Tyrconnell Single Malt Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey, Chivas Regal Blended Scotch, Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky.
I poured each of the three types of whiskey I had and did a taste test today. There is an obvious difference in color, although the Irish Whiskey was similar to the Scotch. The Scotch had a stronger taste, one that had a slight burn as it goes down the pipe. But the Bourbon is much different than the others, in color, aroma and in taste. It is sweeter and much smoother. It may not be the best description on the web, but you can find out more general facts about the difference between Whiskey, Scotch and Bourbon at this Wikipedia entry.

So, does this clear it up for me? Not much. Like with wine, I think it comes down to one important thing: what you like.

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