Spinning grain into liquid gold

Whiskey is really just beer with a whole lot of life experience—the worldly-wise politician to beer's young idealist. The category includes Scotch and Bourbon, as well as Irish and Canadian whiskeys. All start with a grain mash, sometimes formed of a single grain (barley, wheat, rye and corn are common) and sometimes a mix of grains; usually "malted" (heated to start breaking starch into sugars). Scotch whiskeys are famous for their complex smoky taste, which comes from heating the mash over peat fires; most other whiskeys protect the mash from smoke for a sweeter, rounder flavor. After distilling, the liquor is clear, only taking on that range of gorgeous warm caramel colors when they're aged—a minimum of 3 years—in wood barrels. Darker? It's either been aged longer, or aged in barrels previously used for a wine.

A glossary of whiskey:

  • Malt—made primarily from malted barley
  • Grain—made from any type of grains
  • Single malt—Made by a single distillery, using a mash of one particular malted grain.
  • Blented malt—Mixture of single malts from a number of different distilleries. Blended whiskeys focus on creating a consistent flavor for the brand.
  • Blended—Mixture of different types of whiskeys.
  • Cask strength—bottled from the cask undiluted—usually a higher proof.
  • Single cask—bottled from an individual cask. The taste may vary quite a bit from cask to cask, even within a single brand.

Though it has a reputation as a "man's drink," women actually toss back between 20-30 percent of all whiskey sold worldwide. Purists drink it with just a splash of water, at room temperature, to allow every flavor in the liquor to tell its story. But "on the rocks" is a classic too.