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Can you relate to this dialog from the FX series Louie?

Louie: Can I get a shot?
Bartender: Shot of what?
Louie: Whiskey.
Bartender: What kind of whiskey?
Louie: Please, just...can you gimme a shot of that brown liquid that makes people feel different than what they would've otherwise? Please? Thank you.

Don't let this be you at the bar, please. We at Tien Son want you to look good, not just in our suits, but when ordering drinks. You never know who might be watching. The whisky world may seem like a mysterious and awful place, but it all breaks down into very simple rules. First of all, you may have noticed that I've dropped the "e" in whisky. So, which is it? Whiskey or whisky?

If it's from the United States or Ireland, it's whiskey.
If it's from Scotland, Canada or Japan, it's whisky.

You're not likely to find Canadian or Japanese whisky at a bar, so we're going to stick to the three basics - American (bourbon), Irish and Scotch.

Wooden Barrels by George Hodan


American (bourbon)
The most common bar offerings are Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam. Bourbon typically has less of a "kick" than Irish or Scotch, and has a certain sweetness. It's much better for cocktails than Irish or Scotch because it doesn't overpower other flavors. Can be served in a cocktail, on the rocks (although this diminishes the flavor), with a bit of water (much better for preserving the flavor but reducing burn), or neat.

Irish
Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew reign supreme in the United States. This is an excellent place for a whiskey novice to start without looking like a novice, because Irish whiskey has a lovely mildness to it due to repeated distillation and lack of peat that makes it more easily approachable than Bourbon or Scotch, albeit still a challenge for anyone who isn't used to the burn. Don't ever drink this on the rocks - it's not at all necessary and it will ruin the beautiful honey flavor. If you're not a fan of the burn, it's perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged (some say this "opens up" the flavor), to add a bit of water.

Scotch
The most robust of whiskies, Scotch is viewed as the least palatable to novices for a reason. It is most commonly from the Scottish island of Islay, where barley is dried by burning peat, and thus has a distinctly smokey flavor. Scotch from the Highlands is more mild due to the absence of peat. Your first sip of scotch will most likely feel like dragging your tongue against a charred piece of wood, but with practice and a little bit of water, you will grow to appreciate this highly nuanced, very old whisky. Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, and Dewar's are good places to start.

Scotch, unlike Irish and Bourbon (which are usually blended), is available in both single malt and blended malt (which is just single malt whisky blended with whiskies of other grains).

So, the next time you hear someone at the bar ask a question like, "What's the difference between whiskey and Scotch?" you can shake your head, laugh with your equally knowledgeable colleagues, and appreciate a good nosefull of the single malt in your hand.
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