A Beginner’s Guide to Drinking Whisky

A Beginner’s Guide to Drinking Whisky

“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” - Raymond Chandler

The writer, Raymond Chandler may have been right when he proclaimed the virtues of even mediocre whiskies. If you’re just discovering the joys of whisky-drinking, what do you need to know?

When you’re first exploring the wonderful world of whiskies, it seems that each question you ask leads to another question. How do you learn to tell the difference between whiskies? What’s the right kind of glass to use? What’s the difference between a single malt or blended whisky? And, how do you spell it, anyway? Whiskey? Whisky? We’ve put together some basic information to help you get your whisky whistle wet.

What is Whisky?

Whisky is made from fermented grains, but right off the bat there are variations based on the type of grains used. Rye, barley, corn and wheat are all used as the starting point for various whisky varieties. The fermented mash undergoes a distillation process and the result (which starts out clear in colour) is aged in wooden barrels.

Sounds simple, right? In fact, there are so many variables involved from start to finish (from how long the whisky is aged to the type of wood the barrels are made from to whether peat was used in the malting process) no two batches of whisky are exactly the same. It’s that subtle variation in appearance, aroma and flavour that makes whisky-tasting such a fascinating past time.

Single Malt or Blended?

Malt whisky is made from malted barley. Malting is the process of letting the barley start to sprout and then halting germination and drying the grains prior to starting the fermentation and distillation processes. A single malt whisky is made only from malted barley and is made at a single distillery. Blended whisky is exactly what it sounds like - a combination of different whiskies, blended to find just the right mix of flavours. You can read more about the differences between malt and grain whiskies in this blog post.

Scotch or Bourbon?

What’s the difference between the two? Scotch is made from barley and bourbon begins as corn. Scotch also refers to the golden nectar from Scotland, and Whisk(e)y refers to the same liquid from other regions.

Whisky or Whiskey?

It turns out it’s an Irish vs Scottish thing going back nearly to the beginning of whisky/whiskey. You'll find that different countries have adopted different spellings, including America which spells it Whiskey, and us Aussies who spell it without the 'e'.

We wrote a blog post about whiskey vs whisky.

If you have a few minutes, pour yourself a dram and have a read.

What is Cask Strength?

When whisky first comes out of the barrel its ABV is measured (the amount of alcohol by volume). This percentage (usually somewhere between 60% and 65%) is generally higher that what you’ll find bottled for consumption.

As you are developing your palate and learning about whisky, start with a lower ABV and, as long as you enjoy the punchier taste, work your way up to stronger whiskies with time.

How Should You Drink Whisky?

There are several schools of thought on how you should sip your dram of whisky. Neat (without adding anything) allows you to savour the flavours. Take your time. Use a glass with a bowl and a narrower neck (think tulip-shaped) and start with a long, luxurious inhale to fully appreciate the aroma.

Then, take little sip and hold the whisky in your mouth. The initial impression will evolve into a more complex melange of tastes and aromas. After swallowing, pay attention to the way the tastes resolve in your mouth.

Add a splash of water to your sample (the water should be at room temperature) and repeat the process, noticing how another layer of flavours is revealed. The general consensus is not to add ice as it does nothing to enhance the flavours.

There are, of course, any number of cocktails that include whisky - feel free to experiment, but know that you won’t be getting the pure, unadulterated whisky experience when you start diluting your fine single malt with mixers. Ultimately, of course, it’s up to you - there really is no bad way to enjoy your whisky!

Practice Makes Perfect

Like anything, the more you hone your whisky-tasting skills the better you’ll get. Take note of what you like (and what you don’t) and then try to dig deeper and explore what it is, exactly, that you are tasting. Is that a hint of oranges? Chocolate? Cinnamon? Can you detect oak? Smokiness? Peat? Make notes and taste as many whiskies as you can to develop your skills.

Ask for Some Advice

Perhaps the best way to speed along your education when it comes to whisky is to ask around. Chat with a knowledgeable bartender or check out what we’re writing about on Whisky Loot.

In terms of tasting a wide variety of samples, consider a subscription to Whisky Loot! Delivered to your door each month, these smaller bottles make it easy to try all kinds of hard-to-find whiskies you might not come across otherwise.

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