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The 5 biggest liquor myths, dispelled by ‘The Whisky Lassie’

I “met” Johanne McInnis via Twitter last year when she brought the controversial and sexist Dewar’s Meet the Baron ad to my attention, and petitioned to have Dewar’s pull it from the web, where I originally saw it on YouTube. They did so nearly 24 hours later, after women and men alike blasted it all over social media.

The ad depicts a “dangerous” overweight woman being intercepted by a wingman, i.e the baron. This act is apparently called “jumping the grenade,” which, according to Urban Dictionary means taking “one for the team by hitting on the fat/ugly chick in order to help his buddy/buddies score with her hot friends, and therefore, sacrifices himself by jumping onto the grenade.” You wind up seeing the worthy baron enjoying Dewar’s with Swedish bikini models at the end of the ad. You can get a great, play by play rundown of the ad here on Grub Street. But needless to say, it was awesome to see Johanne stand up against sexist marketing in the industry and mobilize women across the web to bring attention to this unfortunately common scenario.

Mine (@boozeforbabes) and Johanne’s (@whiskylassie) paths crossed again a couple months ago on Twitter when I posted something I’d read by a well-known author and expert about how purity in a spirit was determined, which apparently was wrong. Johanne, who has a degree in chemical engineering technology and extensive distillation knowledge as a result (can you say badass?), politely messaged me privately and set the facts straight. I thanked her for helping me better educate my followers, and, given her expertise asked if she’d talk to me about a few of liquor’s biggest myths for this post. And voila! Here we are…

Having been a whisky enthusiast for almost 25 years, Johanne knows what parts of the distilling process cause spirits, and in particular whisky, to taste a certain way, and how a quality spirit is made. Johanne, a Canadian, was also one of the founding members of the Saint John Whisky Tasting Society in her hometown and the first woman to judge the Canadian Whisky Awards. She also blogs about whisky here.

Since many misconceptions about spirits come down to chemistry and science, here are five liquor myths that will help ensure you’re always drinking the best, in her own words. Prepare to be enlightened, folks:

MYTH 1: There are “healthier” spirits, like vodka. Calories are calories, plain and simple. A 1 1/2 ounce serving of 80 proof whisky would contain about 98 calories, and unflavored vodka would contain about the same. So there really is no reason to sacrifice what you like in the name of calories. Unlike carbohydrates, fats or proteins, your body can’t store alcohol so as soon as you ingest your first drink, it stops metabolizing everything else and makes getting “rid” of the alcohol a priority. It takes your body one full hour to process about 1/3 of an ounce of alcohol (1/3 ounce for most women). Any more than that and your body/liver cannot keep up with “detoxification.” To make matters worse, it will not metabolize any food you’ve ingested. That means there can be a whole bunch of empty calories “sitting” around being stored and not burned. Don’t worry, you can still enjoy your whisky. Just drink it in moderation, and know how it really affects your body.

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Johanne McInnis

MYTH #2: All scotch is smoky. I roll my eyes every time I see an article state that the difference between scotch and any other whisky is that scotch is smoky. Unfortunately this is far from the truth because the smoke characteristic comes from peat and not all scotches are made using peated malt. There are over 100 distilleries now officially listed in Scotland and of those, roughly 15 percent use peated malt to make their scotches. What is peated malt? Single malt scotch is made from malted barley. It’s a process where barley is spread out on a malting floor, wetted and allowed to germinate for a specified amount of time. Now, for an unpeated version, the germination process is stopped by placing the barley in a dry air kiln. For a peated malt, the damp germinated barley is dried over a peat fire. How “smoky” the malt becomes depends on how long it is smoked by the peat fire. Whiskies from the Islay region of Scotland are clearly recognizable as “smoky” whiskies. Scotches from other regions such as the Lowlands have zero smokiness to them.

MYTH #3: Those pretty copper stills are just tradition. Copper has fantastic catalytic properties. That means it induces & helps increase the rate of a chemical reaction but it in itself remains unchanged. Through oxidization during the distillation process in copper stills, the copper neutralizes sulphur compounds like hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide & dimethyl sulphide, which give off unpleasant smells like rotten eggs, burnt sulphur or boiling cabbage. That means spirits distilled in copper are more likely to have less flaws and more flavor and nuance.

MYTH #4: Sulphur in your booze is bad. Many tasters have been taught to identify certain smells in spirits that come from hydrogen sulphide, which indicate distilling flaws and affect the quality of the product. Ever encounter a slightly rubbery, rotten egg, meaty or spent match smell or flavor in your whisky? Those are all sulphur compounds that exist naturally in the production process. They occur because either 1. the spirit did not have enough contact with the copper still, so a greater percentage of unwanted congeners makes it through, 2. it was matured or finished in ex-sherry casks, which some experts claim can cause more unwanted compounds to materialize, or 3. In the same case of ex-sherry casks, sulphur candles were used as a fungicide that permeate the barrel and cause the spirit to smell/taste sulphured. Too much of anything is always a bad thing. However, some of these sulphur compounds are actually quite pleasant and add various levels of depth. About 40 percent of the whisky drinking population can’t even detect sulphur and it’s only a very small percentage who are actually sensitive to it.

Johanne McInnis

Johanne McInnis

MYTH #5: Aging is an art and not a science. When you place a whisky in a barrel to age there are three types of chemical reactions taking place: additive, interactive and subtractive. All barrels have a degree of porousness that contribute to oxidation. Gradually, oxidation removes unwanted flavors in the spirit such as astringency or “boiled cabbage” smells. And with time, good compounds such as lactones, fatty acids and esters (most aromatic of the whisky flavor compounds) are created and formed in the spirit while aging. In short, the chemistry that happens during the aging process is just as crucial as each distiller’s “artistry,” or beliefs and practices* (like where they place the barrels in the rickhouse, and other ways they may play with the aging process to get a desired result).

*I’ll tell you a little story about such beliefs and practices: David Stewart from Balvenie told me a that when they change out their copper stills, they ensure they have the exact same dents and dings as the old one did, and that an armful of juniper branches is boiled in the new still before any spirits are distilled. There is a firm and sacred belief that the whisky would not taste the same if they didn’t do it exactly this way.

Creating a good spirit is almost alchemy: 1 part science, 1 part magic and 1 part luck!

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