The essen tials of whisky
A good whisky is like a great friend: itʼs complex and refined, with a great personality, a smooth talker with a fiery passion for life and legend.
Whisky has been around for centuries, first distilled in Ireland and Scotland by monks for medicinal purposes until Henry VIII established the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The amber liquid thatʼs monikered “aqua vitae” (Latin for water of life) is a general term for liquor that is distilled from fermented grains. However, it covers a broad range of countries and grain types, from rye, cereal to barley.
Whisky is split primarily into two categories: malted and unmalted. The process of malting, which develops sugars in the grain, gives malted whiskies greater sweetness for the fermentation process to work with, that also generates different flavours.
The variations that follow are blended or single distillery bottling. Blended whiskies are mixed from different distilleries, and tend to combine both grain and malt whiskies, though there are blended malt or blended grain whiskies, as well as single malt or single grain types. The purpose of blending, as Colin Scott, master blender at Chivas Regal explains, is to offer “greater complexity and flavour in the product. Single malts are purer in the sense that they convey the expression of the distillery. From the minerality of the water to the malting and fermenting process, these determine the style of whisky produced. Blended whiskies are expressions that are created by a master blender to give structure to the whisky by mixing styles from various distilleries.”
Whisky vs Whiskey
A convenient way to distinguish between the two: countries with 'e' in their spelling use whiskey, while those without an 'e' stick to whisky.
LOOK, SMELL AND SAMPLE
A glass full of ice with a shot of whisky does it poor justice. Pouring a dram into a glass gives you much more information at a glance.
COLOUR The colour of whisky indicates the type of casks it has been aged in, and hints at its flavours. Lighter shades suggest an American oak cask and deeper amber tones suggest European oak. The former generally offers lighter and smoother flavours of vanilla, cream and citrus. With European oak casks, richer flavours of caramel and dried fruit come forth.
NOSING While the tongue can distinguish between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savoury and textures, the nose recalls thousands of scents by association. Indulge in a whiff first.
MOUTHFEEL Take a sip and roll the liquid around your tongue to garner the full range of flavours it offers. Adding water (no more than an equal part) breaks up the molecules within the whisky and enables you to taste the more subtle flavours within the dram. Finally, the lingering flavours tell you how long itʼs been aged. Older whiskies and European oak cask whiskies tend to have a longer finish.
To understand connoisseur-speak, here are some useful terms to get familiar with.
Angel’s shareAs whisky ages in the barrel, some of it naturally evaporates into the atmosphere. This amounts to around two per cent of the barrel each year, which is referred to as this.
BarrelAlso referred to as the cask, this is the container that whisky is aged in. Barrels are always made of American or European oak.
Cask strengthWhisky, as a standard with all spirits, are bottled at 40 per cent alcohol by volume. Cask strength whiskies hold a percentage of alcohol from the barrel itself, usually above 40 per cent.
Fil Barrels in whisky ageing are often re-used, as they release different amount of tannins and vanillins over the years of use. First-fill casks are those that are used to fill whiskies for the first time, and so on. Bourbon whiskey uses only new oak casks.
Stil Distillation takes place in copper stills, which are primarily in two shapes: column or pot stills.