It always bugs us that people use “whisky” and “whiskey” interchangeably. Actually, we exaggerate. Our feelings are actually closer to an onset of an aneurysm than a rash.
We’re not simply spelling fascists. There’s something quite a bit more important.
The two are quite simply different things.
Scottish Whisky vs American Whiskey
Whisky refers to aged, grain based spirit made in Scotland, Canada, Japan, England, Australia and Taiwan. Whiskey refers to grain based spirit made in Ireland or America. We’ll focus on and refer to the American style for this post.
Lexicologically, this is a fairly recent standardisation; even the New York Times was calling all aged grain based spirits “whiskey” up till fairly recently. We can’t blame them; till this day, American laws and regulations still make reference to “whisky”. Certain American distilleries, George Dickel and Maker’s Mark among them, still drop the “e”.
In fact, there was no consensus on the spelling before the 1900’s- on both sides of the Atlantic. Some posit that the original spelling was whisky, until some Irish producers added an “e”, to differentiate themselves from the competition.
So if there’s so much confusion, why be so pedantic about it?
To be clear, we’re not really unhappy about nomenclature. What we take issue with is people using the terms as if the American and Scottish spirits are the same thing.
What a pity that is.
Whisky and Whiskey
It should be painfully obvious by now that we don’t regard the two spirits as the same, even if they are close cousins. That would be like saying that white wine and red wine are the same.
Going further with that analogy, we don’t think that the American whisky should be directly compared to a Scotch whisky.
Comparing the differences between the two (non-exhaustively):
Note: there are other kinds of American whiskey, but we’re focusing on the main categories we can get in Singapore.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the differences, in general. As always, exceptions exist:
The grain used influences the flavour of the final spirit. Corn and rye don’t taste much like barley – and they play a role in flavouring the spirit. The result is a spirit that tends to be sweeter, and, if rye is used, spicier than a typical Scottish Single Malt. Wheat is also commonly used, and it makes for a softer, sweeter whiskey. This does not apply to blended scotch or grain whiskies, which can use the same grains as whiskey.
American whiskey must always be aged in new oak casks (which are almost always American Oak). American Oak, quercus alba, imparts vanilla and coconut flavours to the spirit. These flavours are undiluted and especially strong in a newly made cask. American Oak also has less of the tannin and spice flavours commonly found in European oak casks.
Scottish whiskies often use both American and/or European oak casks already impregnated with the flavours of their former contents, often sherry or bourbon. While there’s nothing stopping Scottish whisky from using virgin oak, it is uncommon for various reasons- cost being one of them. This tends to give Scottish whisky a larger variance in flavours.
One should also consider the length of aging of the spirit. We often see American whiskey being bottled at what would be considered a young age for a Scottish whisky. Without time to mellow it, spirit tends to be harsher. Take this with a pinch of salt, because aging has different effects in different regions of the world. There are also long-aged American whiskies and young Scottish whiskies.
Whew. That was a lot of time spent discussing the differences between whisky and whiskey. What was the point of it all?
It’s simple – we wanted to illustrate that there are major style differences in the two categories that ultimately make them distinct. Treat them as different spirits and enjoy them accordingly. There are plenty of good examples of both.
Drinking whiskey and rye
It’s one thing to describe the differences in whiskey on paper, it’s quite another to actually taste them. Our friends at Manhattan set up a new programme called the American Whiskey Embassy. An odd name at first glance, but we’re glad to establish…diplomatic relations with some fine bourbons.
The team there has curated an extensive list of 150 bottles of the spirit, from the mainstream to the exceedingly rare (including the much sought-after Pappy van Winkle 20 years). It would be hard to find a more extensive collection in any Singaporean bar.
Part of the programme is a collaboration with various distillers – Michter’s being the first, and some homegrown whiskey (and whisky) luminaries.
We were there for an evening with Benjamin from Whisky Butler, who, in collaboration with the bar, was there to showcase a taster box, which serves good primer into the world of American whiskey.
Michter’s 10 Year Old Bourbon
The most traditional bourbon of the lot; primarily corn, and aged in white American Oak. It’s made by an old family name, Michter’s (though the actual history is…complicated). The nose is heavy and we get a sticky-sweet dried fruit, caramel and corn aroma with oak and pine providing a stiffer backbone. The palate is equally sweet, with a cream corn, dried fruit and caramel flavour, and a pine, spice and white pepper finish. Sweet, enticing, but never cloying. A good starter whiskey.
High West Campfire Blend
A unique sort of drink; a blend of 8 year old bourbon, rye, and peated Scottish whisky! The nose contains some familiar notes of oak, toast, grain, walnut and even a little salted cashew. Peach aromas are fairly strong. There’s a bit of pine here too. The palate is still fairly sweet but somehow manages to stay quite light on the tongue. Caramel, grain, cooked corn and some spice round off the flavours. That quickly turns to a peaty finish best described as Mezcal-like. Quite interesting indeed; it’s delightful to piece together how rye, bourbon, and peated Scotch contribute to the final flavour.
Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye
A classic rye, and a go-to ingredient in the cocktail of the same name. As a rye, we expected spice aromas, and we were not disappointed. The nose is full of cinnamon, anise and allspice, with herbs and green wood for good measure. There are also faint notes of oranges and grain. The palate is much the same; it is predominantly spicy. We get liquorice, cinnamon and some flavours that remind us very much of liang teh at the finish.
Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye with 25 day Port Wash
Not actually a commercial bottling released by the distiller, but a unique take on the original. The Sazerac was finished with port-infused wood by the folks at Manhattan and Whisky Butler. The extra treatment makes it sweeter, softer and more elegant.
The nose now has lilac and roses on top of the spice and wood. There’s also some soft white peach and caramel. The palate is far sweeter, with red grapes, caramel, honey and pine notes. The finish is also altered, being much softer and having more wood and faint smoke notes.
(Note that our masthead image does not show these four whiskies, but are from our own collection)
The flavours of whiskey make it perfect for cocktails which want to showcase spicy or heavy vanilla flavours. It’s also a perennial favourite for spirit-forward classics such as the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sazerac.
Of course, as one of the premiere cocktail bars in Singapore, Manhattan also makes some excellent tipples. We tried their take on the La Louisiane, a classic New Orleans cocktail made with rye, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s bitters, and absinthe.
The twist here is that the rye used is High West OMG Pure White Rye Blend, and the whole cocktail is aged solera-style in oak casks for four weeks.
It was, of course, delicious. The sweet cocktail is full of dark cherry flavours blended with the spice and sweetness of rye. A balanced drink that easily made us forget that it’s just as boozy as a Manhattan- and quite close to drinking whiskey out of the bottle!
Summing it All Up
That was a fairly lengthy introduction to the world of American whiskey, but we felt that it deserved its due. There are some distinctive flavours that you will rarely, if ever, get anywhere else, and it’s definitely worth exploring.
If you’re curious but not ready to commit, you could head down the Manhattan bar and they could get you acquainted with the spirit. If not, we recommend starting the journey with some price-to-quality bourbons such as Bulleit 10, Elijah Craig and Michter’s.
The Manhattan American Whiskey Club offers a series of events, master classes and tasting sessions. They also offer access to private tastings of rare and vintage whiskies from the Manhattan whiskey collection and 10% off special events and exclusive invitation to private tastings. For more information, you can email [email protected] or call +65 6725 3377.