There was a time when the world of whiskey, or whisky, as the Scots and Canadians spell it, was simple and straightforward.
There was American corn whiskey, or bourbon, which was relatively sweet, sometimes rough and always rich brown in color. There was the lighter and sweeter Canadian whisky. There was perfumed, delicate and faintly oily Irish whiskey. There was smoky, blended Scotch.
Then came the single malts, which were all but unheard of in my father’s day but began to proliferate as I grew up. Even then, though, identifications were easy compared to today, with complex Speyside malts, austere and assertive Highlanders, relatively muted Lowland whiskies, and the peaty brutes from the island of Islay.
The downside of the whiskey market today is that it’s more complicated, a lot more complicated. The upside is that the possibilities appear to be almost endless.
So let’s review.
With the advent of specialty, small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, American whiskey redefined itself in the 1990s, shedding its rotgut image and adopting a more refined disposition. Softer and more accessible wheated bourbons—so named because they are distilled from wheat and barley malt in addition to the mandated minimum of 51 percent corn—grew in popularity alongside new whiskeys expertly drawn by distillers from the finest barrels in their warehouses as well as others bottled at barrel strength and still others aged for 10, 15 or even 20 years.
A resurging interest in what is widely believed to be America’s original whiskey saw this new generation of bourbons joined by a steadily growing selection of rye whiskeys, followed soon thereafter by a small but intriguing group of “microdistillery” whiskeys, including at least one that trod the not-so-delicate line between tasting like a bourbon and boasting the character of a Scottish whisky.
In Canada, things stayed simpler, as the mainstay brands were joined by only a few specialty editions. At least one “new look” Canadian whisky from a small Ontario distiller altered many a perception by marrying rye, corn and barley whiskies, but for the most part, things remained pretty much the same.
Not so in Ireland, though, where an upstart independent distiller challenged the prevailing notion that Irish whiskeys should be made from only unpeated malt and released spirits that varied in smokiness. The essential perfumed, slightly sweet character of a whiskey from Eire remained, but the soft, approachable finesse of an Irish could no longer be automatically assumed.
Producers also got creative in Scotland. Traditionally aged in used sherry barrels, and later used bourbon barrels, Scottish whiskies were suddenly spending time in wooden casks that had previously held all manner of liquids, from robust French reds to dessert wines to ports and even rums. They were called “finishes,” as the malt would typically spend only the final months of its aging in these barrels, and the more the public responded to them, the more they proliferated.
But the casks were only half the Scottish story. Formerly reliable regional styles also began to evolve, with some island malts sporting characters at least somewhat more in keeping with their brethren distilled alongside the River Spey, and some Lowland whiskies reinvigorating their characters along with their image. Even Islay can now claim an increasingly popular dram billing itself as “the gentle taste of Islay.”
What all this means to a beverage manager is simple: greater profits from more specialized selections. The caveat being that, more than ever, it’s important to do your homework before placing your next whiskey, or whisky, order.
Stephen Beaumont is a veteran beer writer and author of five books on the subject. His writing on beer, drinks, food and travel appears in a wide variety of national and international publications.