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Understanding... Whiskey (and Whisky)

--By Mike Armstrong Photos by Niki Le Roux and James L. Tinker Translated by Liu Fang Ru

Mike Armstrong is a veteran Taiwan-based bartender and owner of Taichung's fM bar and restaurant.

"Whisky" or "whiskey", which is the correct spelling? Both are. Of the four notable whiskey-producing countries, Scotland and Canada spell it without the "e", while Ireland and the United States keep that vowel. The term whiskey comes from the Gaelic words "usque baugh", meaning "water of life". Later, the slang word "usky" took over and from that the English word whiskey evolved. So, now that we've hooked you on the word, let's understand the product itself a bit more.

Whiskey's ingredients--grain, water and yeast--are easily obtainable. The difference between whiskies comes from the distillation methods, the type of yeast used, the kinds of wood used for aging, the size of the barrel the liquor is stored in, the length of time for barrel aging, the water source used and, most important, the type of grain (corn, rye, wheat, barley, oats) used, and in what proportions.

There are five steps which serve as a blueprint for all whiskies worldwide: cooking the grains (also called malting), mashing (to prepare the grainy liquid for fermentation), fermentation (taking place in another vat where yeast is introduced), distillation (where the final product is formed), and maturation (the aging process). Once done, you look at the purity, aromatic and flavor properties, and, finally, the finish.

With that whirlwind summary done, let's get to those bottles on the bar shelf, limited this time to the Canadian whiskies (with others to be covered in future editions). Canadian whiskies, including Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Black Velvet, and Canadian Mist, are called "Ryes" with the misconception they are made only with rye. Actually the dominant cereal is corn. Most find Canadian whisky much smoother, milder and mellower in taste and slightly sweeter than American counterparts. The more aged, the better the flavor, so Canadian Club 12-year-old is a favorite. Crown Royal has hints of vanilla and cherry and can be done in shots. Although these whiskies aren't all ryes, ordering Rye and Ginger Ale will always get you a Canadian whiskey and nothing else (although Old Grandad--a bourbon--has almost twice the rye of other whiskeys).

Now, you ask, what is a bourbon and isn't it true that Jack Daniels isn't a bourbon? You're right, it isn't. Stay tuned for another edition of Cocktail Cool to find out more about the mysterious world of the water of life.

Alcoholic drinks are strictly prohibited for those under 18.


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