American whiskey was synonymous for over a century with bourbon, distilled in the southern states from a fermented mash of mostly corn, though legally it can be made anywhere in the country. In recent years rye whiskey has made a big comeback and has now been joined by single-malt style barley-based whiskeys. The range of sweet, spicy, and stoic flavors of bourbon, rye, and single malt align magnificently with cocktails like the whiskey sour, Manhattan, and Old Fashioned.
Whisky can be - and now is - made anywhere and everywhere in the world. Most often distilled in the style of Scottish single malts or blends, each global producer puts a unique local spin on whisky with their choice of aging. World whiskies may rest in warehouses subject to tropical humidity or cool mountain breezes while aging in anything from native hardwoods to ex-bourbon barrels to casks once used to hold wine, sherry, rum, or other spirits. Every decision by the producer nudges a whisky distilled from a common set of ingredients toward a new and unique expression of local flavor. Get ready to taste a whole new world.
Scotch whisky encompasses a range of flavors and styles as diverse as the geography of its homeland, from soft and supple blends reminiscent of the heather-dotted hills to big, bold, smoky pot-distilled single malts associated with its islands. With well over 100 distilleries in the country, Scotland is the world’s most prestigious whisky region.
Irish whiskey probably predates that of its Scottish neighbor historically, but a recent renaissance in distilling in the country has resulted in an explosion of new brands made in new ways. Approachable, triple-distilled and blended Irish whiskies with their signature note of apple have been joined by heartier, scotch-style single malts and other expressions that take advantage of aging in ex-wine casks to put a modern spin on an age-old whiskey.
Canadian whisky distillers of late are showing off the individual components that make up their famously light and easy-drinking blends. Unlike most other countries, in Canada corn, wheat, barley, and rye whiskies are usually distilled and aged separately to be blended before bottling, allowing whisky makers to treat drinkers with different subsets of their liquid inventory. The Canadian whisky category is ripe for exploration anew.
Tequila is a sub-category of mezcal, though it is its most popular ambassador. It is produced from one type of agave in specific regions of Mexico, yet it can exhibit an extraordinary range in flavor. It may be unaged or aged in barrels and enjoyed as a sipper or mixed into the Margarita, one of the world’s most popular cocktails.
Mezcal is distilled from a range of agave plants grown in a broad region of Mexico. When made using traditional production methods, mezcal is smoky and rustic yet retains the pure expression of its base material like almost no other spirit. Mezcal can take endless forms.
Gin is a spirit flavored with any number of botanicals including cardamom, coriander, angelica, and citrus peels, but the only one required to be present is juniper berry [that has been used in alcoholic beverages for thousands of years]. Whether bold and forest-forward or light and floral, the aromatic complexity of gin makes it the reigning choice for cocktails.
Cognac is aged French grape brandy made using traditional methods according to exacting regulations. The spirit can showcase the unique terroir of the region in which the grapes are grown or the mastery of the art of blending.
Rum is made from sugarcane byproducts including molasses and can be produced anywhere in the world. Unaged or aged, distilled for mixability in cocktails or for sipping on the rocks or neat, rum is as varied as the places it is made.
Vodka can be made from grains, grapes, potatoes, or anything else that ferments, as long as it is distilled to nearly pure alcohol before being filtered and diluted. What makes each vodka unique is the texture, body, and flavor of the base material that reveals itself.
Pisco is grape brandy from Peru or Chile. The two countries differ in their traditions, and in Peru eight specific grape varietals are permitted to be fermented then distilled in pot stills only a single time. Peruvian pisco is not aged in oak barrels, allowing the floral aromatics of individual grape varietals to shine in a “puro” bottling or when blended into an “acholado” to support cocktails such as the famous Pisco Sour.
Cachaça is Brazilian rum distilled from fermented sugar cane juice rather than the molasses, lending bright, grassy notes to the spirit. It is the essential ingredient in one of the world’s most popular beach cocktails, the Caipirinha.
Calvados is French brandy from Normandy distilled from many different varieties of fermented apples and often a portion of pears, depending on the sub-region. It is aged in oak and may be sold as a blend or a vintage bottling. Though less well-known abroad than the other great French brandies cognac and armagnac, calvados embodies the same levels of sophistication and nuance of its famous siblings.
Liqueur is a wide-ranging category of flavored sweetened alcoholic beverages that can include everything from straight forward, single-citrus bottlings to inscrutably complex bitter blends. Liqueurs perform an important function in classic and modern cocktails, adding subtle nuance or a big kick of flavor to each individual drink. Choose wisely and reap the rewards.