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A bluffer's guide to Scotch whisky

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A world of whisky ... what's your choice?

A world of whisky ... what's your choice? Photo: Tamara Dean

The thing I love about Scotch whisky, apart from drinking it, is the modest sense of superiority associated with drinking it. You see, Scotch is a serious beverage often being served in a very grown up cut-crystal glass. And ordering a whisky is a statement of intent in any bar – it says you have sophisticated tastes but without the snobbery that often accompanies wine aficionados. The whisky drinker is self-assured and making it in the world – but is not too precious to rub shoulders and share a yarn at a busy bar.

Another great thing about whisky is that there is plenty of room for bluffing. Order a malt and you're half way there. Becoming a whisky drinker and in turn a more distinguished member of society can be achieved with a relatively small amount of knowledge. It's my hope to arm you with this lore here and set you on a path to discovering this delightful grain spirit.

What is whisky?

Whisky is spirituous liquor distilled from fermented cereal grains, aged and often blended.

The word whisky is derived from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha which literally translates as 'water of life'. As a 15th century Scot would have been near on impossible for an Englishman to understand (let alone one dosed up on uisge beatha), the term was anglicised to whiskybae before eventually being shortened to whisky.

What is 'single malt' Scotch whisky?

Originally all Scotch whisky was made from malted barley (the same grain used in most beer around the globe), but as commercial realities set in other grains like wheat and rye were introduced.

The huge majority of Scotch whisky on the global market today is blended Scotch whisky – a mixture of whiskies from different distilleries made from malted barley and other grains. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – blending whisky has been a big business since the early 19th century and it takes quite a lot of skill to make a consistent house style of the quality of Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal.

Single malts, as the name suggests however, are all malt whiskies produced by batch distillation in old fashioned pot stills coming from a singular distillery. Blending is still often involved. Different barrels, depending on the wood type, their condition, and their position in the aging warehouse will alter the flavour profile of the spirit considerably over an extended period of aging. For a distillery to produce a consistent house style they must employ a blender. The distillery will draw on stocks from different years to produce their bottling. The age statement on the label (if there is one) is the youngest malt in the bottle.

A word on peat

An important determining factor on the flavour of the whisky coating your glass comes from how your barley was 'malted'. To malt barley it must first be soaked in water for a time to germinate. This releases enzymes that break down starches in the grain to convert them into sugar. Once the desired level of germination has been achieved the barley must be dried using heated air. Many distillers use peat – fuel dug from bogs – to provide the heat needed for malting. This also imparts a smoked, earthy and medicinal quality to the resultant malt whisky.

How to order a whisky

There's no right or wrong way to order a whisky – however you enjoy drinking the stuff is how you should order it. When dishing out big bucks on a single malt however you should consider trying it neat before adding anything to it. Should your malt need a little taming add a few drops of still cool (not chilled) water down the side of your glass. This will lower the proof a little and allow the flavours to 'open-up' a little.  If it's still a little rough by all means add a lump of ice.

Talking about whisky

When talking about the flavour of a whisky there's really very little you can say wrong. Say the first thing that comes to your mind should you be put on the spot – your nose and sense of taste is as good as anyone else's. It really comes down to vocabulary. For example; a peaty whisky that you might describe as smelling 'medical' can also be described as having aromas of iodine, seaweed, bracken and bandages.

If in doubt about flavours and aromas start using more abstract terms like inimitable, ethereal, unmistakeable, and penetrating. You can also talk about the structure of a whisky and how well it is put together. For example, I referred to a Japanese single malt I was drinking the other night as impeccably balanced like layers of finely honed folded steel – a katana compared to the claymore of a Scotch whisky my companion was drinking.

In sum, bluffing your way in whisky is all about a confident delivery.

What's your favourite tipple in the world of whisky?

118 comments so far

  • I don't mind as long as it mixes well with Coke (tm).</SARCASM>;)Favs would be the usual suspects - Talisker (nice peppery Islay malt), Lagavulin (good robust peaty malt) - in terms of the cheaper blends I once enjoyed a Bushmills green but that was in my student days and I imagine my memory of how much I enjoyed it is in part down to the fact that at the time I would have been so overjoyed at just having a 1 litre bottle of Whisky - if only for a short time ;)Oh...and the Tumbler crystal needs to be at least 19% lead - preferably closer to 30% ;)

    Commenter
    Stevo
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 01, 2012, 5:33PM
    • Bushmills is Irish whiskEy, it is not whisky. Scotch whisky alone can make that claim.

      Everything else has that E in it to emphasise that it should be consumed by chavs, bogans and peasants.

      Commenter
      Rob
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 02, 2012, 12:22AM
    • Talisker is NOT from Islay. It's from Skye, which is an entirely different island by the way, but as long as you have your preferred crystal ratio, you clearly don't notice the entirely different flavour profiles. Keep up the good work! ;)

      Commenter
      Sydney Button
      Date and time
      June 02, 2012, 10:13AM
    • Talisker is from the isle of Skye, champ. :)

      Commenter
      Mr Z.
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 04, 2012, 9:32AM
    • Yup - I recognised that when I reread my post. "clearly don't notice the entirely different flavour profiles" - sorry - was my flavour description incorrect ? - please feel free to point out where. Keep up the work...

      Commenter
      Stevo
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 04, 2012, 9:57AM
    • @Rob
      "And they made it with raisins and they made it with corn,
      And they called it Jack Daniels,
      And that was the night domestic violence was born."
      - Otis Lee Crenshaw, Give Me Back My Whisky

      Well so much for the author's claim that whisky drinking is free from the snobbery of wine drinking.

      Commenter
      Curtankerous
      Location
      Ascot Vale
      Date and time
      June 04, 2012, 5:44PM
    • talisker 2 thumbs up.
      secondly dont call it scotch matey. stick with whiskey. as the bourbons deserve a start here. single barrel for example.
      I remember a quote from one of my favourite tv shows - angel - a buffy spin off. "thats not single malt - its..... poly malt"
      for nice distilled spirits try wild brumby in the thredbo valley.
      http://www.wildbrumby.com/

      Commenter
      smilingjack
      Date and time
      June 05, 2012, 3:32AM
  • I tried the Laphroaig Quarter Cask recently. Wow - found a new favourite. Shame it costs a $100 a bottle.

    Aside from that rather 'full' flavour of Laphroaig.
    Glenfiddich 18yo is the drink of choice. Another outstanding drop - but at $125/bottle from Dan Murphy. Enjoyed sparingly.

    Commenter
    DT
    Location
    Syd
    Date and time
    June 01, 2012, 5:40PM
    • Laphroaig Quarter Cask is sublime! Shame about the price and the price of single malts in Australia in general. Coincidentaly, I was at the Laphroaig distilery last year and when I mentioned how much we pay for certain malts to a couple of Irish dudes, they nearly fell of their chairs. It's all pretty much half price over there. We are being ripped off something savage.

      Commenter
      Mr Z.
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 04, 2012, 9:57AM
    • "Full" flavour! LOL. There's a, probably apocryphal, story that Laphroaig was the only scotch able to be imported into the US during prohibition. Because of the way it tasted it was obviously unfit for human consumption and was for medicinal use only. :()

      Now I love Islay malts, but prefer them a little more understated. Caol Ila and Lagavulin of course.

      Commenter
      James K
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 04, 2012, 11:28AM

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