It is impossible for a college student to hold a glass of whiskey without feeling a twinge of self-conscious cool. Culture has inextricably linked the liquor with images of the boardroom, of hard-nosed brooders in tailored suits, of glamorous evenings tinged with postmodern despair. It is telling that in the opening scene of Mad Men’s pilot episode, cool embodied asks the waiter for two things: a light and a refill of the whiskey cocktail known as an Old Fashioned. Is there a more perfect mold for the pretensions of the newly-minted 21-year-old?
But there’s much to learn about whiskey beyond how to maintain a poker face while drinking cheap Scotch. If it’s hard not to grimace, you’re drinking the wrong whiskey—and there are many types to choose from. A basic understanding of the process of whiskey production makes it easier to understand distinctions in type and quality of liquor.
The basic process begins with a mixture of grains known as the “mash bill.” The grain is heated in water and fermented with yeast for a few days; ethanol is then distilled from the resulting mixture. Some chemicals with boiling points near that of ethanol are also collected (this is how flavor from the grain mash persists in the liquor). After distillation, the spirits are aged in wooden barrels for several years, then diluted to around 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) and bottled for retail.
There’s room for variation at each step of this process, which accounts for the wide variety of whiskeys on the market. A bar off the Diversey El stop called Delilah’s showcases much of what the whiskey universe has to offer, carrying 540 types of the spirit.
Mike Miller, the owner, says that the growth in production and distribution of specialized whiskeys is a recent phenomenon. “Maybe 20, 30 years ago, the brands and the categories were a little more straightforward, a little more cut-and-dry. Scotch was Scotch. Bourbon was Bourbon. Now you have Bourbon that’s been aged in a Scotch barrel and Scotch that’s been aged in a Bourbon barrel. So the boundaries have been crossed, much more so now than they ever have before.”
Different mixtures produce different whiskeys—rye, barley, and wheat are most often used. Bourbons use bills where corn is the predominant grain. In Scotch, most or all of the grain used is malted barley. Scotch (particularly single-malt, which uses only malted barley and is distilled in only one distillery) is responsible for whiskey’s reputation for exorbitant pricing.
The longer (and longer ago) whiskey has been aged, the more expensive it is, and the Scottish climate and trade laws give unique assurances about quality and rarity. For example, the Macallan distillery’s “Fine and Rare” collection features bottles that routinely sell for more than $10,000.
But fear not: good liquor is still available on a college budget. “What’s great is that you still have access to high-quality whiskey at a reasonable price, though the prices certainly have gone up,” Miller says. “You can get Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, or Wild Turkey, all for under 30 bucks a bottle. All quality whiskeys. All major American whiskey distillers are making some kind of very high-quality product.” If you’re into corn-based whiskey and looking for assurance while shopping, check the packaging for the word “Bourbon” —federal laws ensure that whiskey must be up to certain standards to bear that label.
If you want to look like a badass, you will drink your whiskey neat. If you want to sound like a badass, you will communicate this the way Miller does: “For me, the best mixer for whiskey is a glass.” He hastens to add, however, that he sells more whiskey in mixes than neat.
There are many whiskey cocktails that are cheap and easy to make. A few are listed above. Enjoy them responsibly.
For a two-ingredient whiskey cocktail, add these to your favorite booze:
- Coke or Diet Coke - Ginger ale (together, whiskey and ginger ale form a drink hilariously known as a Phlump. Becomes “The Creeps” with red Gatorade.) - Sprite or 7-Up (usually with Seagram’s Seven Crown or other blended whiskey. This is also known as a 7 and 7.) - Red Bull (Jack Daniel’s and Red Bull is a Tennessee Cowboy.) - Champagne (a Bourbon Lancer, if Bourbon is used. Mix Bourbon with André at your own risk.) - Lemonade (known as a Farnell.)
There are a bunch of more involved cocktails, but we’re assuming vermouth, bitters, Drambouie, etc. are hard to find when scrounging around campus. Here are some of the more manageable ones:
- Irish coffee (coffee and Jameson, add cream and sugar as necessary) - Whiskey sour (3 parts whiskey, 2 parts lemon juice, sugar) - Mint julep (crushed ice, sugar, bourbon, mint leaf. Add tarragon if you’re feeling adventurous.)