A beginner’s guide to Whisk(e)y
You see it in glass decanters and crystal glasses on shows like Mad Men, The Crown and in Harvey Spector’s office on Suits. Whisky is everywhere, and often a symbol of high class, powerful people.
It doesn’t have to be.
Ever since my grandfather first introduced me to a whisky when I was a teenager, I’ve learned a lot about it. I by no means profess to be an expert, and ultimately it all comes down to preference. Some of my favourite bottles are not expensive but are the region or flavours I enjoy most. If you are looking have a dram as your next drink of choice, hopefully, this can help you figure out what you might like best!
Much like math, when it comes to learning about whisk(e)y, the brackets are important. Whisky is Scottish and whiskey is Irish. The e followed Irish settlers to the United States, while just about every other producer worldwide doesn’t use it. The major other producers include Canada, Japan, India. While small in terms of volume, Australia’s whiskies have won numerous awards. Each region has some distinctive processes and ingredients that they use to get different flavours.
Whiskies are made from different combinations of malted barley, corn, rye and wheat. The different mixes determine what the whisky is called. The famous “Single Malt” refers to only one type of mashed malt from a single distillery being used.
The distilled alcohol is then aged in burnt oak barrels, usually previously used to store sherry, wine or even rum. Each region has different requirements and standards for how long to be aged, and which mix of grains to use and each produces a different flavour. The type of barrel and length of ageing typically has the most effect on the flavour.
In Scotland, whisky, Scotch Whisky or Scotch is made in five different regions. Scotland is the largest producer of whisky globally and there is a seemingly endless variety to sample. I recommend this guide to dive into the details further if you’re interested.
If you are new to whisky I’d recommend trying Speyside first, from a distillery like Aberlour. They age in Sherry barrels which gives the whisky an easier to drink, sweeter flavour and a deeper red colour. Other Speyside single malts are the readily available Glenlivet or Glenfiddich brands. For a Highland whisky, far and away my favourite is Dalmore, which is also a sherry cask variety with a deep ruby red colour. If you really want to go for it, however, Islay produces the smoky or peaty flavours that are famously attributed to whiskies such as Lagavulin and Bowmore. Islay whiskies are usually the most acquired tastes.
Generally speaking, the main difference with Irish whiskies is that they are distilled three times instead of two. Irish whiskey was once the most popular but is only recently undergoing a renaissance. Jameson is probably the most famous worldwide and although the bottom shelf bottle is a bit harsh, some of the other vintages are easier drinking. My personal favourite of the Irish whiskies is Writer’s Tears, partially for the taste and partially for the irony.
In North America, whiskies are commonly known as Bourbon or Rye, although other less common wheat, corn and malt whiskies are also made. In Canada, whisky or rye must be aged for at least three years in barrels and must be entirely produced and aged in Canada. Outside of the common ones like Crown Royal, I thoroughly enjoy Pike Creek’s 10-year-old rum barrel whisky. It’s cheap and has really nice vanilla, caramel and spice flavours. Rye is made in the US, with similar rules to Canada. Bourbon whiskey is made with at least 51% corn maize and a special distinction is made for Tennessee whiskey which must be filtered using sugar maple charcoal. This most famous of these is, of course, Jack Daniels.
Most people who are unfamiliar with whisky would be surprised by the next fact. Japan is the fourth-largest producer of whisky in the world. Japan’s whisky is heavily influenced by Scotland and produces a similar style of Single Malts. Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest distillery and was founded in 1924, while it’s two most internationally well known are Nikka and Suntory. I find Japanese whiskies to be a little more acquired tastes and a bit harsher at first so I wouldn’t recommend starting here.
In terms of an introduction to regions, let’s stop here, not because whiskies from other countries aren’t great, but because this is an introduction and let’s be honest, you’re already overwhelmed.
To ice, or not to ice
One final, important question to answer. How should you drink your whisky? Single Malt purists will gasp at the thought of on the rocks for a nice scotch. How dare you. They insist that a “few drops of spring water” is all that’s needed to activate the flavours. I not only think that’s pretentious but also for the average whisky drinker, you’re not having top-shelf stuff very often. Also, to be honest, I can’t say spring water is often at hand and you wouldn’t catch me dead saying that at a restaurant or bar.
The exception to this rule is if you are drinking a Scotch in Scotland. Using ice, having a whisky cocktail or anything other than scotch, neat should probably be listed as a travel advisory. Especially smaller towns and rural distillery towns.
Ultimately most drinkers, experts and even distillers will tell you it comes down to preference. My personal preference is generally to have it neat when trying a whisky for the first time, or for really smooth bottles. After a lot of acquired taste, more often than not I will drink a single malt neat because I genuinely enjoy it that way. When I first started though I almost always had a small cube of ice. For cheap whiskies, I still tend to use a little ice as chilling it can cut down on the harshness of the alcohol.
Finally, here’s a shortlist of whiskies for each region I think are good starting points for people looking to get into it:
Aberlour 12-year-old, Speyside, Scotland – matured in both sherry and oak casks, smooth drinking and has fruity notes
Laphroaig 10-year-old, Islay, Scotland – A peaty Islay classic whisky with a rare sweetness to it for an Islay
Dalmore 12-year-old, Highlands, Scotland – Double barrel-aged in both bourbon and sherry casks. My all-time favourite.
Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky, Japan – Spicy with a bit of fruity taste from one of Japan’s most well-known distilleries.
Pike Creek 10-year-old, Canada – Going a bit off the board with this one as it’s not one of the biggest Canadian distilleries, however, it’s a great starter one as it’s cheap and aged in rum barrels giving it a sweet vanilla taste.
Maker’s Mark Bourbon, USA – The classic bourbon for making Manhattan cocktails is also great on its own.
Writer’s Tears Copper Pot, Ireland – A traditional copper pot Irish whisky that’s easy to drink with honey notes.
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