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Stew Cues: Whiskey has style, and exciting heritage to match

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Basic knowledge of spirit classifications is important for drink service. When a guest orders a whiskey drink, we need to establish whether they want an Irish, Scotch, Kentucky, Tennessee, Canadian or Japanese variety.

Whiskey is distilled from various grains and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The barrels are either toasted or charred on the inside to release oak flavors. Different methods create distinctive styles from countries around the world. Barley makes a light drink, rye gives off spicy notes, and corn makes a sweeter liquor. Depending on where it is produced, it may be spelled ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey.’

Whiskey production in Scotland and Ireland began around the17th century. Scotch whisky must be aged for at least 3 years. Blended Scotch is a blend of malted barley and other grains. Single malt is made from 100 percent malted barley. The Scottish climate is harsh  and oak is a rare resource, so the Scots reused whiskey barrels from the U.S. and sherry barrels from Spain for aging. Peat, a type of decayed vegetation,  provided an alternative fuel source to dry their barley. It gives off a lot of smoke when burned, hence smokiness is a hallmark of scotch.

Irish whiskey is a mellow, sweeter type that develops much of its flavor from aging in European or American barrels that have previously held sherry, rum or bourbon. It is made from malted barley and other grains, and available in single malt or blended varieties.

Bourbon, made from at least 51 percent corn blended with wheat, rye, and barley, is officially known as America’s native spirit. Kentucky is traditionally associated with whiskey, especially bourbon. After the American Revolution, Kentucky gave away 400 acres of land to settlers who built cabins and planted corn, including Jacob Beam, great-grandfather of Jim Beam; Robert Samuels, of Makers Mark; and Basil Hayden, the actual Old Grandad. Tennessee whiskey is unique. Its distinctive, subtly sweet flavor comes from filtering through maple charcoal before aging. Jack Daniels is the most well-known Tennessee whiskey.

Canadian whiskey is a blend of rye, corn, and barley, aged for at least 3 years. The American Prohibition law from 1920 to 1933 made for an exciting time for whiskey smugglers. One notorious smuggler was Al Capone, who brought whiskey in by boat from Newfoundland. Farther west, big-wheeled six-cylinder Buicks and Studebakers known as “whiskey sixes” were loaded with spirits and driven from Canada over the frozen Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Well-known Canadian whiskies include Canadian Club and Crown Royal.  

The relatively new, lesser-known Japanese whiskey has a cult following. When Matasaka Teketsuru and Shinjiro Torri returned home from study in Scotland, they began making whisky in the Scottish style at the Yamakazi distillery they built near Kyoto. Yamazaki, Japan’s first commercial whisky was released in 1929. Japanese whisky won the Best Whisky in the World honor in 2013. Its “pop culture moment” came when Bill Murray’s character played an actor working in Japan to advertise for Suntory Whisky in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation.” The character is based on Sean Connery’s real-life advertisements for Suntory.

Whiskey lore is filled with fascinating stories. In 1907, polar voyager Ernest Shackleton ordered 25 cases of Mackinlay’s Whisky for an unsuccessful Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole. 100 years later, in 2007, workers restoring Shackleton’s hut found three crates of whiskey left behind, frozen in the permafrost.

Shackleton did not reach the South Pole that time, but he didn’t give up. He is famous for his 1914-17 trans-Antarctic expedition, known as one of the greatest small boat journeys ever undertaken. In January 1915, the ship Endurance became trapped in ice and eventually sank. The castaways survived months afloat in their icy camp and crossed to Elephant Island in lifeboats, where Shackleton and five of the men set out once more by sea. They reached South Georgia island in 16 days, trekked to a whaling station, organized several rescue attempts, and on Aug. 25, 1916, finally made it back to Elephant Island. //end opt cut// Miraculously, not one of the 28 crewmen died during the nearly 2 years they were stranded.

In honor of the legendary explorer, Whyte and Mackay created a replica based on the 100-year-old elixir in 2011. Part of the proceeds of Whyte and Mackay’s whiskey sales will be donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust to preserve Shackleton’s base camp and other projects that embody his bravery and leadership skills. I’ll drink to that!

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at www.yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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