Whiskey used to be straightforward. One distillery made one type of whiskey from one mashbill. They’d age that whiskey for a certain amount of time and, some years later, they’d bottle it. Older whiskey was just that: older. The only difference between a bottle of Laphraoig 10 Year Single Malt Scotch and Laphraoig 18 Year was — and still is — eight years.
Then, in the second half of the 20th century, whiskey sales began to rise. In the 1980s, the class and complexity of single malt Scotch pulled gin and vodka drinkers over to the brown stuff and then, in a widely covered resurgence, bourbon began to boom in ernest at the turn of the century. Wanting to differentiate their product and give consumers something else to try (and buy), distilleries started offering new and stranger whiskies — “small batch” and “rum finished” and whatever “ocean aged” means. What was straightforward became murky; what the hell is Laphroaig An Cuan Mor anyway?
The confusion stops here. In order to stop people from wandering the liquor aisles like they’re a foreign country, we spoke with Fred Minnick, author of the upcoming book Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of an American Whiskey, to understand how the biggest whiskey nerds pick their bottles.
Where to look first. “I’m looking for region, because I have a certain style in mind. For example, if I see ‘Islay,’ I know this would be an extremely smoky Scotch, because of their peat. If I see ‘Indiana’ on a bottle of rye whiskey that was bottled in Iowa, I know this is a ninety-five-percent rye mashbill from one of the best distilleries in the world, MGP Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. I ignore all the fanciful terminology such as small batch, craft, handmade, etc. These terms are not regulated and are just marketing filler.” (For more information about regions, you can find a great interactive map here.)
After region, check the age. “When you see an age, you get an idea of its flavor profile. Age in bourbon is less important than it is in Scotch; in fact, more age is often a detractor. Because bourbon must go into new charred oak after twelve years (a regulation Scotch doesn’t have to uphold), bourbon can really become too oaky. That’s where the distiller’s skills come into play. I’ve had fifteen- to twenty-three-year-old bourbons that were so woody it was like licking a tree, and others in this age that were sublime. So, it all depends on how well the whiskey is mingled before bottling.
“Age statements are dropping like flies in all whisky categories. The companies say they don’t have the stocks to continue producing certain age stated whiskeys. Whatever. When there’s no age statement, for American whiskey, look for terms like ‘straight,’ which means it must be at least two years old, and ‘bottled in bond,’ which means it must be at least four years old. I am also a big believer in color. The darker it is, for bourbon, often the older it is.”
Then check the proof. “Regarding proof, I prefer my bourbon ninety proof and above, and my Scotch at any proof. Scotch can maintain its nuance at lower proofs, while bourbon’s nuance typically disappears when bottled at eighty proof.”
Know the difference between “distilled in” and “bottled in.” “The state of distillation is a legal requirement dating back to the late nineteen-thirties. If a bottler doesn’t include this, they’re in federal code violation. It happens, often by mistake. People who bottle other people’s whiskey will use words like made, bottled, produced, procured, found, etc., to make it appear they distilled it. The state of distillation also gives you an idea of the style of whiskey. I’m a little more confident in ‘distilled in Kentucky’ vs. ‘distilled in Alaska.’”
Think intelligently about blends and finishing touches. “Blends get a really bad reputation, but they offer so much value. Taste Chivas Eighteen blind up against single malts twice as expensive and tell me if you don’t love the value and taste in Chivas. As for the casks, this is the greatest development in American whiskey, because we’re tasting new flavors we haven’t seen before. We get caught up in the labeling standards, and rightfully so, but these sherry finishes, Cognac finishes, rum finishes are offering us new styles, and that’s fun. The problem is the damn marketing behind it. If brands didn’t try to spin their whiskey and just let us taste the stuff, they’d see that whiskey geeks are actually quite accepting with new styles.”
Sticking to a few distilleries you trust versus exploration. “We all fall into our styles and, inevitably, distilleries. I love a good high-rye bourbon, and I know Four Roses is packing in the good rye. If I want a cask-strength wheated bourbon, I know I have few options, but can find Maker’s Mark cask strength fairly easily, but I’m hoping to grab a bottle of Weller Antique. I encourage all to try different styles, and find when they like some brands over others. For example, I actually like a good Lowlands Scotch pour, which is lighter-bodied whisky, in the fall, and bourbon in the heat of summer. This might be complete opposite of many, but that’s how I like it. Pay attention to the mood and place of when you like a whiskey and try to emulate that for the rest of your life.”
Ignore the lovers and the haters. “Whiskey is an intensely debated subject in social media, with a lot of lovers who will love a brand even if they make an egregious mistake, and hate a brand if they do everything right. Find your own whiskey preferences and don’t let anybody tell you it’s right or wrong; it’s you. I recommend tasting the whiskey before buying. Go to a bar with a great whiskey selection, and taste, enjoy and then buy. Repeat.”
Additional Illustrations by Silvana Volio de la Fuente