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?