In Gaelic, whisky means Water of Life and so it is to the many whisky lovers the world over. However, the world of whisky can be a confusing one, with terms like Single Malt, Peat, Cask Strength, Sherry Cask and Bourbon. For someone new to whisky, deciphering what it all means can be hard.
So whether you want to know the basics, so you can gift your whisky loving family member or friend a bottle or you yourself want to delve into the ever so tasty and varied world of whisky, I shall attempt to demystify all that is whisky without sounding like too much of a pretentious whisky snob.
Much like wine, there are those countries whose production is steeped in tradition and strict laws regulating the old school values and the non traditional countries left to innovate whilst still paying deference to tradition.
For many new to whisky, the first question is often, do I spell it whiskey or whisky? To answer this requires a little knowledge of whisky history. Whisky originated in the Gaelic countries of Scotland and Ireland and as is so often the case, regional differences in dialect have resulted in the Irish spelling whiskey with an E and the Scots spelling of whisky without the E.
The third traditional whiskey distilling country is that of the USA, the American spelling, influenced by all the Irish immigrants is that of whiskey. However, now we have other countries like Japan, Canada and Australia making a big impact on whisky markets.
These countries, not bound by tradition are free to do as they so wish and as a general rule of thumb, any whisky spelled with an E (Whiskey) is usually of the American bourbon style and those spelled without the E are of the Scottish style. As such I tend to use the spelling whisky, unless referring to Irish or American whiskey.
So what is Whisky?
whisky is a distilled spirit, much like Brandy, Vodka or Rum. It is made by malting barley (malting is a way of getting the grain to germinate faster and generate alcohol producing sugars), the kiln dried malted barley is then mixed with water and yeast to produce a type of beer (Yes, you need to make a hop-free beer before you can make whisky).
This beer is then distilled in either pot or column stills before being matured in Oak barrels. Now that may sound relatively straight forward, however the reason whisky is so confusing and varied comes from a mind boggling array of variations, the most obvious are the use and ratios of different grains and the barrels used to age the whisky. Other factors include the use of peat, the water that is used and even the environment around the distillery itself.
Different styles and types of whisky
Now we began to get into the area that scares and confuses many new to whisky and that is all the different styles and types of whisky. As this is a beginners guide I have kept to the more common types and my descriptions simple.
Malt Whisky; Malt whisky is made exclusively from malted barley and is the dram most associated with Scotland, although many other countries like Japan, Australia, India, France and New Zealand produce malt whiskies. For example Limeburners Heavy Peat , Laphroaig 10yr old or Macallan Amber.
Grain Whisky; Grain whisky is whisky made without using malted barley. Often using wheat and distilled in cheaper column stills, grain whiskies are frequently used to make blended whiskies due in part to them being cheaper to produce.
Blended Whisky; As the name suggests, these whiskies are made from different whiskies blended together to create a uniform and consistent whisky. The whisky used may be malt whiskies, grain whiskies and whiskies sourced from other distilleries.
Many whisky drinkers will scoff at the idea of drinking blended whiskies as they lack the "snob" value of a Single Malt, however there are a great number of very fine blended whiskies. Blended whisky, accounts for the majority of whisky sales thanks in part to companies like Johnnie Walker that specialise in blending whisky.For example Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker Black Label or one of my favourites, Nikka From The Barrel.
Bourbon; Bourbon is a whiskey from the USA and has a unique flavour profile. Only whisky made in America can be labelled as Bourbon, but that is not to say that a Bourbon style of whisky is not made in other countries.
Indeed, I have a wonderful award winning Sour Mash whiskey ( Sour Mash refers to a Bourbon style that has used material from an older batch to kick start the fermentation process) from Western Australia called Tiger Snake. Strict laws exist in the US surrounding bourbon production, for instance it must be made using a minimum of 51% corn and aged in brand new oak barrels. Examples of bourbon include Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Cougar and Pappy Van Winkle.
Rye Whiskey; Rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% Rye and is generally made in the USA or Canada. Rye whiskey tends to have a spicier taste examples include Knob Creek Rye, Bulleit Rye and Michters Rye.
Corn Whiskey; A uniquely American whisky made entirely from Corn. Corn whiskey tends to be relatively bland and as such is usually used in blending.
Irish Whiskey; Naturally, Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland. Nearly all Irish whiskey is triple distilled which gives it's unique smoothness. Brands such as Teeling, Jameson's and Tullamore Dew are all Irish whiskies.
Scotch Whisky; One can hardly talk about whisky without delving into the whiskies from Scotland. Like Bourbon, strict regulations are in place controlling many aspects of whisky production. Scotch whiskies rarely use new oak barrels, preferring to add unique flavours from casks previously used to mature Sherry, Port, Pedro Ximenez etc.
To make things more confusing for the beginner, Scotch whisky is divided into 4 regions, Lowland, Highland, Islay and Speyside all with characteristics unique to the region. ( with some rebellious exceptions). Many maps will include the Cambeltown region as well, however it is no longer recognised as an official region.
Speyside; Nearly half of Scotland's distilleries are in the Speyside region. Known for Lighter and Sweeter whiskies. The areas distilleries include Cardhu, Glenfiddich and The Macallan.
Lowland; Only 3 distilleries now remain in the area once famed for its triple distilled floral and light whisky. These are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie.
Highland; By far the largest region, so a big variation in flavours can be found although honey flavours as well as a much dryer style are common. Notable distilleries include Aberfeldy, Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
Islay; The boldest and most polarizing whiskies are found here on this tiny island of Scotland's West coast. Islay malts are not really for the beginner with strong flavours of salt from the ocean, Iodine from the seaweed in the peat and a real punch in the face of pure peaty smoke.
Whilst at first it sounds decidedly unappealing, Islay Malts are among the most idolised around the world. That peaty smoke is an aquired taste, but once you develop a taste for peated malts then you will want nothing else.
Peated Whisky; Peated whiskies polarize even the most devout whisky drinkers, but was exactly is peat and why does it affect the whisky so much? Well peat is simply the decaying (mostly) vegetable matter found in bogs.
Peat has been used for centuries as combustible heat source, it is readily avaliable in Scotland and burns well and long, it also produces a lot of smoke. Using this peat in the kilns to arrest the germination of the malted barley leaves the grain infused with an intense smokiness.
Dependant on the peat itself the flavour that is imparted will vary. Different distilleries will allow the smoke to do its magic for differing amount of times resulting in variations of smokiness. Aside from the very obvious smoke, peat can impart flavours reminiscent of moss, bacon or even iodine and can leave tastes of nuttiness, creaminess, citrus fruits and the saltiness of the ocean. Whiskies from Islay are renown for their peatiness .
Whisky producing countries.
Whisky is now produced all over the world in more than 20 countries. With many countries producing whiskies that deservedly win international awards.
Whisky production began in either Ireland or Scotland ( Much debate still exists) and both countries remain major whisky producers. Irish whisky was once the most popular in the world but now pales in popularity behind Scotch and Bourbon.
In the America's we see whisky from both Canada and the USA. Bourbon from Kentucky in the USA is one of the worlds most consumed spirits.
Europe whilst not ones first thought for whisky production beyond the borders of Scotland and Ireland sees whisky produced in a number of countries. France, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and Wales all produce Whisky.
South Africa is starting to develop a reputation for producing some great whiskies and is considered one of the regions to watch.
From Oceania we see whisky produced in Australia and New Zealand of a very high quality. Indeed the Southern Island State of Tasmania has over 20 distilleries. Australian whisky is fast developing a reputation for high quality low volume boutique distilleries with whiskies from both sides of the country being hailed as among the worlds best.
Asia is perhaps not the first region you think of when mentioning whisky, however Asia consumes more whisky than anywhere else which would perhaps explain why it is also the largest producer. In fact India consumes nearly half of the worlds consumption of whisky each year and is also know to be the largest producer in the world.
However, due to lax regulations, much of what is labelled whisky in India would not be labelled as such in other countries. Having said that, India does produce its own fair share of fine single malt whiskies such as Amrut and Paul John
The Taiwanese distillery of Kavalan, as the countries only distillery has produced whiskies reknown the world over and won many prestigous awards.
Japan is now seen as the hottest whisky producing region in the world. In fact the prices for Japanese whiskies in the past few years have skyrocketed to the extent that prices outside of Japan are viewed by many as too high.
So why the rising prices? Quite simply, the reknown eye for detail of the Japanese has seen them produce some of the best whiskies in the world. Japan is now famous for its high quality Single Malts but also produces some wonderful blended whiskies like Nikka From The Barrel. Hibiki, Yamazaki and Nikka whiskies sell out so quickly they become collector items lusted after the world over.
One aspect of the world of whisky that confuses everyone new whisky is the abundance of terms. Being able to decipher a label and all its information will go a long way to understanding whisky.
There really is no right or wrong way, drink it as you enjoy it. However, mixing a good quality whisky with cola will drown out all that makes that whisky special. My advice is feel free to mix a cheaper blend (I myself use JW Black Label for mixing), but drink your better whiskies without mixing.
Whilst that sounds simple enough, we now delve into neat v ice v water. An age old whisky debate. In my opinion, each whisky needs to be treated differently and so you need to work out with each whisky how you prefer it.
My preference is to never use ice, I find chilling the whisky masks many of its glorious subtleties. I will normally try my whisky neat, that is, straight out of the bottle and into the glass.
I will then taste it adding no more than 1/2 a teaspoon of bottled water between tastes until I find it just right. The adding of a small amount of water "opens" up the whisky and it is frequently quite incredible the difference it can make. Of course, a cask strength whisky is likely to take more water as it has a much higher alchohol content to start with.
After all of this, my advice to any whisky newbie is to try, try, try. Plenty of liquor outlets and hotels offer tasting evenings accompanied with great advice from experts.
Due to the large variety within the world of whisky, you need to find your own taste preferences. For instance whilst I enjoy most whiskies, my own preferences is for a lighter styled, bottle strength, Sherry cask finished whisky.
If buying a bottle for a family member or friend, my advice would be to find out their preferences first and use that as a starting point. You can do this a number of ways, obviously asking them directly can work but it takes away some of the element of surprise.
You can ask a significant other or you can have a look yourself at what they carry in their liquor cabinet. Then using some of what you now know, you should be able to know what to look for.
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Divorced and nearly 50 I rediscovered who I was.