More than any other spirit, whisky is the mainstay of the bar counter. There are exceptions, like if you are living in Yakutsk, Siberia where your bar serves only family draughts of pull-tap vodka. Or if you live your life like a bad ad and your mainstay is Mainstay. For most of the world, whisky is noble. Whisky is the drink of culture, of sophistication and of freedom. Whisky is a rabble rouser – the drink that led to the American Prohibition, the drink that has ignited wars in Scotland. Whisky is also a comforter – the lights are low, the jazz is soothing and the ladies are too… the clink of ice and the warm glow in your belly. That’s whisky time. I believe I’ll have a double.
Because whisky makes you happy, it stands to reason that knowing a bit more about them will make you an even happier person, so here follows my essential whisky primer.
1. Whisky is enhanced beer.
All whiskies are made in the same way – you make a beer by fermenting grains and then you take the beer and distil it. All whisky begins its life as beer. That’s the easy part to understand.
2. You get malt whiskies and grain whiskies.
Malt whiskies are made from barley grain that has been “malted” or germinated and then dried before being brewed into beer. Sometimes peat is used for the drying and this imparts a particular smell and flavour (Islay whiskies, like Laphroaig, have this in spades). Malt whiskies are distilled in small batches in copper pot stills and they’re considered the premium because they have more flavour and complexity. Grain whiskies are made from any neutral, unmalted grain in industrial steel stills and in large quantities.
3. Most whiskies are blends, single malts are not.
Most commercial whiskies (J&B, Bell’s, Johnnie Walker) are blends of a small proportion of malt whisky with the bulk being the cheaper grain whisky. Most of the big brands contain 50-60% grain; this can go right up to 95% in the cheaper blends. The malt component is usually made up of dozens of malts from different distilleries, as many as 40 or more. On the opposite end of the scale are single malts, these are an unblended whisky from only one distillery. They are considered the premium for flavour and singular character. You have hundreds to choose from; a couple I like are Talisker, Lagavulin, Highland Park. Newer on our shelves are blended malts (with no grain), like Bell’s Special Reserve Pure Malt and Famous Grouse Malt Whisky.
4. Wood equals flavour.
Scotch whisky is aged in wooden casks for a legal minimum of three years. The casks impart flavour, particularly strong ones if the cask is charred (like with bourbon). Most of the complexity of flavour comes from the different barrels and how long the whisky lies in them. Whisky without wood has little flavour.
5. Whiskies have different ages.
While three years is the minimum, whiskies can mature in cask for decades. The age on the bottle gives you an idea of the average age of the liquor – the older, the more expensive it tends to be. Respect your elders, but enjoy your youngsters regularly.
6. Whisky is not whiskey.
Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland, but this drink is made in many other countries, including Japan (Suntory ) and South Africa (Three Ships). When it’s Irish, its spelled “whiskey” and they claim they made it first. Historically, the differences between the two is that peat was not used in the process of making Irish; and that Irish whiskey is triple distilled as opposed to the double-distillation of Scotch. Today there are some exceptions to the rule, but it is still generally true. The result is that Irish (like Jameson’s) is a lighter, softer drink. The Americans also like to call their tot a whiskey, but…
7. Not all American whiskey is bourbon.
American whiskey is made from corn and rye grain, never barley. They are generally aged by law for two years, but usually more like four. The casks are charred, giving it that richer, mellow flavour. Bourbon is a sub-category of American whiskey, made from mostly corn and also aged in charred casks. Tennessee whiskey is a close cousin (you know the redneck porch jokes), but the difference is that this is filtered through a bed of Sugar Maple charcoal (Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark).
8. Confused? Then don’t add ice.
Whisky gives you the best impression of its flavour when you taste it with only a dash of water, no ice. Cold ice locks most of the flavour in and distorts what’s left. This is especially important to remember with single malts.
9. Not confused at all? Then add ginger ale, you smug man.
If you are after something different and rather refreshing, try adding ginger ale and a dash of lime to whisky on ice in a tall glass.