Bottles and corks don’t just preserve a beverage; they preserve a piece of evolutionary history, a liquid that has endured and adapted to years of physics.
My hipster is showing. I’m wearing a bowtie, and in the last five minutes the words ‘wood shavings’ and ‘peppery undertones’ managed to leak from my now-burning esophagus.
I am ashamed.
The pretentiousness is somewhat inevitable during whiskey tastings—no argument there. What other alcohols equip their tasters with an eyedropper tool filled with tepid water to ‘open up the hidden aromas?’ The same alcohol that requires me to unsheathe my wallet and pay $9.00 for a singular ounce of brown ethanol.
‘Whiskey’ is an umbrella term referring to any spirit distilled from fermented grain mash.
Yet unlike other liquors, whiskey encompasses a diverse array of beverages tailored to any palette and any atmosphere. Are you swinging on an airy porch late one August evening? Grab a lowball with a young bourbon on the rocks. Chatting with strangers in a musky English pub amidst a snowstorm? Hit up a Glencairn glass cradling a smoky, viscous scotch. ‘Whiskey’ is an umbrella term referring to any spirit distilled from fermented grain mash. Yet, the intricacies of the distillation process and the subjectivity of the human senses make for a unique experience no matter what whiskey you have in your hand.
So, engage in a bit of experimentation. Find out what suits both your palette and your wallet, be it bourbon, scotch or any whiskey.
Grain to beer, beer to whiskey
Different whiskeys are made with varying percentages and types of grain, such as corn, malted barley, malted rye, or wheat.
Malted grains undergo germination before a miller pulverizes them to a fine consistency. A maltster soaks the raw grains in water for a few days, after which the grains aerate in warm conditions. The grains take advantage of the climate control and begin to sprout. Just before they use all their sugar in sprouting, the maltster dries the grain at high temperatures.
Depending on how these temperatures are achieved, with standard wood or otherwise, the grain—and thereby the whiskey—will adopt certain flavors. This step is especially important in bestowing scotch with its distinct aroma.
Jeff Quint is the master distiller and founder of Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, the first legal distillery in Iowa. About 10 miles south of Cedar Rapids, whiskey enthusiasts or novices alike can stop by the distillery for an afternoon tour and peruse through the warehouses racking 2,200 barrels of alcohol on site.
Cedar Ridge gets its grain from their family farm. Thousands of pounds of finely ground grain are loaded via truck into one of three towering hoppers that rise stoically above the warehouse. To kick-off the distillation process, brewers usher the milled grain into an apparatus called a mash ton, along with hot water and enzymes that convert the starchy grains into about 17 percent sugar. A network of pipes propels the mash to one of three 20-foot high fermenters equipped with an army of microscopic fungi: yeast.
“When you take a sugar molecule and break it down with yeast, you convert it to ethanol and carbon dioxide,” Quint says. “The carbon dioxide bubbles out, hence the foam, so you can put an anti-foam in there to keep it from foaming. Three days later, you don’t have sugars. You have alcohol. It’s basically beer at that point.”
A network of pipes propels the mash to one of three 20-foot high fermenters equipped with an army of microscopic fungi: yeast.
Quint says the distillery produces 2,000 gallons of “beer” a day. The “wash,” as it’s called, is distilled into whiskey through two separate stills.
The science behind a still concerns boiling temperatures. Water evaporates at 100 degrees Celsius, as opposed to 78 degrees for ethanol. The still heats the wash to 80 degrees Celsius and the ethanol separates from the water and brew. It is then forced through a cool condenser, whereupon the ethanol gas condenses back to a liquid state of 90 to 95-proof. This process is repeated once more to clean up the alcohol.
“We break the distillate that it produces into three fractions: the head, the heart and the tails,” Quint says. “Maybe the heads is five percent, maybe the tails is 15 percent. The 80 percent in the middle is the heart and that’s the good stuff. We don’t want the heads or the tails in the finished product.”
The second distillation yields unaged whiskey, or distillate, which must then serve time in a cask. Cedar Ridge bourbon spends more than four years in new, charred oak barrels from Kentucky-based company Independent Staves Co.
“In our single malt company, we do a lot of different finishing casks,” Quint says. “We just got in eight Olerosa Cherry Barrels from Spain. I think they’re beautiful. You’ll see some cognac finishes, we’ve got some Madeira casks, then we use ex-rum casks, ex-port casks…an empty port barrel really makes a nice enhanced whiskey product.”
The casks don’t necessarily move while their contents age, but they do take active roles in determining the flavor of the whiskey they hold. Barrels breathe. They expand and contract with changes in temperature, allowing the whiskey to soak into the wood and evaporate into the air. What starts off as 53 gallons will in two years drop to 45, a natural taxation dubbed “the angels’ share.”
Barrels breathe. They expand and contract with changes in temperature, allowing the whiskey to soak into the wood and evaporate into the air.
This year, Quint will crack open the casks sealed more than three years ago, bottle the contents and ship Cedar Ridge whiskey to various corners of the world.
Bourbon Whiskey – Porch sippers
Two of Cedar Ridge’s four whiskeys sit side-by-side on a mirrored, glass shelf at Bubba, a downtown Des Moines restaurant specializing in southern fare that boasts 44 different types of bourbon.
Bubba’s owner, Chris Deibel, is a bubba himself and a bourbon enthusiast. He sits on a tufted-leather couch in his restaurant lounge sipping a 20-year-old bourbon called Barterhouse that goes for $29 a shot. He responds to my questions in a soft southern drawl.
“Everybody can be a bubba. Every big brother’s a bubba,” Diebel says. “So, I thought it was a fun contradiction to have this term that’s sort of playful and not necessarily thought of as sophisticated, mixed with floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains and giant chandeliers and tufted leather couches and wingbacks. That juxtaposition is evident throughout the south.”
Bourbon is the United States whiskey. It originated in Kentucky in the early 1800s and has since found itself swaddled in quality control law due to corrupt distillation practices. Distillers were using contaminants like turpentine, iodine and food coloring to cut corners. In 1897, the government passed the Bottled-in-Bond act, which identified certain criterion whiskey must meet in order to be considered bourbon.
“Because people are getting more and more creative with whiskeys, some would argue that this rule is less important today,” Diebel says. “If I’m making whiskey in Des Moines, Iowa, and using certain methods, and it’s 51 percent corn, well isn’t it a bourbon? Technically, yes. It’s just not Bottled-in-Bond.”
Bourbon is the United States whiskey. It originated in Kentucky in the early 1800s and has since found itself swaddled in quality control law due to corrupt distillation practices.
With Diebel on the inside of Bubba’s marble bar and I a guest on the outside, we engage in a bourbon tasting. He instructs me to acknowledge a variety of characteristics when tasting whiskey, such as viscosity, odor, influence on the nose, throat and tongue.
We started with W. L. Wellers, the lightest of the whiskeys, the cheapest and the youngest. Diebel assured me, however, that bourbon quality is not necessarily correlated with price and age.
I noted that Wellers smelled but did not taste of butter. Diebel agreed with my choice of word: buttery. But he added that the back of the nose hosts a hint of petroleum.
“I get white pepper upfront, and then it mellows out as it hits the back palate into a very sweet finish and my guess is that you will agree when…”
Diebel’s words trailed off as he added four drops of tepid tap water to my glass.
“It takes a little bit of that peppery bite from the front note off just subtly but you still have a lot of flavor there,” Diebel said. “This is one that in the winter I might not add rocks to at all, just because I want to keep some of those flavor profiles.” Diebel says. “But in the summer if it’s hot, and I’m on the porch, throw this over ice and this can be a porch sipper for sure.”
Scotch Whisky – Campfire to the face
Unlike Wellers bourbon, Cedar Ridge’s Silver Label scotch is potent. One sip coats my nose and throat in dusty, medicinal smokiness, a flavor profile known as “peaty.” The flavor is almost exclusively associated with scotch whisky.
Peat is a type of turf found in bogs and wetlands. It’s an acidic soil comprised of decaying organic matter and when dried, it fuels the kilns that dehydrate the malted barley used to distill scotch. The grains absorb the peat smoke, attributing the scotch it will eventually produce with its signature flavor.
Scotch aficionado Jay Cook, bar manager at English pub Royal Mile, describes peatiness as an “overwhelming smokiness, kind of like a campfire hitting you in the face.” The peatiness is overbearingly evident in scotches from the Islay region of Scotland, such as Laphroaig (pronounced laff-roy-g) and Ardbeg.
“Those two, they market it as in-your-face peaty, smoky, intense flavors,” Cook said. “So those ones are a little bit rougher.”
Not all scotches are peaty, however; at least it’s not a strict distillation requirement. A scotch must, by definition, hail from Scotland and age a minimum of four years in a used oak cask. As we emphasize technicalities, scotch whisky is spelled with no ‘e,’ whereas all other whiskeys end with ‘ey.’
Scotch aficionado Jay Cook, bar manager at English pub Royal Mile, describes peatiness as an “overwhelming smokiness, kind of like a campfire hitting you in the face.”
Traditional scotches derive from six regions of Scotland; the highlands, lowlands, speyside, Islay, the islands and Campbeltown. In a Darwinistic fashion, whiskies seem to adopt certain traits from the environment in which they are immersed.
“Every still is its own beast, so the stills the distillery uses will give different flavors to it; their process is different, the equipment they use is all different,” Cook says. “You can detect most of these with taste…Professional tasters, it’s their job to know the taste in scotch. They can see that speyside sits next to the sea, and they can taste the salty air in the scotch.”
For a beginner whiskey enthusiast like myself, detecting and describing the subtle discrepancies outside of generalized terms like “sweet,” “spicy,” “yummy” and “disgusting” is a challenge. The 90 single malt scotches and 50 whiskeys lining the Royal Mile’s shelves are intimidating from my lowly barstool.
The 90 single malt scotches and 50 whiskeys lining the Royal Mile’s shelves are intimidating from my lowly barstool.
“The standards that control how it’s made give it that aura of pretentiousness, but at the end of the day, you’re drinking fermented grain that has gone through a process,” Cook said. “It’s a few steps more than beer.”
Whiskey is multifaceted, to say the least. It absorbs so much of its surroundings; everything from the malt kindling to the cask absorption to the very air quality. Bottles and corks don’t just preserve a beverage; they preserve a piece of evolutionary history, a liquid that has endured and adapted to years of physics.
In this way, whiskeys, like humans, are products of their circumstance. And if something as inanimate as a whiskey can embody in a single sip an entire lifetime of experience, imagine the story a human body exemplifies about the life it has lived.
And if something as inanimate as a whiskey can embody in a single sip an entire lifetime of experience, imagine the story a human body exemplifies about the life it has lived.
Damn, I’m quite the philosopher when I drink.
Or perhaps whiskey is just whiskey.
Perhaps whiskey tasting is nothing more than an exercise in mindfulness and introspection.
Whatever the case, there exists something to be said for the subjectivity of taste. In the words of Bubba’s Diebel: “I mean ultimately, you like what you like and you buy what you like, or you should. You’re right. There are always perceived experts out there that will throw out terms and people just assume that they’re right, but who’s to say that they’re right? It’s what you taste.”