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Smart Buying

5 Things to Ask: Whiskey

What to look for in a top-quality bourbon.

1. How does U.S. whiskey measure up to Scotch whisky?
Scotch whisky (note that it's spelled without an e) is made in Scotland of malted barley. While it has dominated the market in terms of quality and innovation, American whiskey makers have stepped up their game in recent years. Their oak barrels, which impart the color and much of the flavor to the whiskey, have improved. Also, some makers are aging their bourbon longer and trying new recipes. American whiskey is also generally much cheaper.


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2. What are the differences among American whiskeys?
Bourbon, the classic American whiskey, must be made from at least 51% corn, aged in new, charred white-oak barrels at least two years, and distilled to no more than 160 proof. Rye whiskey is made primarily of that grain. Blended whiskey is made of two or more whiskeys, or whiskey and neutral spirits. Straight whiskey isn't blended.

3. How do bourbons differ?
One of the main differences is the addition of other grains to the corn (corn is often 70% to 80% of the total). Some malted barley is always mixed in to aid fermentation, but wheat or rye is also added for flavor. Says John Hansell, editor of Malt Advocate magazine: "Wheat and rye are the spice of bourbons. Ryed bourbons are very bold and spicy. Wheated bourbons are generally sweeter and nuttier and easy to drink. It's like the difference between wheat bread and rye bread."

4. What's Tennessee whiskey?
This is basically bourbon that's filtered through a 10-foot-thick layer of maple charcoal to make it smoother and add flavor. Jack Daniel's is an example.


5. Is there anything to small-batch or single-barrel bourbons?
Distillers sometimes single out barrels of bourbon with exceptional or unique characteristics and give them extra time to age. If bourbon is bottled from one barrel, it is designated as single barrel. The flavor may vary slightly depending on the barrel's characteristics. If a bourbon is mixed from different barrels, it's small batch.

Three worth a shot

Something totally different: Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
Price: $40
Try this unique brand for a smooth, sweet whiskey with a warm finish. It's the only whiskey now made mainly (51%) of wheat.

Best value: Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (12-year-old)
Price: $19
This ryed bourbon is full of honey and vanilla flavors. Says Hansell: "You can enjoy it neat, but don't feel guilty putting it in a cocktail."

Single Barrel: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Price: $50
This bourbon is known for its almond, honey and blackberry tones. It's a ryed whiskey with a very spicy nose and finish.

Need more shots? See Worthy Whisky Upstarts to discover newcomers in the business that are easy on the palate and the wallet.