Whiskies occupy a special place in our hearts. Whether for sipping or for mixing in exciting cocktails we’re often asked about why are there so many different types and if it matters how much you spend on them. In this buyer’s guide to whiskey we’ll try and answer these questions and also tell you more about how different ingredients and production influences the flavor.
Getting to know your whiskey
Whisky is a distilled spirit made from a fermented grain mash, typically wheat, rye, barley or corn. Sometimes these grains are malted, a process whereby they are germinated by water and then hot-air dried to promote eventual sugar creation. This step marks the difference between a single grain whisky and a malted whisky. The whisky is then aged in wooden casks to develop the flavor profile. American white oak casks give the whisky a mellow, vanilla and caramel taste. The European oak imparts spicy, bitter notes and a stronger flavor. The inside of the barrels are often charred or toasted which aids in the release of tannins and sugars to strengthen the vanilla and caramel tang. In summary, whiskies are distinguished by the types of grain, their fermentation, the distillation method and repeats and finally the aging in wooden barrels.
Whiskey or whisky?
Opinion is divided over the cause of the different spellings but the most popular theory is that it comes down to the translation of the Gaelic word for whiskey. The Irish translation spells it as ‘whiskey’ and as it was Irish immigrants that brought this delicious spirit over here it’s only natural that we spell it the same way. The Scots spell it without the ‘e’ and it’s this spelling – whisky – that has stuck for the rest of the world! In this article we spell it with an ‘e’ unless we’re referring to a brand or country’s whiskey that spells it differently.
To blend or not to blend
For a long time it was believed that a blended whiskey was less desirable than a single grain whiskey. Indeed, a certain amount of snobbishness has grown up around their apparent shortcomings. However in the whiskey scene today the reality is much different.
Blended whiskies comprise single grain whiskies from different vats and even different ages. Blended malts are seldom seen but they – as the name suggests, are simply a combination of different malt whiskies. And, to confuse the issue, Blended Scotch is made from recipes of both single grain and malted whiskies to enable the brand to maintain a consistent taste and texture.
Single grain whiskies have the cachet of being more individual and almost unique in flavor as each vat is capturing a snapshot of that harvest’s grain. The limited volume of spirit that is produced works in the favor of those brands offering exclusivity. The taste of single grain whiskies is typically excellent and particularly varied – they aren’t toeing a well-known taste line; rather they are aiming at surpassing your expectations with new and interesting flavors.
Blended whiskies also allow for great quality, great tasting spirits where the professional blenders work to maintain the same flavor, barrel after barrel.
The main players on the world stage when it comes to whisky production are America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland with Japan and India making their presence increasingly felt. In this guide we are focusing on Ireland, Scotland and those from the States.
A third of all American whiskies are classed as Bourbon. Under the Federal Standards for Identity (FSI) the regulations stipulate that the mash that makes a Bourbon whiskey must contain 51% or more of corn. It then has to be matured in new, charred oak casks. If it is aged for two years or longer (and has no additives like other flavorings, spirits, colorings etc) it can be called ‘Straight Bourbon’. It should also be mentioned that when you pick up your bottle of Bourbon it has been made in the US – it’s a protected name and can only be labeled as such if it’s made here.
The fermentation process is often kick-started by adding in some mash from an already fermenting vat – giving the process the moniker of ‘sour mash’. Bourbon can be distilled to 160 proof but no more than 125 proof when put into casks to mature. If you buy a blended Bourbon then the age on the bottle refers to the youngest whiskey in the blend.
Willett’s Pot Still Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
A premium Kentucky Bourbon, this whiskey arrives in an attractive Pot Still-shaped bottle. Rich and flavorful, the honey and maple aromas give way to caramel with hints of nutmeg and hazelnut. It has a satisfyingly smooth finish which lingers pleasantly.
Perhaps in more of a branding and marketing exercise than anything else, most Tennessee whiskey also qualifies as Bourbon. What sets Tennessee whiskey apart is that it has to go through the Lincoln County Process – whereby after distillation the whiskey is filtered through, or steeped in, sugar maple charcoal chips. Tennessee whiskey is one of the state’s top ten exports.
Jack Daniel’s Old No 7
Everyone has heard of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, it’s the world’s top-selling brand after all. Created from a sour mash this whiskey has been produced for over 100 years, a history almost unheard of. It’s supremely smooth and mellow; with a nose of sweet vanilla and caramel, oaky with a medium body. Jack Daniel’s is well-balanced and ideal as a cocktail mixer especially in a Gentleman Jack mint julep or Lynchburg lemonade.
Typified for its smoothness, our northern neighbors’ whisky is famously made with a percentage of rye. A popular myth is that Canadian whiskey is made with a 100% rye grain mash but their whiskies are primarily corn derived. Today’s Canadian whiskey generally has only a small amount of rye; the ratio of corn to rye can be as much as 9 to 1. Only Alberta Premium makes rye whisky with 100% rye mash (some other brands claim 100% but these are invariably Alberta Premium relabeled).
Canadian whisky is aged for at least three years, distinguishing it from the two year minimum of the States. There are no regulations concerning the type of wood or the amount, if any, of charring of the barrels that the whiskey will mature in. The final alcohol content must be at least 40% ABV or 80 proof.
Forty Creek Barrel Select
If you’ve not tasted Canadian whiskey before then you’ll be amazed at what you’ve been missing for so long. Forty Creek’s Barrel Select is a blend of various grain whiskies that have matured in new American white oak and ex-Bourbon casks. This gives it a well-stocked flavor profile and a robust body. It’s warm gold in color and the taste lingers and develops from stong vanilla and honey through to chocolate and burnt earth. The Barrel Select has aromas of spice, apricot and, of course, vanilla and honey.
Coming from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland to the south, Irish whiskey is a perennially favorite import stateside. Its production can be a combination of grains to make blends and it can be distilled all the way up to an ABV of 94.8%. Irish whiskey is distilled three times, unlike the more common two times, and this makes it particularly smooth. It must mature for three years as a minimum. Ireland is the only country in the world that uses the pure pot stills production method – it takes a mix of malted and unmalted barley which gives the final whiskey a spicy character.
History fans should note that the Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland was officially recognized in 1784 and is the oldest distillery that is still in operation today!
Jameson Irish Whiskey
Jameson’s is one of the most recognizable whiskies imported into the States today. It’s a very smooth, versatile spirit that possesses a spicy tang, overtures of wood and floral aromas. Matured in sherry casks, Jameson Irish Whiskey is an archetypal blend of fine grain and pot still whiskies giving a sweet, nutty and vanilla flavor. This splendid whiskey is famously produced in green bottles.
Scottish whiskey (Scotch)
Scotland also has a long tradition of whiskey production; in fact it’s one of the country’s biggest – and still growing – exports. Just as we have regional distilleries with proud names and heritage, Scotland is no different. Scotch can be Lowlands, Highlands, Islands, Speyside and Campbeltown. Occasionally the Isle of Islay is thought of as a sixth region but often it’s classed as one of the Islands.
To say that Scottish whiskies are desirable is an understatement, 93% of all Scotch is exported! Regional flavorings are typified by peat and smoke, being light and fruity or even possessing slight overtones of salt. Most Scotch drinkers agree that their beverage of choice always has a distinct sweetness to it.
To be called Scotch, it has to be made in Scotland using malted barley and go through two distillations. There can be additives such as whole grains of other cereals and caramel coloring. Nothing else can be added and this includes shortcuts such as fermentation boosters. Stricter distilleries cite their product as being made from nothing but malted barley, water and yeast. Scotch is aged in oak casks for at least three years and a day. The casks have often been used as sherry casks prior to their repurposing for whiskey and this adds a distinctive flavor common in Scotch.
Lowlands Scotch Whisky
Whiskies from the Lowlands are lighter and less saline than other Scotches as they’re triple distilled and produced further from the coast. It used to be a major player in the single malt market but it’s now much more common to find these distilleries making blends. The traditional Lowlands Scotch is one which has grassy notes although these are harder to come by these days.
Auchentoshan Single Malt
This fine example of a Lowlands Scotch is a relative newcomer to the scene. It’s a 12-year-old malt that is already gaining favorable mentions. It’s a sweet Scotch with a moderate body and no smokiness. Fresh ginger and lime rub elbows with hazelnut and leaves in a creamy textured combination that will surprise you.
Highlands Scotch Whisky
Whiskey from the Highlands is renowned for its varieties that include strong peaty overtones, floral bouquets and even nutty tastes. Highlands Scotch accommodates a broad array of tastes with some being strong and almost overpowering and those that are silky and elegant. The old adage of something for everyone really applies here.
This Highland Scotch is a creamy, rich whiskey that has matured for at least 12 years. It gives you a full-mouth feel and has a long finish leaving you with a nutty aftertaste. Being aged in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks offer the amber spirit a sweet fruity flavor and creamy texture.
Islands and Islay
Scotch from the Islands is peaty, smoky and is often floral and salty in nature. It’s quite a layered drink; different notes come through sip after sip developing on your palate. The whiskies can vary from sweet to smoky to peaty and more – the distilleries produce an amazing variation over quite a small geographical area. Islay has eight distilleries on its small island.
A D Rattray’s Cask Islay Single Malt
This delicious small batch whiskey is among the best Scotland has to offer. Mildly peaty, Cask Islay mixes fiery burnt toffee, citrus and barley to leave you with a taste experience you won’t soon forget. It’s an exclusive brand for an exclusive Scottish island.
Speyside has more distilleries in its borders than any other region in the world. In fact more than 50% of Scottish whiskey producers are based in this region alone. Speyside Scotch is rich in nutty fruit flavors and it’s common to taste spices, apples, pears and even honey coming through the blend. Aged in sherry casks, the malt whiskies can possess traits that are light and grassy or sweet and rich.
This Speyside sherried single malt is bottled at cask strength – that’s 100 proof or 50% ABV – and it’s a strong Scotch and no mistake. This fifteen-year old whiskey is copper distilled, removing traces of sulfur, and it’s been awarded ‘Whisky of the Year’ by The Whisky Exchange.
Once a prolific hub of whisky production the Campbeltown peninsula has suffered and now only has three active distilleries. But what distilleries they are! Cambletown Scotch is a distinctive whiskey; wet wool rubs shoulders with fruits, vanilla and toffees. The salty, smoky malts are well-respected and desirable.
Springbank Campbeltown Single Malt
This Springbank Scotch received a World Whiskies Award back in 2014 which helped cement this 10-year old blended malt as a firm favorite among whiskey drinkers. Matured in Bourbon and sherry casks, the Springbank benefits from multi-layered aromas, flavors and tangs. As you take your first sip you’ll pick up peat with overtures of citrus. On the palate you’ll distinguish smoke, nutmeg and vanilla with a characteristic salty hit.