What makes Scotch, Scotch? And bourbon, bourbon? Why is Canadian Whisky called rye? Japanese Whisky? Who else makes whisky? And how do I pair cigars and whisky?
There’s a lot of questions that surround this drink and knowing the answers will help you come up with the right version of whisky to match your cigar. On this page I’ll simply outline some styles and then give you an option to read more on that type of whisky if it seems like your cup of tea. Or whisky. You know what I mean. First, let’s ask the question
What is Whisky?
Whisky, or whiskey, is simply a distilled alcoholic beverage made from a fermented grain mash. These grains, which may be malted, can include barley, corn, rye, wheat, or others. This produces a clear spirit which is then aged, or matured, in wooden barrels to add colour and flavour.
The type of grain used to make the whisky, the type of wood used to make the barrels, and the distillation process, generally, can all indicate the style or classification of that whisky. All whisky must be distilled to between 40% and 94.8% ABV, or alcohol by volume.
Now that we understand the basics of what is whisky, let’s dive in deeper to the different styles and pairing cigars and whisky.
In purely alphabetical order:
Bourbon & Other American Whisky
Generally the flavor profile of bourbon can be characterized as having vanilla, oak and caramel flavours. While bourbon must contain 51% corn in its mashbill, the grains that make up the remainder can have a large affect the flavour profile.
Bourbons containing wheat, such as Makers Mark, are often a bit sweeter, softer, and can have a lighter mouthfeel. They often contain notes of caramel and vanilla.
Bourbons containing rye, such as Four Roses Single Barrel, or Jim Beam’s Basil Hayden, have a bit more spice and boldness to them.
Bourbons with high corn content such as Buffalo Trace’s Old Charter tend to be sweeter. Note: there is a style of whisky called “corn whisky” which contains 80% corn in its mashbill.
Tennessee Whiskey, such as Jack Daniels, is for all intensive purposes a straight bourbon made in the state of Tennessee with the distinguishing feature that it is put through a charcoal filtering process. Notes generally include “rustic quality” and “a sort of tangy top note.”
Irish whisky is often a blend of pot-stilled malted and unmalted whisky, such as Jameson, and column-stilled corn-based whisky. Other distillers, such as Bushmills, triple distill their malted barley. The spirit must be distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV, and must be aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks. Grains that can be used in Irish whisky can include corn, wheat, rye and barley.
Irish Whisky is dried in a closed kiln which means that it is never in contact with fire or smoke. As a result it doesn’t absorb the smokey characteristics found in Scotch. This allows more woody, nutty notes to come through with a delicate spice note as well. Other flavours generally include a delicate sweetness with notes of honey – great care is taken to keep temperatures low during distillation to preserve this.
Rye is known for having a spiced, more fruity flavour than other North American whiskies. It is said that when used in cocktails it can produce a dryer character than bourbon. Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels no greater than 700L in volume, and must be at least 40% ABV.
These days most Canadian whiskies contain a only a small amount of lower proof whisky from rye mash, added to a higher proof base whisky typically made of corn or wheat, and aged in wooden barrels. One exception to this is Alberta Premium which still contains only whiskies made from 100% rye mash.
Other brands include Crown Royal , Seagram’s V.O. and Canadian Club. American Rye includes products by Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey.
Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown? There are several sub-categories within Scotch whisky that we’ll get into on the Scotch pairing page. But let’s get a brief outline going to help you get on the right track.
To be Scotch, your drink must be made 100% in Scotland. It must be made from malted Barley, no other grain, and often little else is added other than water and yeast, though it can include other cereals or colouring. It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, and be less than 94.8% ABV. The age on the bottle represents the youngest whisky in the bottle – not an average, or the oldest, as some others do.
Highland Whisky – Heavier and drier than other regions. Nutty, honey, heather, or peat notes. Some distilleries near the sea will include salty, maritime influences. Brands include Aberfeldy, Dalmore, and Gelnmorangie.
Speyside – Known for elegance and complexity, refined smokiness, and fruitiness. Brands include Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Macallan.
Lowlands – Malty, zesty flavours, citrus, fruity and sometimes floral notes. Brands include Auchentoshan.
Islay – Known for its strong peaty notes, but also can be smokey, sweet, seaweed, maritime notes. Brands include Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.
Campbletown – Briny character with peaty notes. Brands include Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank.
Japan – Japanese whiskies have been produced since 1923 when the techniques from Scottland were carefully studied and then implemented in Japan. Because of this, whisky from Japan has many similar characteristics to Scotch, and often a single distiller will mimmick several different Scottish regions. Known for their smooth quality, expect light sherry and floral notes mimicking Speyside in brands such as Yoichi or Yamazaki, and smokey peat mimicking Islay in brands such as Hakushu.
New Zealand – Snow-capped mountains, beautiful forests, ocean air – New Zealand has some of the purist water available for producing its whisky. Whisky from this region can range from lighter, delicate, sweet whiskies, similar to the Lowlands or Speyside Scotches, in brands such as Willowbank, to heaver, smokier whiskies in brands such as The Coaster, and Old Hokonui.
South Africa – Bain’s Cape has won a pile of awards over the last 5 years including Whisky Magazine’s “World’s Best Grain Whisky” award in 2013, and their Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year in 2011.
More info – There’s a good resource available here if you want more info on international whisky.