A gentleman’s guide to whisky

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

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

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.

Rye Whiskey

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.


A gentleman’s guide to Harris Tweed

What is Tweed

Tweed is a rough, woolen fabric, usually woven with a plain weave, twill or herringbone structure. Tweeds are an icon of traditional Scottish and Irish clothing, being desirable for informal outerwear, due to the moisture-resistant and durable properties of the material. They are made to withstand harsh climates and are commonly worn for outdoor activities such as shooting and hunting, in both Ireland and Scotland.

While originally made for wearing in the country, as styles have become more casual, Tweeds made it’s ways into the city, and today, a Tweed suit or sports jacket is by many regarded as one of the most stylish, timeless and gentelmanly things to wear.

What sets Harris Tweed apart

Harris Tweed, often referred to as the king of Tweeds, is handwoven by islanders in their homes in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It is made from 100% pure virgin wool, which also must be dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.

The Harris Tweed certificate of authenticity in one of my Harris Tweed jackets.

The name and the characteristic Harris Tweed Orb is protected by the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 and protected by the Harris Tweed Authority.

The History of Harris Tweed

The islanders of Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula and Barra have woven cloth by hand for centuries. It was originally made for their own use, and surplus was traded as barter, eventually becoming a form of currency amongst the islanders, but eventually made it’s way to London through export.

Gearrannan, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

The original name of the cloth was tweel, Scots for twill, due to it being woven in a teill weave.

According to legend, the name Twill came around 1830, when a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The London merchant misinterpreted the handwriting, understanding it to be taken from the river Tweed that flows through the Scottish Borders. The goodes were adverstised as Tweed, and the name has been used ever since.

As the Industrial Revolution reached Scotland, mainland manufacturers had turned to industrialized weaving, but the traditional hand weaving was retained in the Outer Hebrides, and although the fabrics were known for their quality weaving, the cloth was still produced mainly for home use or for the local market until the middle of the 19th century.

Even as the export market grew, supplying the upper classes of London with high quality Tweeds, the traditional hand-woven home production remained, and it was eventually protected in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993.

Harris Tweed inspection stamp. Photo: Giftzwerg 88 CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, every 50 metres of Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the Orb Mark, which guarantees it’s authenticity.

How is Harris Tweed made?

The creation of Harris Tweed begins with fleeces of pure virgin wools which are shorn from Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep.

Although most of the wool is grown principally on the mainland, local sheep wool is also added to the mix. The two types of wool are blended together to gain the advantages of the unique qualities and characteristics of both.

Dyeing and spinning

Once shorn the wool is scoured before being delivered in large bales to the mills of the three main tweed producers where it is then dyed in a wide variety of colours for blending.

The freshly dyed coloured and white wools are weighed in predetermined proportions and then thoroughly blended by hand to exact recipes to obtain the correct hue. It is then carded between mechanical, toothed rollers which tease and mix the fibers thoroughly before it is separated into a fragile, embryonic yarn. This soft yarn then has a twist imparted to it as it is spun to give it maximum strength for weaving. The spun yarn is wound onto bobbins to provide the ingredients of weft (left-to-right threads) and warp (vertical threads) supplied to the weavers.

This vitally important process sees thousands of warp threads gathered in long hanks in very specific order and wound onto large beams ready to be delivered, together with yarn for the weft, to the weavers.


Tweed being handwoven on a traditional loom.

All Harris Tweed is hand woven on a treadle loom at each weaver’s home on a ‘double-width’ Bonas-Griffith rapier loom in the case of mill weavers, or normally an older ‘single width’ Hattersley loom in the case of independent weavers. The weaver will ‘tie in’ their warp by threading each end of yarn through the eyelets of their loom’s heddles in a specific order then begins to weave, fixing any mistakes or breakages that occur until completed.

Finishing and inspection

The tweed then returns to the mill in its ‘greasy state’ and here it passes through the hands of darners who correct any flaws.

Once ready the cloth is finished. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating in soda and soapy water before it is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped.

The final process is the examination by the independent Harris Tweed Authority which visits the mills weekly, before application of their Orb Mark trademark which is ironed on to the fabric as a seal of authenticity.

Is Harris Tweed expensive?

No, surprisingly not. I would even go as far as saying that Tweed is currently grossly underpriced and a well-tailored Harris Tweed sports jacket can cost as little as $400 when bought in, or orderd from, Scotland. This is not much more than any other well made sports jacket from a reputable brand.

When factoring in the quality, longevity, history and hand made production, it’s a real bargain.