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.

Scotland

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.

Ireland

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.

North America

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.

Japan

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.

Recommendations

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.

An Amateur Approach to Cooking

I don’t really know what I’m doing, but here we are.

No, that’s not the title of my sex tape, but it could definitely be the title of my cooking show. The show would then proceed to be an hour of me saying “hmm, I wonder if that will work” and “needs more butter”.

Recipes are less of rules, and more “guidelines” when I’m cooking. Except for baking or things like pancakes where the mixtures need to be spot on, most of the dishes I’ve learned to make once maybe started out as a recipe. Much to my girlfriend’s displeasure, every time we sit down to eat I tend to try the meal and immediately say something like “needs more salt” or “it’s a bit overcooked”. Luckily for me, she puts up with being my test eater and only rolls her eyes a little when I criticize the food.

This is pretty much my whole approach to cooking. Try new things, see what happens and adjust accordingly. The closest I’ve come to a cooking class is calling my mother in a panic the first time my friend and I tried to cook a turkey for a dinner and couldn’t work out what part of the turkey the stuffing goes in. It turned out okay, and more often than not things do. You can always order a pizza if it doesn’t work out.

Amateur chefs in action. Note, the knife technique shown is not recommended.

The advice and recipes you find here are largely going to be along these lines and I would encourage anyone who wants to start cooking more adventurously to do the same. The advice isn’t going to turn you into a professional cook, and with that in mind if you’re here looking for anything more than amateur advice you’re probably in the wrong spot. Ask me to give advice for making dinner for your friends, I’m your man. Put me in front of Gordon Ramsey, he’ll very quickly have found his next idiot sandwich.

So for all of you looking to start somewhere here are some guidelines to get you started and build some confidence:

  1. Plan it out a little. While recipes are a guideline, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan for it all to be ready at the same time. Thinking about roughly how long everything is going to take, which pans you’re going to use and do you have enough space in the oven can make all the difference.
  2. Take a list to the shop. You will almost certainly forget something.
  3. If you can, buy better ingredients. Local greengrocers, butcher’s and the like will almost always result in better food.
  4. Don’t multi-task and cook while doing other things. It’s really hard to burn something if you’re paying attention to it.
  5. Own at least one good, sharp knife. Using dull and crappy knives is not only going to make chopping harder, but it’s also dangerous.
  6. Prep ahead of time as much as possible. Chopping ingredients and having them all ready before you start cooking makes it a much less stressful affair.
  7. Taste your food along the way. This is a habit I’ve gotten into more and more and it’s definitely yielded better results. Better to know what it needs before you serve it up.
  8. If someone you know makes something really good, ask them how they do it. Personal accounts beat online recipes any day.
  9. Have some fun while you cook. I almost always have music on and have been known to dance around the kitchen a little. If it becomes something you have fun doing, you’ll do it more.

Cooking is something most adults have to do every day and has a huge effect on both mental and physical health. Learning to enjoy cooking is a great way to build confidence and make things feel less like a chore. Even simple meals can be delicious just by improving basic things.

What’s your #1 tip for people looking to give cooking a go?