Let’s start with the spelling. Is it whisky or whiskey? Well, that depends on who you ask. Whisky is the Scottish spelling while whiskey is the Irish. Americans have adopted the Irish spelling, while whisky tends to be the spelling of choice everywhere else in the world.
How whisky is made
Whisky is made from distilled, fermented grains. Essentially, this means that it’s distilled beer (minus the hops). This is generally malted barley, but can be any grain. It is matured in oak barrels, usually no less than three years – but often much longer.
During maturation, several things happen. The two most important things are chemical processes in the spirit, the other is that the spirit will absorb colors, flavors and aromas from the wood.
This is a long and slow process, which is why young whiskies tend to taste a bit harsh. There might be hints of acetone (nail polish remover) and petroleum. As time goes by, these compounds will break down and form other compunds, that are more mellow and pleasant.
That is why an older whisky often tastes better than a younger one, but there are other factors at play as well, such as the quality and purity of the raw spirit and the quality, type and size of barrel.
The smaller the barrel, the faster the maturation, because there is more surface area per volume.
Different type of wood also affects the flavour. American oak tends to impart more vanilla flavours, while european oak tends to impart more chocholatey flavours. Used barrels can also impart flavours from what they used to contain, which is why sherry casks are so popular. They impart a nice, fruity flavour, that can both make for great dessert whiskeys and balance smokier whiskies. A good example of this is Lagavulin, which is a smokey Islay whiskey that is perfectly balanced from sherry casks, and hence often a starting point for really smokey whiskies.
There is a neat trick that can be used to roughly determine the age of a whisky. Take a big sip and let it roll over your tongue. The further back on the tongue that you feel most of the flavour, the older it tends to be. On the tip of your tongue? Then it’s most likely not much more than three years. All the way back? Well, congratulations, it might be 18, 24 or even older.
Types of whisky
There are three basic types of whisky. Blended, pure malt and malt whisky.
This is a bit confusing, because almost all whiskies (with the exception of single cask – which comes from just one oak cask) is blended, but in different ways.
Blended is made from a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky. Grain whisky is a neutral spirit, similar to vodka. This makes blended whiskies smoother and with less flavour. The malt whiskies used often come from more than one distillery.
Pure malt is just made from malt whisky, but contains whisky from more than one distillery.
Single malt is made from whiskies from a single distillery, hence the single in the name. It is usually still (unless it is a single cask) made from a blend of different whiskies. This is done because each single cask has it’s own characteristics. By blending whiskies from different casks, the distillery can ensure that every bottle they produce taste the same, by balancing it with whiskies from different casks.
Scotch, Irish, Bourbon or Rye?
Scotch whisky is made from barley in Scotland and must be matured on oak casks for at least three years. Other than that, they can vary widely in character, aromas and taste. Some are smokey, some are sweet and some are fruity. In general, they differ by area, where Islay is the home of the smokiest whiskies.
Irish whiskey (spelled with an ey) comes from Ireland. It is usually smoother than Scotch whisky, which makes it a good starting point for exploring whiskies.
It is also really great for cocktails, especially the iconic, warming Irish Coffee.
Bourbon / Tennessee Whiskey
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys are made with at least 51% corn, and are by many considered America’s only true native spirit.
Because they can only be matured on new american oak, they will mature quite quickly, and will impart a lot of the flavours and sweetness from the wood. They will often carry notes of vanilla and raisins.
Made from at least 51% rye, rye whiskies tend to be less sweet than it’s cousin bourbon.
How to drink whisky
Whisky is both great for sipping and for cocktails. For sipping, a whisky tasting glass is better than a tumbler, so save that tumbler for cocktails. If you don’t have a whisky tasting glass, then a cognac glass or even a wine glass is better than the tumbler. This is because the rounded shape traps aromas, so you can better enjoy it with both your nose and your mouth.
Whisky is also great for cocktails. As a matter of fact, the Old Fashioned might be one of the oldest cocktail recipes of all.
On the rocks or neat?
If you truly want to taste the whisky, neat is the way to go. When buying a new bottle that you haven’t tried before, try it neat first.
Ice cools down the whisky which numbs the taste. This is the same reason why ice cold or hot coffee tastes great, but room temperature coffee can taste really nasty. Since hot or ice cold numbs the taste, the bitter off-flavours present in coffee are masked. When tasting a whisky, we want the opposite.
You can also try to add a couple of drops of water (this is commonly added by taking a straw, sticking it in water, blocking the “upper end”, and use it as a dripper. But it’s also ok to drip from a water bottle. Just be careful, you only want to start with a few drops.
By adding a bit of water, oils and other aromas that can be dissolved in alcohol, but not water, are released. This gives a rounder, bolder flavour with less harshness.
That being said, when you just want to enjoy your whisky, you should do what gives you the most enjoyment. After all, that’s what you paid that hefty price for. So neat, on the rocks or with a bit of water is all your choice. The most important thing is that you enjoy it.