Whiskey 101: 7 Facts You Never Knew

I've been spending some time training our staff on whiskey (or whisky) over the past few weeks, and quite a few questions were asked about drinking whiskey in the hotter months. I know many, including myself, tend to grab a beer or switch to lighter spirits such as gin when the thermometer rises, so maybe a good “refresher” course is in order. In this three-part blog series, I'll be offering up some jottings on all things whiskey. As we raise a glass to this wonderful spirit, steeped in history, let's enjoy these fun facts.

  1. Did you know that all whiskey starts life as beer? A deliciously true story. Whiskey is made from wort, which is the “beer” that gets distilled. The wort is made up of all the ingredients you find in a tasty beer: water, yeast, malts, and even hops to prevent unwanted pests in the process. If you want proof that this process indeed makes terrific whiskey, track down a bottle of Charbay R5 Whiskey, which is Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA distilled and aged in new oak barrels for over a year! My favorite Christmas gift last year was a bottle of White Christmas from Anchor Distillery, which is a small distillery behind Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. They saved all the Christmas Ale they didn't sell the previous year and distilled it into white, or un-aged whiskey. If they bottle this again, I highly recommend it as a fun and rare gift for any beer or whiskey lover in your family.
  2. There are only four whiskey distilleries in all of Ireland. That's right, all the whiskey produced in the country that is famous for being the first to publicly sell whiskey comes from four distilleries, and one of them is pretty much closed so most actually come from the remaining three! With all the small batch distilleries popping up in the states, I wonder if this concept will jump the pond and take root in the old world as well? Sounds like a potentially good investment opportunity.

  3. Whiskey was saved during Prohibition thanks to a small medical loophole written into the law. Apparently, even the most “noble” of experiments wasn't all that noble. Though it was already common knowledge that there were no real medicinal qualities or applications for whiskey, there was a law set up to allow a doctor to prescribe whiskey as medicine. The medically “inflicted” would then walk down to their local pharmacy with a script, and walk out with a good 'ole cure for what ales you, whiskey. The amount wasn't enough to consume in large quantities, but it gave whiskey drinkers a bit of hooch to take the edge off the whole ordeal. 

    To this day, there are still whiskey labels that read “Bottled in bond” which harkens back to the era. During this time, Walgreens grew from around 20 locations to over 400 by the time the law was repealed! What this loophole really did, was perserve much of the aged whiskey in the states, instead of seeing it all washed into the gutters as other beverages of the period were. Once the ban was lifted in 1933 with the 21st Amendment, the U.S. whiskey business hit the ground running with the barrels that were aged throughout the period. 
  4. Jack Daniels is not bourbon, sorry friends. Jack Daniels is technically Tennessee whiskey, which is very similar to bourbon except that it goes through an additional step to achieve a distinctly sweeter flavor. This method is called the “Lincoln County Process,” where the unaged whiskey is dripped through a sugar maple charcoal filter before barrel aging. What this does is further mellow the spirit, and give it an almost candied flavor.  Currently, Tennessee has only two distilleries, most notably Jack Daniels, but also George Dickel. Speaking to the latter, if you haven't tasted George Dickel's Barrel Select, I highly recommend picking up a bottle. It's the only single barrel Tennessee whiskey on the market today, and has a smooth, robust flavor that is truly exceptional.
  5. Next time you sip on a delicious San Diego craft beer that has been barrel aged, don't forget to thank... Kentucky? Although it is no longer a requirement that bourbon be made in the great state of Kentucky, its process was established in the “Bluegrass State.” Bourbon, which takes it's name from the Bourbon Dynasty in France, must be aged in brand new oak barrels. After the bourbon is emptied at the end of the aging process, a new barrel must be used for the next batch. This creates a massive surplus of oak barrels that the distilleries end up selling to numerous different industries.
    San Diego breweries buy up these barrels at a good price and create many different interesting, rare beers that are meant to be sipped and enjoyed just as a fine whiskey would. Does the gift of bourbon ever stop giving? Some local breweries that have become masters in the art of barrel aging their beer would be The Lost Abbey, Green Flash, and The Bruery up in Orange County. It's also fun to mention that we can thank these bourbon barrels for tabasco sauce, which spends time aging in former bourbon barrels.
  6. George Washington: Truth teller, brilliant leader of men, founding father, and whiskey maker! By the year of his death in 1799, George Washington was the leading whiskey distiller in the United States. Add that feather to his Yankee doodle and call it delicious. At his previous residence on Mount Vernon, they have reconstructed the distillery and sell small amounts to the local community. If you find yourself in Virginia, buy a bottle or two and feel free to stop by Level2 to share the spoils.
  7. Et tu Thomas? Thomas Jefferson (you may know him from such ground breaking documents as “The Declaration of Independence”) was also a whiskey man, posthumously. Jefferson was a wine enthusiast, but never developed a taste for the harder spirits. A Kentucky bourbon company has recently named their bourbon after our third President, who's spirit of experimentation and classic style inspire the father and son distillery.

Hopefully you enjoyed this fun look into whiskey! For more, check out parts two and three of this blog series discussing how to mix whiskey cocktails during warm weather and fun, easy to produce whiskey cocktails for your next summer soiree. Or, visit me and my staff at Level2 to learn (and taste) more. Until then, cheers! 

Stephen Kurpinsky
Spirits & Beer Director/Barman