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Wellness / February 11, 2018

How to talk whiskey without embarrassing yourself

Written by: Mitch Harris

Whiskey is a classic man’s drink. And it’s drank by classic men. The kind of men who smoke cigars in the hunting lodge. Who live in houses that smell of old leather books and rich mahogany. Men who know how to talk about whiskey. Men like me.

As longtime whiskey enthusiast, I can attest that lovers of this masculine spirit have developed a complex subculture. Whiskey lovers have their own language and their own rituals—and if you’re trying to fit in with them, they’ll expect you know how to talk about whiskey without sounding like a complete dolt.

So if you plan to share a drink with debonair sophisticates like me, I suggest you do some homework first. An apprenticeship with a master distiller on the Isle of Skye should be enough to properly prep you. But in a pinch, this article should at least help keep you from embarrassing yourself.


Spelling matters

Whether whiskey is spelled with or without the letter e depends on its country of origin. American, Canadian and Irish distilleries produce whiskey, which distilleries in Scotland, Japan, and most other destinations make whisky. 

Both are, essentially, the same product: a liquor distilled from the same grain mash used to make beer. But if you text your friend about a “Tennessee Whisky,” don’t expect a kind reply.


Scotch is from Scotland

Even you probably knew this already. Scotch is just a term for Scottish whisky. It’s not a flavor or whisky or anything like that (though Scotch is generally smokier and peatier); if it was distilled in the country of Scotland, it’s Scotch. If it wasn’t, it’s not.


Bourbon is from the U.S.

It’s often said that true bourbon must be distilled in Kentucky. And while it’s true that about 90% of the stuff is still made in the Bluegrass State, the name “bourbon” can be applied to whiskey distilled anywhere in the U.S.

The qualify as bourbon, a whiskey must be made in the U.S. and distilled from a mash that’s at least 51% corn. Which leads me to my next point…


Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon

This is a pretty common slip-up, and understandably so. Jack Daniel’s is distilled in the South, and made with corn. It’s pretty fair to assume that it’s a bourbon.

But it isn’t. JD is technically a Tennessee Whiskey—basically just bourbon that has been filtered through sugar-maple charcoal.

That’s just one of those things you should know. And now you know.


Neat ≠ Straight

Probably nothing will out you as a whiskey noobie like asking for your whiskey “straight.” College students use that word to describe unmixed liquor, but it means something totally different in the world of whiskey.

In the U.S., “straight” describes a whiskey that has been aged in oak barrels for at least two years. If you want to ask for your whiskey without mixers or ice, ask for it “neat.”


Just say no to whiskey stones.

This one is, admittedly, a piece of personal snobbery. I am very much not a fan of “whiskey stones”: little chunks of steel or ceramic that can be chilled and used as a substitute for ice cubes. The marketing joke about these things is that they make your whiskey quite literally “on the rocks.”

Whiskey stones are billed as an alternative to ice cubes. Ice is eschewed by many whiskey drinkers because it melts over time, distilling the whiskey. Stones don’t melt.

That makes sense in theory. But I’ve just never met a serious whiskey drinker who used the things. Most of the booze snobs I know prefer their whiskey neat, and the few who do take ice say the added water brings out some of the liquor’s finer flavors.


Take your time and know your limits

Good whiskeys are meant to be sipped, not pounded. Spend some time with your glass, and try to savor the subtleties of its scent, flavor, and mouthfeel.

Even if you don’t have the vocabulary to describe your whiskey’s flavor (is it peaty, smokey, etc.), pay as much attention to it as possible. This will not only help you look sophisticated, it will also help you get more mileage out of each pour.

As with all alcoholic beverages, know your limits and try to keep track of your consumption. And never, ever drive drunk.

This piece was produced in collaboration with Tod’s Natural Cocktail Mix

about the author

Mitch Harris

Mitch Harris embraced the Every Day Carry trend long before it was cool. From the day he got his first pocket knife, Mitch has devoted himself to staying prepared for every eventuality. Through his position at Shoulders of Giants, he’s able to keep his kit stocked with the very newest and best EDC gear.

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