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Spirits for Christmas - What's the Difference?

[This thread was moved from the Texas board. --The Chowhound Team]

I'd like to get my husband a nice bottle of spirits for Christmas but I'm stymied. He drinks irish whiskey straight (he's a sipper) but likes JD Black and Coke. Can someone (anyone, please?) enlighten me as to what connotates scotch as scotch, whiskey as whiskey, bourbon as bourbon, etc.? I drink primarily wine and if I drink spirits, it is usually Vodka or Southern Comfort. I have little (if any) experience with choosing within the family of scotch/whiskey/bourbon so any help or counsel would be very appreciated.

As a P.S. of sorts - I'm a "bottom feeder" i.e. "catfish" and though I can afford a median level, I actually prefer (for the most part) the lower end of the spectrum with wine and spirits. I have tried the high end spirits, just didn't see what all the the fuss was about ~ didn't find them to be any better than what I usually drink - Southern Comfort and White Gold.


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  1. Whisk(e)y is a broad category which includes Scotch, Irish and Bourbon.

    Scotch is made in Scotland, Irish is made in Ireland, Bourbon is one type of whiskey that's made in the USA. These each taste different in different ways. By and large, they appeal to different audiences, though there are people who like all those.

    My advice would be to stick with a type of gift you are more familiar with, so that you have a good chance of choosing something your husband will like. Or give him a gift certificate, and let your husband choose something he'll like.

    1 Reply
    1. re: PDXpat

      There are some things that are common to whsikeys in each category that set them apart from others. For example, bourbon must be made with so much corn and it must be aged in a freshly charred barrel, so if usually has a lot fo smoky wood in its flavor. Scotch is most often roasted over peat fires, and it gets a different kind of smoky flavor from the peat, and in very differnet amounts depending on the distillery. Irish whiskey uses both malted and unmalted barley in the mash, and this kind of whiskey is referred to as potstill. Certain types of stills are also referred to as potstills, but this is a case of the same word meanign two differnet things.

      If you husband really likes Irish whiskey and you want to get him a fine one that is easy to find: Red Breast. It's one of only two in the world that are close to a more traditional style with all potstill whiskey in the mix.

    2. How much do you want to spend? Best place to start, is that.

      1. In terms of flavor, bourbon is made primarilly from corn, so it tends to have a sweeter/syrupy flavor. Scotch is known for its smokiness, though there is a large variety among Scotchs. Irish Whiskey is usually triple distilled giving it a smoother taste.

        If he likes Irish Whiskey, get him some Redbreast.

        1. Knappogue Castle is a nice single malt Irish whiskey. I is very smooth and not catchy in the throat. I highly recommmend.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Papa Kip Chee

            Forgive my lack of knowledge, but what does "malt" mean, as in single malt, double malt, etc?

            1. re: eartha

              Malt refers to the fact the barley, in the case of Scotch, was allowed to "malt" to sprout before drying. You can also have unmalted (grain) whisky.

              I've never heard of a "Double Malt," but a Single Malt is an unblended whisky from a single distiller. A Vatted Malt is a blend of different whiskies, all of which are Malt. A Blended Scotch Whisky is a blend of both malt- and unmalted whiskies.

              1. re: zin1953

                I've also heard a vatted malt referred to as a pure malt.

          2. Frankly, the difference is rather academic (sorry, all you spirit enthusiasts). The grains for Scotch are smoked before distilling, whiskey and bourbon (which are, for all intense purposes, the same) are not smoked. The main difference is the care that the distiller puts into his spirits, not the exact type that he makes.

            I live in california, so have this prejudice. Just this summer I had the best spirit I have ever tasted. St. George in Alameda, CA, has recently released a bourbon/whiskey ($36 at Bevmo), the best that I have ever had since reaching majority age. If you need a second recommendation, try an alambic brandy from Jepson or Germain-Robins.

            3 Replies
            1. re: jerry i h

              Yeah, see -- I love Scotch and Irish, and I absolutely hate Jorg's whisk(e)y Then again, I love Hangar One and his eaux-de-vie, so . . .

              It's all personal preference.

              1. re: jerry i h

                The difference is more than academic.

                1. re: MVNYC

                  I agree. The difference is real and substantive. The major difference in whiskies is in the composition of the grains in the mash or wash. Scotch uses barley (mixed with other grains in blended Scotch), bourbon must be 51%-80% corn, rye uses rye, etc. There are also differences in the technique. As noted above, Irish is triple distilled which mellows the flavor. Tennessee Whiskey is charcoal filtered, which adds a somewhat smoky characteristic. Canadian Whiskey can actually include some proportion of other distilled spirits, such as brandy. In some Scotch, the malted barley is dried using peat, which imparts the smoky taste, but not in others.

              2. Thank you for such a broad variety of answers! I'm going to go and talk to my wine guy at Spec's (liquor) and see what he has to say about it. I was just there last night and he knows me so well, he sent me home with an armenian wine I'd never heard of but absolutely love. He said I'd love it! This based on what he helped me find and enjoy before. He doesn't know my husband well but he is very good at his job so I expect he'll help me find what I'm looking for - especially now that I'm armed with the information contained here.

                My inclination is to go with the Irish. But my mind is not closed to other options. Again, thanks for all this input!


                1 Reply
                1. re: karyn8sons

                  Karen - I am a former Houstonian - Spec's rocks!!! Although, with my recent move to Louisville, KY from Miami, FL, I have to say the Liquor Barns and Party Marts here are quite impressive and a welcome change from the selection in the Northern Cuba region of the US.

                2. Karen - I presume the whiskey your husband drinks is a single malt, not a blend. Whiskey drinkers, like wine drinkers have character preferences. In the case of single malts from Scotland, the type of barrel used for aging, the components used, and the location of the distillery and storage facility can all influence the character of the spirits. Salt air, peat boggs, and other environmental factors impart flavour to the whiskey. I prefer ones that have a treacle and sticky toffee pudding character and steer away from smokey or peaty ones. Understanding what character I prefer helps me in my selection and trying unfamiliar products.

                  If you ask your husband what it is he likes about the ones he drinks, it may help in your selection. Best of luck!

                  1. Okay, I asked my husband what he likes about Irish whiskey. he says he loves the aroma. He loves to sip it slowly and savor it. He says the smoothness of it goes down really easy so it isn't harsh and doesn't "burn" the way some hard liquors do.

                    He suggested an assortment of the itty bitty "promo" bottles like they have on airlines, so he can try a few of them and get a feel for what each imparts. But says if he must choose one big bottle, JD Black or Killarney (I think?) is his preference. He's tried Jameson's and Bushmill(?) and doesn't find anything singularly "special" about them but has NOT tried Redbreast (which someone here suggested if I recall).

                    If I get really stymied and aggravated, I'll opt for his ultimate favorite, where I can't go wrong... Coconut Rum. But that's a whole other topic ;c}

                    Thanks Again!


                    1. Oops... my mistake. (he has since corrected me) It is Kilbeggan and someone he works with brought him a bottle back from Ireland. That means it may prove hard to find on this side of the pond. But he says it is a blended whiskey (color me clueless) and aged in oak (which explains why he prefers chardonnay to my chenin blanc).

                      Coconut Rum is looking better all the time ~


                      3 Replies
                      1. re: karyn8sons

                        Kilbeggan is produced by the Cooley distillery. See: http://www.cooleywhiskey.com/_product.... It is imported by Heaven Hill, som you might be able to find it through them. See: http://www.heaven-hill.com/pr-archive....

                        1. re: Captain

                          Thank you! Gotta love Spec's though... called them and asked about Kilbeggan and they said if it isn't stocked at my local store, they'll special order for me - can't ask for better than that! Problem solved - YESSSSSSSS!!!

                          Thanks again, to all of you, for your input. I've learned more than I dared to imagine and enough to pique my interest sufficiently to try whiskey again ~

                          Merry Christmas,

                        2. re: karyn8sons

                          I don'tknow how 'rare' the likes of Kilbeggan are in the USA, it's hard enough to come by in bars in Ireland!
                          I deal with Cooley Distillery frequently and Kilbeggan is my go-to if I just want a whiskey rather than a fancy malt, though for a birthday/christmas/whatever gift, the Kilbeggan 15 year is outstanding.
                          Slightly bourbon-like on the nose, with obvious oak. Good depth on tasting, some coconutty flavor - needs a liiiiiiitle bit of water, but don't drown it!

                        3. If he likes Irish Whiskey, I'd suggest the Bushmill's Single Malt 21 year old aged. This is spectacular sipping whiskey and fairly hard to find. My second choice would be the Bushmill's Single Malt 16. Still excellent.

                          1. Irish whiskey? I've tried 'em all. Redbreast 12, 15 if you can find & afford it, please! Both are smooth as a baby's bottom.

                            1. Good luck.

                              The right way for whiskey drinkers to drink a dram is neat, straight with a drop of water possibly added. I don't do that and prefer a few cubes of ice, preferably good ice, filtered water, etc. I generally order a decent whiskey with 1 home-sized cube or 4 small bar-sized cubes of ice. But if you are going to try whiskey again, you may want to start by mixing. My introduction was at a young age and done to make sure the bartender did not question my age, what was 16 at the time. What teenager asks for scotch on the rocks? But if you begin mixing with a bit of club soda, sprite, ginger ale, or whatever, you may find it easier to progress towards a dram on the rocks. Use the same amount of whiskey, just cut down on the amount of mixer over time. I'd probably use a more inexpensive whiskey for this, but your call. Do what works for you.

                              Once you begin drinking spirits neat or on the rocks, beware. Your liquor cabinet may begin to look like a collection. Mine has at least a dozen whiskeys; 4+ bourbons (Makers Mark, A.H. Hirsh, a Beam and Old Whiskey River), 4+ Irish whiskeys (Red Breast, Green Spot, a Jameson Limited and a Connemara cask strength), 5+ single malt Scotches (Lagvullin, Laphraoig, a Glenlivet, a Glenmorangie, Auchentosen), a couple ryes (Van Winkle, and a Mitchers), and I also drink and collect rums the same way, if they are good enough rums (Mount Gay, Ron Zacapa, Barbancourt, Doorly, Ron Barrelito, etc.). So long as you have the room for it, it's not a bad thing. Many of the aforementioned bottles have beena round for a number of years. I cannot bring myself to open the Hirsch bourbon, perhaps I need to buy another so I can open one.

                              EDIT: I forgot entirely to mention that there is also now a Welsh whiskey, about which someone else just posted. How could I be so forgetful?!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Captain

                                I like your style "Captain", I'd have a wee dram with you anytime.

                                1. re: Harp00n

                                  Thank you. I am sure that would be an enjoyable dram. I was in your general area this weekend having a dram of Connemara Cask Strength, from a bottle I bought for a friend.

                              2. Honestly, I don't see me drinking anything "neat" but 10 years ago, I wouldn't have seen me drinking at all so I'll never say never. Good advice about mixing though. That's how I got off of regular soda. Starting mixing it with diet and adjusting the amounts until I could tolerate (and even enjoy) a diet soft drink. Now I make "diet" long island iced tea (my favorite mixed drink) and I've gotten pretty good at it.

                                I won't rule anything out but for now, I'll leave the "neat" & "rocks" versions to my husband and I'll stick with mixed drinks like a nice whiskey sour ~


                                1 Reply
                                1. re: karyn8sons


                                  i think the reason you are a bottom feeder is because you are drinking mixed drinks. If you do go to the better stuff, you need to drink it staright to tell the difference. I will commend you for not falling into the trap of ordering your mixed drinks with expensive liquors. Most of the time(there are exceptions) you cant tell the difference as the alcohol is masked by the mixing agent.

                                2. Well, I can tell you that I will (on occasion) drink Southern Comfort straight and there is a Vodka that I LOVE straight - White Gold. Not the most expensive (not cheap either) but the one I like most just for flavor straight out of the bottle. I keep it in the freezer and drink it straight in a tall shot glass (2 oz.)

                                  JD#7 has a finish like peanut butter. I'm not fond of peanut butter, either straight or mixed so I avoid Jack. Maker's Mark burns like fire, I can't taste anything but heat. Haven't tried Jim Beam or Wild Turkey.

                                  Texans are a prideful bunch (in my experience) when it comes to whiskey so each person I ask has a strong opinon about their particular favorite and why it should be mine. Thus far, I have not enjoyed whiskey tastings - or bourbon either, for that matter. Scotch is just plain NASTY to me and anything "smoky" is distasteful on principal. No, I'm NOT a native Texan! Irish whiskey is good in coffee, that's about it, in my experience. But hey, I've got GREAT Vodka and I don't even know for sure what SC is but I think it's actually a liqueur, and a damn fine one. I'm happy with that, for now...

                                  Christmas Hugs,

                                  1. My understanding is that Southern Comfort is a sweetened drink based on Bourbon, as Irish Mist is based on Irish, Drambuie on Scotch, Rock and Rye on rye. I find those generally too sugary, but it's all a matter of personal preference. I think you might have a pleasant surprise if you started exploring French brandies--Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados (made from distilled apples rather than wine.) Somebody above mentioned Germain-Robin; they've recently come out with a California apple brandy that I think is really amazing, though at around $60 for 750 ml it's no bargain.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: rootlesscosmo

                                      Southern Comfort is often thought of as based on bourbon but according to a fairly exhaustive back on bourbon which I just read, it isn't. It was apparently invented way back when as a way of salvaging a shipment of bad bourbon but today it is actually based on rum.

                                      Wild Turkey now has a bourbon and honey liqueur called American Honey which is very similar to Drambuie.