Sean and Matt’s Guide to Knowing Your Whisky

Spyside
Pic via Whiskey Wizard (Click to open in new tab)

If you drink, chances are you sometimes drink whisky. Whether it be in a rye and ginger, a shot of Jack, a Jameson on the rocks, or a glass of single malt Scotch served neat, just about everyone has a way they like to drink whisky. Despite what you will hear over and over again from some whisky snobs, none of these ways is right or wrong.

Whisky, and single malt Scotch in particular, is a fine drink, maybe the best there is, but the truth is that most of what you have been told about it is probably bullshit. Some people drink Scotch because that’s what they love it and nothing else will do. Others drink it because it allows them to simultaneously display wealth while faking sophistication. If you like to drink whisky, here is how to be the former, and spot the latter.

Whisky is a spirit distilled from grains. These grains can be rye, barley, corn, wheat, or just about anything else you could grind up to make bread. Single malt Scotch whisky is made from malting only barley, distilling it in one place, and aging it in an oak barrel for at least three years. In practice, however, most single malts are aged for considerably longer than that, and this aging process gives rise to one of the biggest myths about Scotch: age equals quality.

Let’s be clear: older scotch is not always better. It is, however, almost always more expensive. Good whisky usually comes of age after anywhere from 10 to 21 years in the warehouse, and the time spent in the barrel mellows the whisky while it draws flavours from the wood, as well as whatever might have been in the barrel first (wine, sherry, or another whisky.) But whether a 16 year old whisky from one distillery is really better than a 12 year old from another is largely a matter of the quality of the spirit before it was put into the cask, as well as the personal taste of the drinker.

Whisky evaporates out of the barrel at a rate of about 2% per year (the “Angel’s share”) and thus the older the cask, the less whisky there is left inside. This is one of several factors which account for the almost exponential increase in the price of whisky for each additional year it has spent in a cask. Aging, however, is not an endless return: even the best whisky can get too old, and once overpowered by the flavours of the wood, may be thoroughly ruined.  Shitty spirits, in the same way, will likely produce a shitty whisky regardless of how long it sleeps in a barrel.

Even though age is not a guarantee of quality, it is a guarantee of high price. This is where an informed drinker, who knows their flavour preferences and styles, can drink more and better whisky for less money, while those attempting to show off can keep demanding nothing less than 18 years-old from their bartender. (May I recommend a double Macallan, on the rocks, in this case?)

170px-Glencairn_Whisky_GlassYes, we have said that there is no wrong way to drink whisky, but the truth is that there is a tried and true approach that real whisky aficionados take to drinking whisky, in public and private, that allows for the ideal enjoyment of the dram. It works like this: get yourself a Glencairn-style glass or something as close to it as possible. A small wine glass or anything with tapered sides and small opening will do—a big part of whisky drinking is whisky smelling, and smelling requires a proper nosing glass. Adding a small amount of water to whisky can open it up and reveal new flavours, but adding ice will make it taste like nothing, which is useful for gulping down bad whisky when that’s all that is available.

What is bad whisky? Generally, cheap blends which contain a lot of grain whisky rather than malt whisky. These typically carry no age statement at all, vaguely promise “smoothness” on the bottle, and go down like gasoline aged in a steel drum.

Scotch whisky comes from four to five regions of Scotland: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, and Island (Island distilleries are sometimes lumped in with the Highlands). What you really need to know about them is this: almost half of the distillers in Scotland are in a region in the northeast called Speyside – including big names like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan – while a small island on the Atlantic coast called Islay has only eight distilleries, but produces almost all of the peated single malts available. These are the likes of Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Bowmore, and they all have a strong earthy, smoky flavour due to the peat fires used to smoke their barley. In practice, there is no faster way to spot a posturing whisky snob than when someone describes a whisky as “peaty” when it’s not actually peated.  The flavour of burned, decomposed vegetable matter is pretty distinctive, and when it’s there you will know it.

Not all the best whisky out there is Scotch either. Bourbon, which is American corn-based whiskey, can be fantastic, and labels like Bulleit, Bookers, Rip Van Winkle, and WL Weller are producing some amazing whiskies. In Canada, Forty Creek is redefining the rye whisky market with some remarkable hand crafted blends. For the past decade, Japan has rivalled Scotland in reproducing their national drink, while Australia, France, India and Sweden are all producing single malts of their own with varying degrees of quality. Single malt Scotch still reigns supreme in the whisky world however, in a position it has rightfully earned, and once you take the time to properly appreciate one you will undoubtedly see why.

Don’t be a whisky snob. Find out what styles and distilleries you like, and look out for them at the bar and the LCBO. Always be willing to try new things, and train your senses to find distinct flavours with each new type you try.  One great way to try different whiskies on the cheap is to make use of the sample bars at various LCBO stores like Summerhill and Queens Quay. Spending $2 to $4 on a couple of samples each time you go to pick up beer can end up saving you from a $60 let down.

Forget about trying to one-up other people by buying the oldest or the most expensive brands, you will end up paying way more for something you may not actually like, only to have your guests drown it in ice and say its “smooth” and “peaty.”  So, once you find a bottle you really enjoy, go ahead and indulge with confidence. After all, it’s not getting any better than it already is, and whisky that is truly enjoyed is never wasted.

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Sean and Matt are contributors at Scotchblog.ca, a place of finer things.

About Sean Kirby

Sean is a contributing writer to Scotchblog.ca. He likes his whisky like he likes his men: fruity, alcoholic, and between 18 and 21 years old.