Whiskey has thousands of brands, expressions, mixes, age declarations, flavor profiles, and finishes. For those unfamiliar with the powerful amber nectar, this can be intimidating. If your interest has been ignited and you want to explore this complicated and subtle world, here is a little Whiskey 101 to start your tasting trip, one delicious dram at a time.
Water, malted barley, and yeast make single malt whiskey. The spirit is aged in oak barrels, which gives it its bright amber color. Scotch Single Malts must mature in wood barrels for three years. Distillers have long questioned whether whiskey's scents and flavors come from the spirit or the oak. Really, the link between these variables is too intricate to contemplate. Enjoy the magic.
Whiskey vs Whisky
Whiskey and whisky are nearly the same. The legal definition of Scotch Whisky by an act of parliament in 1909 required spelling to be standardized, hence Ireland and the US spell it "whiskey" whereas Scotland, Canada, and Japan spell it "whisky". Irish distilleries may have added a "e" to identify their spirits.
The Angel's Share must be mentioned at a whiskey distillery. Whiskey matures through cask walls. Evaporation can reduce the cask's volume by 2% annually. Evaporation depends on the whiskey's age, cask size, and warehouse environment. Another unique touch that makes whiskey special.
The dram, a whiskey glass in Scotland and around the world. For millennia, whiskey and the dram have symbolized warmth, hospitality, and camaraderie. A dram is 1/8th of a fluid ounce or 3.55ml, around a teaspoon. When whiskey was rare, a dram was a 25ml or 35ml pour.
Scotch Whiskey versus American Whiskey
Like Champagne, Scotch whisky must be brewed in Scotland. Still more. It must be matured for three years in wood casks and bottled at 40% ABV from Scottish malted barley. Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Islay, and Campbeltown produce five distinct styles of Scotch whisky.
Bourbon, Rye, and Tennessee whiskey all have their own restrictions. The common denominator is that they must be prepared from at least 51% of a specific grain—rye for spice and corn for caramel sweetness in bourbon. Tennessee Whiskey—Jack Daniels—is bourbon brewed in Tennessee and charcoal-filtered before bottling.
Single Malt versus Blended
Most whiskey debate revolves around single malt and blended Scotch. Single malt whiskey is 100% malted barley from one distillery. Blending whiskey from one distillery's cask types and ages creates specific flavor characteristics, but it's not a "mixed whiskey."
Blended whiskey is manufactured from spirit from multiple distilleries and can contain more than one grain type, unless it is labeled "blended malt whiskey," which is made from malted barley from separate distilleries.
The compounds generated by peat fires used to dry malted barley at the outset of whiskey production give peated whiskey a smokey flavor. Poor drainage creates peat bogs by decomposing vegetation over thousands of years. The smoke from peat fed to the fire during malted barley drying releases phenol chemicals, which the barley grain absorbs. Some peated whiskies, like Benromach, are under 20ppm, while others, like Kilchoman, are over 50ppm.
Best Way to Drink Whiskey
A neat pour involves pouring the liquor from the bottle to the glass without interruption. Whiskey without mixers or flavoring.
Neat with a drop of water
Many whiskey lovers believe that adding a few drops of water opens up a whiskey, releasing new flavors and aromas. Water activates whiskey's hydrophobic scent components. Water reduces alcohol and enhances subtle flavors. Water enlivens whiskey.
On the Rocks
Scotch "on the rocks" is poured straight over ice. One or two ice cubes will cool the drink and mellow the alcohol.
Straight-up whiskey is combined with ice and filtered into the glass.
As a Cocktail
Classic whiskey cocktails like a Whiskey Sour, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Rob Roy, or John Collins will help you get used to whiskey. Try it with soda or ginger ale, both "gateway" drinks.
What's the Best First Whiskey to Try?
With an alcohol percentage of at least 40%, whiskey may be strong, so starting with a sweeter, smoother version is frequently a smart idea. Whiskey flights, like those offered at Whiskey Galore, are a great way to sample a variety of whiskies at once and with others.
I raise a glass to your continued curiosity and experimentation with whiskey, knowing that your own tastes will inevitably develop and define the way you enjoy this classic libation.