“Whisky, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink“.
–Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
This trending golden elixir is beaming with delight everywhere on the planet right now for the sheer joy of its aficionados. But do you really understand whisky? I mean really?
Like wine, the whisky world can be quite confusing. From the classics that come from Scotland or Ireland to the Americans or the Japanese and even the French?
Here is an easy way to finally understand this delicious drink that you may already enjoy so dearly on your evenings or weekends.
1- Whisky is made from GRAIN only
What you have to know is that whisky is a spirit or aqua vitae made from grain only. By grains, I mean any kind of grain: barley, corn, wheat, rye, oat, millet, etc.
Usually, the grain used will depend on where the whisky comes from.
For instance, if it comes from America, the grain most used will be corn or rye as these grains are widely available there.
2- Whisky is a SPIRIT
Whisky is a spirit which means that to be called whisky it must proof at least 40% alc./vol.
Distillation is the process used to create any kind of spirits such as Gin, Vodka or Rum.
This happens through a still that simply separate the alcohol from the water by heating it. This process allows the aromas to concentrate.
3- Whisky is aged in oak barrels
There are 3 main factors that will influence the flavours and taste of a whisky.
- The type of oak used
It can be new oak and charred inside, it can be used in barrels where another liquid was before (usually Wine, Sherry, Bourbon and Rum).
- The weather and length of time
The climate, temperature and seasons play an important part in the ageing process.
Let’s take the example of Scotch (from Scotland, UK) and Bourbon (from the United States).
Can you picture a tea bag? When you’re using it for the first time in hot water, it’s going to infuse its taste and flavours in a few minutes right?
Take now the same tea bag, already used, but in warm water, it will steep longer right?
This is the main difference between these two main kinds of whiskies.
To Sum this up:
In the United States and especially in Kentucky where Bourbon originated, there are 4 definite seasons. It’s very warm in summer and very cold in winter. Also, the barrels used to age the spirit are new and charred inside. These 2 factors will provide a lot of flavours and colours to the whisky quickly. Not recommended to leave your whisky too long inside the barrel as it will take some of the bitterness contained in the wood and you don’t want that.
On the other hand, in Scotland, the weather is pretty cool all year round and the barrels used to age it are used. Generally, they have seen Bourbon, Sherry, Wine or even Rum before. This means that another liquid was there previously, this will, of course, have an impact on the taste and colour of the final spirit obtained through this process.
This explains why Bourbon whiskies are mostly of a young age and scotch whiskies are older. This helps demystify the idea that the older a whisky is, the better it will be. Not at all true.
4- The different STYLES of Whiskies
The two main kinds are Malt Whisky and Grain Whisky.
- Malt Whisky is made primarily from malted barley.
- Grain Whisky is made from any type of grain.
Then, they can be combined in different ways:
Single Malt or Single Grain
It has to comes from the same distillery. In can be a blend of different casks of malt or grain from the same distillery.
It is a blend of various single malts from different distilleries. It can be named also pure malt.
It is a blend of different kinds of whiskies from various distilleries.
It means that no added water has been added to the whisky before bottling. The content of alcohol is usually high (more than 50%). These whiskies will be more complex in flavours and powerful in strength as a result of not adding water into them.
It means the whisky comes from one cask only.
The term whisky or Whiskey indicates the same thing. The only difference is where the whisky comes from. Usually, the term whisky is used for Scotch (made in Scotland) and whiskey for whisky made in Ireland or America.
5- Whisky is made all around the world
Yes, whisky is not made only in Scotland, America or Japan. The main countries, that are widely known for making whisky are:
- UK, Scotland
- United States
There are wonderful whiskies found also in these countries
- Australia (Tasmania mostly)
As you can see, it can be made pretty much everywhere.
6- Where to start?
Maybe the right place to start is to try whiskies from the places where it was born: Scotland and Ireland.
Some ideas to start with:
Make it a get-together
Buy some different styles and invite your friends over.
My advice would be to start with one country or region only. If you need some inspiration, here are some Scottish brands I love.
Spend the evening in a Whisky bar
Spend an evening in a whisky bar in your town with a bunch of friends and taste the differences. You can bring some cigar and make it a really fun night!
Go on a trip
This is a great reason to visit a country, connect with the locals and really learn about the culture. Many whisky trails have been developed over the years. Here are some ideas.
Just sip it straight by yourself
This is what I love about whisky. Sometimes it’s just the best companion on a cold night with a great novel or when you just want to have some quiet time by yourself, reflecting on your life.
I hope you get a better picture of whisky now! I believe that the best way to learn is to share what we’ve learnt with others, so set up a whisky get together with your friends and tell them about your new understanding of whisky!