I grew up in the beer world, literally - my parents founded a microbrewery, Dock Street, a few months before I was born - so being a woman in a male-dominated sub-culture is nothing new to me. The spirits world is only slightly less of a boys' club - women do love fruity cocktails, after all - right?
But when it comes to marketing-oriented notions like "Women in Beer" or "Women in Business" - I tend to feel that they really highlight the fact that women are traditionally viewed as outliers in those fields. While it can be about banding together and sisterhood, I usually find that such labels are more alienating than anything else, and sometimes insulting - in an "Oh cute, they think they're people too" sort of way.
That's why I was surprised and delighted by last month's Women & Whiskey event led by Brandy Rand, an expert in the field - and a woman. I was expecting to sample some cocktails and maybe get a glossy fact sheet that would cater to the stereotypes of what women "like" (something saccharine with pineapple, if we're to believe the clichés), and how we drink.
Two hours, three pages of handwritten notes - front and back - and six pours of whiskey from Ireland, Scotland, Kentucky and Japan later, I genuinely left feeling like I could walk up to any mixologist behind a mahogany-paneled bar and hold my own in a convo about the "Water of Life".
I've distilled (see what I did there?) much of the information from the tasting here, so read up before your drink up:
- The first known distiller was a woman - Maria the Jewess. (Milk and Honey has a pretty solid explanation, here.)
- Women have a much more refined sense of taste and smell than men that can perhaps be attributed to our past roles as "gatherers" in hunter-gatherer societies.
NEED-TO-KNOW WHISKEY FACTS:
- Whiskey is Galic for "Water of Life".
- Ever notice that whiskey is sometimes spelled sans -e? When a country's name has an "e" in it, so does the whiskey, and vice-versa: America and Ireland produce whiskey while Japan, Scotland and Canada make whisky
- It's distilled two or three times. The more a spirit is distilled, the less flavor (So it might not surprise you to know that vodka has been distilled five times...)
- here are 4.7 million barrels of whiskey in Kentucky. There are 4 million Kentucky residents.
- "Mash bill" means what grains are in the whiskey.
- 2% evaporates a year in barrels - the "Angels' share".
HOW IT'S MADE:
- The ingredients of whiskey are grain, water, yeast. Sound familiar? That's essentially beer, minus the hops.
- Good water = great whiskey. For examples, Japanese whisky like Yamazaki is made with spring water from bamboo-lined streams and underground aquifers. (Um, yum.) Kentucky water is rich in limestone and has no iron in it.
- Temperature affects aging. Climates like Scotland's and Japan's, where there are four seasons, experience the full range of hot hot heat in the summer to frigid temps in the winter.
- Heat changes the pressure in the barrels, forcing the liquid within to seeps into the pores in the wood. When it cools off the wood's pores close up and it's pushed back out, carrying with it particles - and flavor - from inside the wood.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF WHISKEY:
- Wheat whiskey is 51% or more wheat and is characteristically floral.
- Rye whiskey is 51% or more rye and is characteristically spicy.
- Bourbon whiskey is typically sweeter tasting - it's only made in the USA and is 51% or more corn. (Most bourbons use between 70-80% corn.)
- All bourbon barrels can only be used once. (So American...)
- Scotland, Japan and Ireland buy used bourbon barrels from the US, so there's a big international barrel-trade industry.
- Irish whisky is matured for 3 years
- Scotch whiskey is 100% malted barley, matured 3 years. Less sweet, drier.
- Single Malt Whiskey is from one distiller.
TIP: Adding a drop of water to whiskey opens it up.
Appearance: Light golden yellow
Nose: Full and fruity aroma with citrus and spice. Cinnamon, ginger, cherry, orange peel.
Palate: Well-structured with honey notes, take of orange and lemons; a strong malt presence that balances well with the oily sweetness. Creme brulee.
Finish: A long, malty finish, soft fruits and honey.
Auchentoshan American Oak (Scotch)
Appearance: Bright gold.
Nose: Bourbon vanilla and coconut with layers of zesty citrus fruit.
Palate: Refreshingly smooth yet lively with vanilla cream, coconut and white peach.
Finish: Crisp with sugared grapefruit and a hint of spice.
NOTES: The distiller is a female. It's one of three lowland distilleries. It's made with malted barley that is dried over peat 18-30 hours, which injects it with flavor from the peat smoke.
Yamazaki 12 (Japanese)
Appearance: Pure gold.
Nose: Peach, pineapple, grapefruit, clove, candied orange, vanilla. (I got peppercorn, mens' cologne, tobacco, butterscotch.)
Palate: Coconut, cranberry, butter.
Finish: Sweet ginger, cinnamon. Long finish.
Maker's Mark (American)
Appearance: Deep amber
Nose: Waves of caramel, cinnamon, malt, vanilla cream pie, banana.
Palate: Balanced, medium-bodied with notes of buttered toast, molasses and maple syrup.
Finish: Long dry finish of oak, caramel and a hint of corn.
NOTES: Maker's Mark is a wheated rye, made with 51% corn and the rest is malted barley, rye, wheat. Made with that limestone-rich Kentucky water. The barrels are rotated frequently. It's just ready when it's ready; it depends on how hot the summer was and how cool the winter was. It's made in batches of 1000 gallons. The wife of the Maker's Mark founder designed the bottles; they're hand-dipped in wax.
Basil Hayden's (American)
Appearance: Golden amber
Nose: Spice, tea, hint of peppermint
Palate: Spicy, peppery, honey, light-bodied, gentle bite
Finish: Dry, clean, brief.
Knob Creek (American)
Appearance: Golden to light amber.
Nose: Spice, herbal with distinct rye character and nuances of strong aged wood.
Palate: Distinct rye spiciness with vanilla undertones of strong aged wood.
Finish: Warm, lingering spice.
NOTES: This one was my favorite.