Tasting Whiskey

An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits


By Lew Bryson

Foreword by David Wondrich

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Pour a stiff drink and crack open this comprehensive guide to everything there is to know about the world’s greatest whiskeys. Exploring the traditions behind bourbon, Scotch, Irish, and even Japanese whiskey, you’ll discover how unique flavors are created through variations of ingredients and different distilling techniques. With advice on how to collect, age, and serve whiskey, as well as suggestions for proven food pairings, you’ll be inspired to share your knowledge and invite your friends over for a delicious whiskey tasting party. 


To my late grandfather, Newton Jay Shissler, who always kept a bottle of 'shine stashed in the kitchen cupboard.

To Jimmy Russell, Parker Beam, and the late Elmer T. Lee and Ronnie Eddins, giants of bourbon from whom I learned an immense amount.

And to the memory of Truman Cox, a good man who was taken from us way too young, before he could achieve the greatness as a master distiller that I solidly believe was his destiny.




Chapter 1: The Story of Whiskey

Chapter 2: Making Spirit: Fermentation and Distillation

Chapter 3: Aging

Chapter 4: The Wall and the Work: The Challenge of Tasting Whiskey

Chapter 5: Tasting: Tapping into Your Years of Experience

Chapter 6: Mapping Whiskey Styles

Chapter 7: Scotch: How the World Says "Whisky"

Chapter 8: Irish: Single, Double, Triple

Chapter 9: American: Bourbon, Tennessee, and Rye

Chapter 10: Canadian: Blended, Always

Chapter 11: Japanese: The Student Becomes the Master

Chapter 12: Craft Whiskey

Chapter 13: Dilution: Water, Ice, and Cocktails

Chapter 14: What Goes Well with Whiskey?

Chapter 15: Collecting Whiskey


Final Toast



Interior Photography Credits

Other Storey Titles You Will Enjoy


Share Your Experience!


There are very few people on this rocky sphere of pain and tribulation I'd rather have a drink with than Lew Bryson, and most of them are dead. I've known Lew as an occasional drinking buddy, a friend, and an editor for going on 15 years, and even despite that editor business I still look forward to our next tipple, much like the giant panda looks forward to nibbling the first succulent bamboo shoots of spring. Lew is just that pleasant to spend time with.

In fact, he's so agreeable that you tend to forget just how damn smart he is and how much he knows: about whiskey (he's written and edited for America's leading whiskey magazine for years), about beer (four books on the topic), and, well, about everything, or so it seems talking to him. At the same time, he's not one to talk a bunch of junk just to make you think he's a bigshot. But ask a question, and you'll get a good answer (it helps that he used to be a librarian, I suppose). When it comes to the matter at hand — whiskey — he's one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met, without descending into trivia, one-upping, or blather. Which is good, because the literature on the topic is prone to be precisely that sort of bothersome stuff. Not this book.

Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey, back when Ronald Reagan was president (I needed the stuff then, but I feel the same under every administration). Like its author, the book is clear, patient, thorough, and even-handed, all without taking itself too seriously. It cuts through the old myths and marketing hooey that form such a large part of whiskey lore, without introducing new hooey of its own. I learned something on every page. I'd say more, but I've got a column to write and Lew is, as usual, waiting for it.


David Wondrich

Founding member of The Museum of the American Cocktail

Author of two books on cocktail history, Punch and Imbibe


There's a feeling I get whenever I land at the airport in Louisville and walk into the terminal, under the big "Welcome to Louisville" sign, past the Woodford Reserve tavern, and down the escalators. It's a weight off my shoulders, a weight I'd forgotten I'd been carrying: the weight of being a bourbon lover among people who often giggle at the mention of the word. I walk down that terminal . . . and I'm with my people. This is the place where I once slipped up and packed a bottle of Booker's in my carry-on bag going home, and the TSA guy honestly said, "Look, we'll just forget it this one time. That's really good bourbon; take better care of it." Yes, sir!

There's another feeling I get when I'm in the presence of an ancient and rare Scotch whisky. It's awe, and something close to reverence. As long ago as 200 years, an acorn took root, grew into an oak, and was cut, seasoned, sawn into billets and staves, and shaped into a barrel. Bourbon or sherry was aged in the barrel, for however long, after which the barrel was shipped to Scotland, reassembled, and filled with new whisky. After at least 10 years, the barrel was emptied again, and more new whisky was put into it, somewhere around the year I was born. Then here I am, say 40-odd years old, and I'm handed a glass of it, drawn from the cask. My grandfather hadn't yet been born when the whole process started. And it tastes marvelous.

Then there's the feeling I get when I have a glass of a new whiskey in my hand: anticipation. I have a good idea of what it's going to taste like from my previous experiences, but I don't know exactly what this is going to taste like. That's exciting, and it whets my appetite and fires my curiosity.

More and more people feel that way about whiskey these days, but it's been a long time since whiskey was held in such general high regard. Whiskey has seen boom times, such as the huge surge in interest in Scotch whisky during the Victorian era, but the twentieth century was for the most part a lean time, from the rough restart of American distillers after Prohibition through the rise of vodka and light rum in the 1960s and '70s. However, whether you're talking about Scotch, bourbon, or Irish, whiskey has made an amazing comeback in the past 20 years, and it's continuing to rise. Scotch whisky (the two different spellings of whisky and whiskey are quirkily applied; see Whiskey? or Whisky? for an explanation), for example, has seen the emergence of single malts as a high-priced, high-growth market niche. Sales continue to climb despite steep price increases, and rare bottles are seen as investment-grade purchases at auction houses in New York and Hong Kong.

But while Scotch is still what you hear the most about, the world of whiskey is broader, as is its rise. Bourbon has left its decades-long glide path into regional obscurity on the strong lift of the cocktail culture revolution and a new appreciation for authenticity; Jack Daniel's is booming internationally; and rye whiskey is resurgent after a near-death experience in the 1990s. Japanese whisky has come solidly into its own, with global critical acclaim that is translating into export sales. Irish whiskey is simply amazing, having posted double-digit sales increases for the past 20 years, eclipsing the much-talked-about growth of craft beers and blossoming with new brands and new styles. There is even growth in the long-declining Canadian whisky segment, as distillers rediscover the strengths of blended whisky.

People don't just want to drink more good whiskey; they want to know more about it. They want to know about Scotch, bourbon, Irish, Canadian, Japanese, and all the new craft whiskeys. They want to know what's good and what's not, they want to know how it's made, they want to see it being made, and they want to know more about the people who make it. They go to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, they go to the Fèis Ìle (the Islay Festival on Scotland's "peatiest island"), and they make pilgrimages to their favorite distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Malt Whisky Trail, and the new Ireland Whiskey Trail.

The purpose of Tasting Whiskey is to get you ready for those next steps. I'm going to share with you what I've learned in years of studying whiskey, sampling whiskey, visiting whiskey distilleries and talking to the people who make it, and writing about it for a living. It's a shame how much misinformation about whiskey is out there. I know that when I started I had some laughably wrong ideas about how it is made, how it is aged, and why it tastes the way it does. Those are common misconceptions, and I want to get you up to speed all at once, so you can move forward to enjoy your whiskey.

I'm going to tell you about how whiskey's made, the unique challenges of tasting it (and what it is you're tasting), and what I've found to be the best ways to taste it. Then we'll talk about the different regions of whiskey, how they differ, and why their whiskeys are made the way they are, where they are. Then I'll tell you how to drink your whiskey, what goes well to eat with it, and how you can build a collection of whiskey.

I hope you enjoy the process, and I hope you learn how to enjoy whiskey more by learning more about it. It's a great clan, a broad family you'll be joining, with branches all over the world. Happy to have you on board!

The Story of Whiskey

Whiskey is a unique spirit, with a unique taste. Other spirits do have some traits in common with whiskey. Vodka, for the most part, is also made from grain. Brandy is also barrel-aged. Rum has a similar range of unaged and aged expressions, as does tequila. Those last three often benefit from aging in used whiskey barrels. Gin may not seem to be related, but it's a grain spirit, and its ancestral cousin, genever, is barrel-aged in the Netherlands to make a surprisingly whiskey-like spirit.

But no other spirit inspires as much passion as whiskey! There are many more vodkas than there are whiskeys, but are there books that examine the differences among them? Do people collect them? Tequila inspires brand loyalty, but can you name the master distiller of your favorite brand? Do rare bottles sell for over $50,000 at auction? Cognac reaches those heights, but does cognac command the huge sales that whiskey does? Whiskey got the jump on brandy over 100 years ago and has never looked back.

Like my boss at Whisky Advocate says, a lot of people drink vodka. But have you ever seen a vodka magazine?

Let's make the difference clear: whiskey is a spirit that is distilled from the product of fermented grains and aged in wooden barrels (which are almost always oak). It is not made from potatoes, fruit, or molasses; any spirit made from such things and calling itself "whiskey" is an imitation.

Why do I say that so emphatically? Whiskey has centuries of tradition behind it that make it so, and government regulations behind it that insist upon it. Whiskey came from Ireland and Scotland; it emigrated from there to Canada and Japan; and although the early distillers in colonial America were mostly central European (the British settlers primarily made rum), they had a similar grain-based distilling tradition and picked up on barrel aging as early as the Scots and Irish.

Those centuries of tradition stand on the shoulders of thousands more years of brewing tradition, which in turn stand on the foundation of civilization. Here's how whiskey fits into the history of humankind.

In the Name of the Spirit

If we start from the very beginning, whiskey is about civilization. One theory of how civilization started is that it came about when humans settled down to grow grain, in order to have a steadier supply of grain than they got from gathering wild grains. They ate the grain, of course, but the theory rests not on eating, but on drinking. Some anthropologists believe that humans learned to grow grain in order to have a steady supply of beer, an important part of ceremony and celebration.

Beer, wine, and mead were potent enough for humans for millennia; they're still potent enough for us today on many occasions. But about 2,000 years ago, alchemists discovered (among other things) purification through distillation. At first they distilled only water, but soon they learned to distill essences, oils, and eventually crude, fiery beverages.

Distillation is dependent on the different boiling points of liquids. To separate pure liquids from a mixed liquid, we gently raise the temperature and capture and condense the vapors as the different liquids boil. This works only if the liquids have sufficiently different boiling points. Happily, water and ethanol are such a pair.

Although we tend to think about distillation in these simple terms — a matter of the boiling points of water and ethanol — there is a large number of liquids being distilled, including other alcohols, oils, and aromatic compounds. The process is not perfect; not all the alcohol is captured, nor all the water and heavier liquids left behind. But as we have more perfectly understood how distillation works, we have been able to get better at it, and get out what we want, while leaving behind that which is foul-tasting, impure, and watery.

We have only a foggy idea of when these distilled spirits were first made. To begin, there are records of aqua vitae ("water of life/­vitality," the alchemical Latin name for alcohol) being consumed in Ireland in the very early 1400s, and malt sent to a friar to make aqua vitae in 1494. Aqua vitae would be translated as uisce beatha in Gaelic, which — ­probably with the application of years of drinking — would eventually become linguistically massaged to "whiskey."

It's more important to realize that by modern definitions, we aren't talking about whiskey here at all. We definitely have a spirit distilled from the product of fermented grain — in this case, almost certainly malted barley — but then we run into the issue of aging. While the monks, and soon farmers and millers, were making the rough spirit, and smoothing it with spices, honey, herbs, and God knows what else, one thing they weren't doing was aging it in barrels. They had barrels, and they had spirits, but the two didn't come together for quite a while.

Hieronymus Brunschwig's Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis (Strasbourg, 1512) describes the manufacture of aqua vitae, one of the world's first distilled spirits.

Whiskey? Or Whisky?

Let's get this out of the way right now. Many words have been written about why some countries — and by extension, their ­distillers — spell the word "whisky," and others spell it "whiskey." (The Welsh, just to be different, spell it "wisgi.") Generally speaking, in Great Britain, Canada, and Japan, it's "whisky." In the United States and Ireland, it's "whiskey," though there are a few American brands that prefer the other spelling — Maker's Mark and George Dickel, for instance. Just to add to that little bit of confusion, where the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines what the spirit is under American law, it consistently spells it "whisky."

That should make it plain, but I'll spell it out for you: it doesn't make any difference which way you spell it, except for national pride. "Whisky" and "whiskey" are two virtually identical words for the same thing. I don't even know why we have discussions about it. No one has ever proposed that a Canadian's "neighbour" is any different from an American's "neighbor." An ingot of "aluminium" is the same stuff as "aluminum," right down to the subatomic level.

That's not to say there is no difference between the spirits from the different countries, because there are differences, very significant ones, and we'll get to that later. But the differences have nothing to do with spelling!

To appease the purists (though some sticklers will certainly still find fault), I will use "whisky" when talking about Scotch, Canadian, and Japanese whiskies. When I'm talking about American and Irish whiskeys, or about whiskey in general, I'll use "whiskey," because I'm an American, writing in America; it's how we do it here. But it's only spelling.

Whisky or whiskey: it's only a letter.

Into the Wood

Before whiskey got aged, it largely got smuggled. Taxation has been the lot of booze for centuries, because kings and politicians know a good thing when they see it, and usually put a tax on it. That's when the long, intricate dance of the distiller and the exciseman, the moonshiner and the revenuer, began. Clandestine Scottish and Irish distillers had natural advantages in their home turf: plenty of streams and lakes for mashing and for cooling the vapors, and hills and deep valleys for hiding from the tax collectors.

This may be why barrel aging first started. Small wooden barrels were lighter and less prone to break than ceramic jugs, and a smuggler could move quickly with small kegs. Given today's craft distillers' experience with small barrels and quick aging, it's completely believable that a month in a 5-gallon barrel could have a significant and desirable effect on raw spirit, especially if it were sloshed about.

Oddly enough, over in the American colonies, distillers were generally considered pillars of the community; sometimes they were sponsored by the community so the town could have a distillery. As I said, the British settlers, especially those in New England, mostly made rum, but my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors made whiskey, usually from rye, the grain they were most familiar with.

Come the Revolutionary War, this rye whiskey would become the patriot's drink: rum came from molasses imported from the British West Indies, subject to taxes before the Revolution, hard to get after it began. Rye whiskey was indigenous, and the lore is that Pennsylvania rye helped keep the Colonial soldiers warm and well tempered during their time in winter quarters at Valley Forge. General Washington must have liked it; he built a distillery at his estate at Mount Vernon, and after retiring from the presidency, he would become for a short time the nation's largest distiller of rye whiskey. Now that's a pillar of the community.

A re-creation of George Washington's eighteenth-century gristmill and distillery at Mount Vernon, one of the largest of its time

New Whiskeys, Aged

The world was changing, and whiskey would change with it. Americans had tasted liberty and wanted more: when the war was won and the United States tried to grapple with the debt it had run up fighting it with an excise tax on distilling, farmer-distillers in western Pennsylvania refused to pay it, a defiance that became the Whiskey Rebellion.

In Scotland, about 30 years later, distilling would be revolutionized by government rule when legal distillation was made easier (and enforcement against illegal distillation was made stronger).

Meanwhile, a new kind of whiskey made largely from corn was being made down the Ohio River in Kentucky: bourbon. Another new whisky-making tradition was growing up in Canada: blended whiskies, which quickly became the norm. And in America, France, and Canada (and later Scotland), a hybridization with French brandy technology — ­storage in barrels that were toasted or charred on the inside — would change whiskey from the fiery, off-clear spirit it had been since its birth to the amber beauty we know today.

Bourbon and rye benefited suddenly from this new aging technique, getting the nicknames "red liquor" and "Monongahela red" from the deep color the charred wood imparted. The oak made a perfect container for the whiskey, and the longer a distiller (or retailer — whiskey was sold in full barrels at the time, and a store or tavern would pour from the barrel) kept it, the better it got.

Scotch whisky started to benefit from barrel aging at around the same time. The ports of England and Scotland received barrels of wine from continental Europe; in the thriving economy of the post-Napoleonic era, Britain grew rich and drank up the best of France and Spain and Portugal, particularly sherry. Distillers stored their whisky in these secondhand barrels and made the same discovery about their properties that American bourbon distillers had. It was a new world.

Two things then cemented whiskey's place in the world: steam power and the phylloxera aphid. Steam power and the industrial revolution came to distilling and made possible great breweries and distilleries. The invention of the steam-heated column still allowed the production of great quantities of mild-flavored grain whisky, which blenders used to tame the full flavors of pot-distilled malt whisky. This blended Scotch whisky was more popular than its predecessors — it fit the tastes of more people.

Moonshine whiskey, on its way to market in the southern Appalachians, 1860s

But what really made Scotch whisky the power it still is today was the destruction of Europe's vineyards by the phylloxera aphid. The French were making and selling vast amounts of cognac to the British; sales in the UK tripled in 15 years in the mid-1800s, to about 65 million bottles annually. Then the aphid struck, feeding on and destroying the roots of French grapevines. By the time the cognac producers had grafted their vines to phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks, they found that thirsty Britons had switched to the newly drinkable blended Scotch, and now it was selling around the world as the empire expanded.

Though the market for Scotch whisky expanded tremendously toward the end of the nineteenth century, it crashed as the century turned and the speculative bubble burst. The Irish at first picked up the slack, only to crash along with the Americans when Prohibition burst onto the scene after World War I. Prohibition, far from being the free-for-all for whiskey smuggling portrayed by popular fiction, was a disaster for whiskey companies around the world. Imagine, after all, America as a thriving market for whiskey, from both its own distillers and distillers around the world, importing shiploads of whiskey from overseas and carloads from Canada, shipping Kentucky and Pennsylvania whiskey across the country on its modern rail system. Then suddenly the only way to move whiskey into the country was on tiny motorboats landing on beaches, and the only way to move it around the country was on rickety trucks on back roads. Production and sales plummeted. Things didn't get a lot better after Repeal; there wasn't any aged whiskey left in America, and Scotch and Irish whiskey hadn't recovered.

Then whiskey went to war. World War II demanded full mobilization of national industry, and whiskey distillation was deemed nonessential. (Churchill must not have been consulted.) Instead, whiskey makers converted to making industrial alcohol for chemical feedstock. When the war was finally over, whiskey had been banged around for decades, but distillers believed that the good times were coming back at last. As we all know from watching Mad Men, for at least a while they were right.

In "Woman's Holy War" (1874), armored women with lethal-looking battleaxes shatter casks of liquor. The crusade for temperance led to Prohibition in 1920, with devastating and long-lasting effects on the burgeoning whiskey industry.

Fall and Rise

The good times didn't last. Beginning in the 1960s, consumers around the world began to turn away from whiskey and increasingly embraced vodka and light rum. The change hit hard in the early 1980s, when a glut of Scotch whisky — the "Whisky Loch" — led again to a crash in the industry. Bourbon and Canadian whisky began a long, gradual decline.

Vodka would continue to rise in popularity until the 2008 recession, taking over a third of U.S. spirits sales. But the seeds of whiskey's return had been planted in the scorched fields of whiskey's fall. The 1980s saw an increase in single malt Scotch releases, a new thing for Scotch whisky. Independent bottlers such as Elgin grocers Gordon & MacPhail had for years been buying casks from local distillers, aging them in their own warehouse, and bottling them for sale as singles, but now single malts were being released on a much larger scale, led by Glenfiddich.

Bourbon began its turnaround with the growth of Maker's Mark, a smoother wheated bourbon, and the creation of Blanton's single-barrel bottling and Booker's unfiltered cask-strength bourbon. The small but growing acceptance of these bottlings would set an example for the industry and get bourbon some of the attention it deserved.

Irish whiskey began the process of survival and revival by consolidating: by 1966 all the distillers left in the Republic of Ireland had united in one company, Irish Distillers. Ten years later they built a modern distillery in Midleton and bought Bushmills, the remaining distillery in the north. They decided to reformulate Irish whiskey as a lighter, blended whiskey, and that laid the groundwork for the tremendous growth that category has seen over the past 20 years.

That's about where I entered the fray, in the supporting role of whiskey media. The increasingly sure and respected voices of people like Michael Jackson (he's best known in America as a beer writer, but in the UK his reputation is for whisky writing), Jim Murray, David Broom, John Hansell, Gary Regan, Charlie MacLean, and Chuck Cowdery brought respect and interest to the category, and the launch of two magazines for the whiskey consumer, Whisky Advocate, where I've worked for 17 years, and Whisky Magazine, made the reach even greater. Social media, blogging, and the instant "tell me more" magic of Google added powerful immediacy to it all.


  • 2015 IACP Food Writing/Cookbooks award nominee in the Wine, Beer, and Spirits category

    "Takes on the whiskey world in down-and-dirty details, from production to tasting. With maps, infographics and flavor profiles for iconic bottlings, alongside Bryson’s smart, straightforward text, Tasting Whiskey is both accessible to novices and compelling for the expert.”
    Wine Spirits

    "Whether you're a novice drinker or a malt connoisseur, Bryson has something to teach you — and you'll enjoy every word."
    — Clay Risen, author of American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye

    "An instant whiskey classic that will make all whiskey geeks smarter than their friends."
    — Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women

    “I shouldn’t say this is the only whiskey book you need but it probably is.”
    — Charles K. Cowdery, author of Bourbon, Straight

On Sale
Nov 1, 2014
Page Count
256 pages

Lew Bryson

About the Author

Lew Bryson, the author of Tasting Whiskey, is the managing editor, features writer, and columnist for Whisky Advocate magazine. He lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

David Wondrich is a founding member of The Museum of the American Cocktail and the author of Punch and Imbibe.

Learn more about this author