From Greta Garbo’s famous call for “whiskey, ginger ale on the side. (And don’t be stingy, baby) to Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” and Jim Morrison’s quest to find another whiskey watering hole, pop culture would have us thinking that the drink is just a drink. But a stroll through the whiskey aisle of any liquor store and the labels on the multitude of bottles present terms that can read, at first glance, like a hieroglyphics. But cracking the code is simpler than perfecting your Old Fashioned. The most important thing to know is that whiskey, an anglicization of uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life,” is any drink distilled from grains. Different styles are defined by which grains — corn, wheat, barley, rye — are used and various rules around aging.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Contemporary practice is to spell products from Scotland and Canada “whisky,” without an “e,” and most of the rest with an “e.” (Pro tip: if the country name has an “e” in it, so does its whiskey.)
In Ireland and Scotland, distilling traditions took root long before America’s founding fathers were born. Single malt Scotches are distilled from malted barley and must be entirely made at one distillery. Blended Scotch, like Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker, is a combination of single malts and lighter grain whiskey, making it well suited for cocktails. They typically don’t carry an age statement because that can only indicate the youngest whiskey in the blend. But don’t assume that means it’s flimsy. It likely also contains Scotch that’s quite old and sturdy.
There’s a case to be made for regionality for single malts. A majority of Scotland’s 130-plus distilleries are located in Speyside, a mosaic of rolling hills and river valleys, and whiskies made there tend to reflect that landscape, often offering notes of heather, honey, and fruit. Try Glenrothes 12 or 18 ($60 and $160) for something exceptionally vibrant, cinnamon-spiced and lusciously plummy, largely because of its aging in sherry casks. On the more moody end of the continuum is Benriach Original Ten ($54), malty sweet with undercurrents of pear and vanilla. (Speyside is also where the familiar stalwarts like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet come from.)
Single malts from the Hebrides, windswept islands off Scotland’s southwest coast, are known for their polarizing peat smoke aromas and flavors. The most celebrated of these islands is Islay, where for hundreds of years barley has been dried over peat fire, imbuing the grain with smoky flavor. But it’s not all campfire and iodine. Islay’s single malts span a spectrum. Bowmore 10, 12 or 15 ($55, $70, $100) are on the gentler end. With less smokiness, it’s easy to discern the influence of the sea-sprayed air, which is absorbed over years of wood aging, giving it a saline quality. Then there’s Ardbeg, a peaty heavyweight that pummels your palate with charred tobacco and smoked cocoa.
This is a good moment to note that older whiskies are not necessarily better. They cost more because of the time they take up space in the warehouse, but the longer whiskey ages, the more oaky notes it absorbs from the barrel. If you lean toward those woody flavors, then it’s well worth the price.
Irish whiskeys are distinctive for being triple distilled, and every pass through the still strips the spirit of its heavier compounds, so it yields a lighter drink, though no less complex. Try a bottle from Teeling, an old company revived by an Irish expat while studying at Harvard. Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey ($40) is an excellent start, but as a distillery known for its innovation, look for various wood finishes and even peated expressions.
Bourbon, which by law must be made in the United States (anywhere), distilled from at least 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak, and contain no additives, warrants its own vocabulary lesson. “Single barrel” is self-explanatory and tend to be bottled at higher proof, not cut to 40 percent. “Straight” indicates it’s aged at least two years and “small batch” is, quite simply, relative. (Thanks, marketing department.)
Rye is not legally bound to the United States, but if it is made here, it must be made with at least 51 percent rye grain. Canadian whiskey, largely made from the stuff, has historically been shorthanded as “rye” and with it being such an abundant crop throughout Europe and Scandinavia, distillers throughout those nations, as part of an exciting new-world whiskey movement, have started tinkering with the grain. Local distillers have, too. Boston Harbor Distillery’s Putnam New England Straight Rye Whiskey ($40) delivers the grain’s signature peppery spice. A gift of this Dorchester-made spirit goes a long way because for every bottle sold, $20 will be donated to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Education Fund. And for added holiday joy, check out the #ryesup campaign on social media for cocktail recipes from local bartenders.