It’s existed for centuries. It’s made around the globe in small batches and by massive conglomerates. But, all whisky is, in its essence, the same.
It’s distilled around the world from Scotland to Sweden, from Japan to in South Africa — but the end result emerges from milled grain (corn, barley, rye, etc.), soaked, cooked, fermented, distilled and aged. However, subtle adjustments and flourishes within that process determine great whiskies from common rail hooch. The difference emerges solely through educated tasting.
In this era of micro brewing and small wineries, small batch gourmet distillers now compete with the globally known giants’ main brands and special blends. The following is a look at a mix of all the above available to connoisseurs.
Three Ships Whisky: We begin with a local boy — a popular brand distilled in South Africa at James Sedgwick’s Distillery. The most appealing blend emerging from Master Distiller Andy Watts is the Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish. The limited batch spends three years in oak barrels before a finishing period of six months brings it to maturation in ex-bourbon casks — forging a rich, woody finish without being smoky.
Watts and James Sedgwick’s were the first operation to produce a fully South African 100% blended whisky after perfecting single grain distilling.
“I honestly believe that all of our whiskies are world class but we have been fortunate to have two of them acknowledged as the Best in the World in their respective categories at the World Whisky Awards over the past three years,” Watts said. “The Three Ships Premium Select 5 Year Old was the World’s Best Blended Whisky in 2012.”
Angel’s Envy: You get a little less whiskey out of a barrel than you originally put into it for aging. That’s due to the evaporation process that deepens the flavor and heightens the alcohol content. Distillers romantically call that lost amount The Angel’s Share.
Angel’s Envy Kentucky Bourbon from late, great Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson. It is undeniably a craftsman whiskey, distilled in small batches and aged in eight to 12 barrels at a time. Interestingly, the distillers insist there is no set time for their creation process. They insist there is no set aging period listed for their Bourbon because they decide it’s ready when they decide it’s ready. Period.
It’s a smooth, low burn, easy aftertaste venture into civilized sipping whiskey. It’s a Bourbon to be enjoyed on its own.
Sinatra Select: Jack Daniel’s is a mega-brand around the world, but even they can’t resist dipping into the small batch, boutique whiskey market. The Tennessee-based whiskey maker and Master Distiller Jeff Arnett introduced the limited edition Sinatra Select last year to honor the world famous singer and longtime whiskey lover.
Arnett accurately describes Sinatra Select as serving up “a bold oak flavor and a vanilla finish.” It’s aged is bottled at 90 proof, fit for the name it’s named for — and who was buried with a bottle of Jack.
Maker’s Mark 46: Maker’s Mark is already an internationally popular small batch whisky, and its 46 is a more exclusive edition of the world famous Bourbon. According to Maker’s Mark Master Distiller David Pickerell, 46 is only during the winter month and takes its name from the #4 char barrels it ages in for six years.
The resulting whiskey is much darker and richer than standard Maker’s Mark. It’s stronger than the original, too — with an alcohol by volume rating of 47% — 2% higher. This 46 is known as a “wheater” whisky — relying on wheat instead of rye and ensuring a whisky that doesn’t burn or bite as much as some older whiskies might.
Woodford Reserve: A Kentucky original, Woodford Reserve, is a high-end favorite in the UK and USA. It’s an ideal bourbon when making classic American cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
Chris Morris, Woodford Reserves’ Master Distiller explains that the end products is hand-crafted in small batches, “combining citrus, cinnamon, cocoa, toffee, caramel, chocolate and other spice notes for a silky smooth, almost creamy finish with a warm satisfying tail.” Woodford is now building a larger and more aggressive market share.
Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: We head home to wrap up our exploration of whiskey. Bain’s Cape Mountain also comes into the world from James Sedgwick’s Distillery and Master Distiller Watts. Bain’s is matured for the full five years in ex-bourbon casks using a double maturation process in which, after three years, the whisky is re-vatted into a fresh set of ex-bourbon casks. When it hits the glass, it’s a mature and sophisticated treat whether straight or opened up with an ice cube or water.
“Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky was the World’s Best Grain Whisky in 2013,” Watts said. “Obviously attention to detail and complete control over the whole process is vital. I was taught early in my career that you can’t make a good spirit from a bad fermentation but you can make a bad spirit from a good fermentation. What this means is the 5 steps to making whisky are all intertwined and reliant on each other to come together as a whole.”