Whiskey is the water of life. Have you been properly introduced?
By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer | Photos by John Robson
All bourbons and scotches are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon and scotch. Confused yet?
Almost everything about whiskey can be and has been debated over a wee dram. There is extraordinarily little that is cut and dry about this spirit. It is very old and said to be developed by thirsty monks in Ireland, and maybe Scotland.
Which country specifically? You will get different answers depending on the heritage of the person responding, or what she or he has been told by someone. The Irish take credit but the fact is no one truly knows.
We do know that the word whiskey comes from the term usige beatha in Gaelic, which translates to “aqua vitae” or “water of life” in Latin. Therefore, what we can be quite certain about when it comes to whisky and whiskey, is that it comes from Great Britain.
Let us start at the beginning, with the spelling ofthe word. The word whiskey is sometimes spelled without the e. Why? Generally, if a country spelled their name with an e, whiskey was spelled with an e. For example, Ireland spells it whiskey, and Scotland spells it whisky.
However, this is more about tradition than anything else, and it is not a hard and fast rule at this point. Call it whatever you want, but don’t call it scotch unless it comes from Scotland. The Scottish passed a rule that says only whisky from Scotland can be called Scotch whisky and everything else is rubbish—the Scottish do tend to take the matter quite seriously.
Whiskey has been imbibed for many years, and willbe sipped for many more, however, it had a heyday that started around the time Ryan Wallace and wife Tiffany opened William Oliver’s Publick House in Fort Collins. They also have a location in Lafayette.
Wallace likes to joke that the whiskey renaissance started when he opened his doors in 2013. However, a whiskey awakening was taking place across the country. In the beginning, before certain whiskey products became in high demand, Wallace could buy almost anything through his distributors. Sporting dark wood and a fireplace, William Oliver’s resembles a pub in the United Kingdom, and it was the place to drink good whiskey at a good price point.
While it still is, the national craze for whiskey increased the price of products exponentially. It not only increased the price but made some whiskey unattainable. For example, a bottle of 23 year Pappy Van Winkle, normally retailing for $300, was selling online by private sellers for $3,000 to $5,000, and the ability to find a bottle at normal retail had all but disappeared.
“Everyone everywhere was starting to pick up these products and now there are products we can’t get anymore, even things that you think should be relatively common, they are not,” says Wallace. When Wallace opened his business, he could pick up that same bottle of Pappy for $150.
Whiskey’s popularity means that a lot of people know a little bit about it. However, there are many misconceptions, and one such is that bourbon only comes from Kentucky. Wallace notes that this just means the Kentucky bourbon companies did a great job marketing their particularly good products.
At this point, whiskey, which includes all bourbons, is brewed in all 50 states. Bourbon, which must be 51 percent corn to be called bourbon, is brewed in a lot of places. Take a look around the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival, a celebration of small batch distilleries held annually, many of which are located in Colorado. There are a lot of fine bourbons at this event, and even more spirits called whiskey (with and without an e).
Like most of us, Wallace has his favorite haunts, places like The Whisk(e)y in downtown Fort Collins. While Wallace opened the first whiskey bar in the region, The Whisk(e)y features the third most whiskeys of any bar in the country. Like William Oliver’s, bartenders here will be happy to enlighten you about their products.
Education was one of the reasons Wallace wanted a whiskey bar. He has been collecting, writing and teaching about whiskey for 18 years. In addition to that, he has wanted to own a pub since age 9.
“I didn’t understand why at the time,” he laughs, “but when my parents were drinking beer at the pub, life was grand. Growing up in Germany with biergartens, and on the east coast with pubs, I liked the culture. I liked hanging out with the other kids and playing in the back.”
Wallace made his dream a reality and now, flights of whiskey at William Oliver’s come with a side of education. Lucky for him, his general manager, Josh Green, knows a lot about whiskey, too, and can walk patrons through a flight or help someone find a favorite.
Turning people onto whiskey is fun for Wallace, and a sort of mission. He says that “no one dislikes whiskey, they just haven’t had the right one,” and the journey to find the right one has many paths. About four years ago, Wallace had a customer who expressed her distaste of whiskey. Challenge accepted.
“I tried her on bourbon and told her about adding ice and water,” says Wallace. “She didn’t like anything she tried. One of our bartenders walked by to deliver a heavily peated scotch to a table and she smelled it.”
After explaining what she smelled and telling her that peated Scotch is at the extreme flavor profile when it comes to whiskey, Wallace poured her a little.
“‘If this is whiskey,’ she said, ‘I like whiskey,’” recalls Wallace.
This experience changed the way Wallace introduced whiskey to a newbie. Now he tells people that there is no entry point to whiskey, no order, or lineage or flavor profiles.
“There is just if you like it or don’t like it,” says Wallace. “And your palate will know right away.”
Good whiskey, right here
Aficionados don’t need to head to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail to find good spirits. Wallace says NOCO Distillery, in Fort Collins, is making some of the best Colorado products right now.
According to Wallace, who has a genuine appreciation for Colorado-made spirits, The Family Jones Spirit House, Laws Whiskey House and Leopold Bros. are also making outstanding whiskey in Colorado.
“That’s the beautiful part of Colorado; no matter what kind of alcohol you’re into, we make good stuff,” he says.
While whiskey’s popularity isn’t completely over, gin is gaining popularity among drinkers and distillers. Wallace’s recent virtual tasting class included two whiskeys and two gins.
“I want people to try different things,” says Wallace. “There are some great products out there.”
While he makes all types of spirits, Sébastien Gavillet, owner of NOCO Distillery, wrote a book about Scotch whisky in 2012, entitled Discovering and Mastering Single Malt Scotch Whisky. A wine and whiskey expert, Gavillet has been traveling to Scotland annually for years.
Gathering some of the best minds in Scotch whisky, Gavillet’s book answers many questions that had not previously been fully answered in the Scotch whisky world.
“I created something like a forum of these master distillers and master blenders,” he says. “I would sit down with the most notable ones and say, ‘well, there’s four or five different answers to this question. From your experience, what is the correct one for you?’ And if, say, five out of 10 said this is the correct answer, we would go with that one.”
His book is not the end all, be all ofScotch whisky books, instead he believes it is a companion to those other volumes about whisky and is meant to “increase one’s enjoyment of single malt Scotch.”
Gavillet says that it is written forsomeone who deeply appreciates whisky, but that everyone can read it. Gavillet references all his sources, so if the reader wants to delve even deeper into Scotch whisky, they can. A second edition is due to come out next year.
Today, Gavillet keeps busy creating spirits for NOCO Distillery, a Fort Collins-based company he opened four years ago. Of course, there are a range of whiskeys to try but he makes more than 30 spirits including a saffron gin that Ryan Wallace thinks is “out of this world good.”
Patrons can also blend their own spirit at NOCO Distillery. This process allows a person to become better acquainted with the flavor profiles of various spirits. Wallace and wife Tiffany have blended their own spirit at NOCO Distillery. In celebration of Tiffany’s Danish ancestry, they made an akvavit-inspired gin. Akvavit is a Scandinavian spirit often deriving its flavor from caraway. This gin was put into a well-loved barrel.
“That one barrel has held a whiskey with Tiffany’s name on it, a beer with the pub name on it and now it holds a gin with the pub name on it,” says Wallace.
Along with William Oliver’s and The Whisk(e)y, The Stanley in Estes Park has a large selection of whiskey. A person can learn quite a bit at any of these places, but remember, it’s less about what you know and more about what you like.
Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is a freelance writer from Loveland. She is the founder of HeidiTown.com and covers travel, festivals and The West. To comment on this article,firstname.lastname@example.org.