A Beginner's Guide to Whisky: Five Things You Need to Know

Everything you need to know about whisky but were scared to ask.

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whisky-thingstoknow

Everything you need to know about whisky but were scared to ask.

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1. Regional differences

These days you can buy whisky from just about anywhere in the world. Taiwan, India, Sweden and South Africa are just some of the countries to channel their distilling expertise in this direction. But the drink’s Gaelic name and heritage is rooted in Scotland and Ireland.

Geography certainly plays a part in regional differences: just think of the smoky peat and saline sea air that characterise Islay whisky. More often though, a region’s style comes down to shared production practices, whether grain type, still size or cask.

For example, the sweet vanilla, toffee and cinnamon spice of much US Bourbon is linked more to the mandatory use of new oak casks and high proportion of corn (rather than Scotland’s barley) than the warm Kentucky climate, although that does also have an impact as it encourages faster maturation.

Scotch whisky, Laphroaig Distillery

Whisky maturing in barrels at the famed Laphroaig Distillery, Scotland

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2. Single malt vs blends

Single malt may have cultivated a reputation as the superior, sophisticated whisky choice, but – as with wine – don’t be misled into automatically assuming blends are poorer quality. There’s a real art to blending, which can elevate individual components to create a drink considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

While a single malt must be made entirely from barley distilled at a single site, blended whisky incorporates different grain types from several distilleries. Poised rather confusingly between these two categories is blended malt whisky, a combination of different single malts.

Single malt’s inherent production limitations mean that it is likely to be made in smaller quantities and offer a pure expression of a specific location, both of which have obvious appeal to whisky fanatics. However, while blends do indeed lend themselves to large volume brands, they also include some of the most admired, creative whiskies. Think Johnnie Walker Blue Label or, more esoterically, Compass Box No Name No.3, a charismatic combination of Laphroaig, Bowmore, Mortlach, Clynelish and Highland malt matured in a custom French oak cask.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label is one of the most famous whisky blends

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3. Casks

As with wine, the type of cask (don’t call them barrels!) can have a significant impact on the whisky’s personality. Age, size, level of toasting and any previous contents will all leave their mark in different ways. Oak is the standard, but don’t be surprised to find your American whiskey has been matured in local maple wood.

Sherry casks have long been popular in Scotland, originally thanks to the days when wine was shipped in barrel not bottle. It didn’t take long for Scottish distillers to realise the benefits of putting all those empties to good use. That rich, sherry character (oloroso is most popular) works particularly well with the sweet, fruity malts associated with Speyside.

These days, whisky producers have become very adventurous with the type of drink used to flavour their casks. Balvenie has its rum-influenced “Caribbean Cask” expression while Taiwanese distiller Kavalan has a “Concertmaster” Port cask finish. Why not treat the wine lover in your life (perhaps that’s yourself) to the Green Spot “Léoville Barton Bordeaux Finish” or Glenmorangie’s Nectar d’Or, finished in Sauternes casks.

old oak cask

Oak casks are durable and can contain whisky for a long time

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4. Age statements

Is older better? It all depends on the quality of the raw material, not to mention your own personal style preference. That wine parallel crops up again: more time in barrel intensifies and complexifies the whisky’s flavour as the wood imparts both flavour and tannin, while the combination of time and gentle oxidation sees the raw spirit mellow, taking on fruity or floral characteristics.

The rate of maturation will depend on factors including the warehouse’s temperature and humidity – that cold, damp Scottish weather is perfect for gentle, slow aging – as well as how porous the wood itself is. 

Where whiskies do carry an age statement, such as 12-year-old or 18-year-old, that must refer to the youngest component in the bottle. Often, however, producers like to use a small amount of young whisky to perk up a very mature malt whisky. Labelling the result as an 8-year-old would hardly do justice to the blend, explaining why so many serious whiskies display no age statement at all.

whisky age statement

An age statement on a bottle of whisky is optional

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5. How to drink it

Whisky purists favour nothing more than a drop of water to their dram, which helps release the full spectrum of aromas. But it would be a brave person to dampen the sophisticated hedonism of a well-made Old Fashioned. It might simply be a question of adapting your whisky choice to mood or occasion.

Hot day? Add some ice, or bolster the refreshment value with a simple top-up of soda, but it might be a waste to dilute your very finest whisky. Every whisky fan needs an affordable house blend for precisely this moment. If you’re looking to savour the nuances of a special bottle, then swap the classic whisky tumbler for a tulip-shaped glass with wide bowl and narrower rim.

whisky with ice

Ice or no ice? It's a personal choice

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