Imagine this common scene from a movie; a bedraggled looking man walks into a bar, slumps down on the stool and holds his head in his hands. The bartender walks over and asks, "What can I get you?" "Whisky," the man replies gruffly. The shot is poured and swiftly slid under the man's nose without another word said.
Dramatic as this might be, as an avid whisky drinker it seems completely unrealistic. Is there just one bottle of "whisky" behind the bar which everybody drinks? As there are so many wonderful varietals of Scottish whisky, this seems unlikely. Many people who enjoy other alcoholic beverages claim they don't like whisky, but I am sure this is more to do with drinking one which didn't suit their own taste rather than all whisky being unpalatable to them. This OneHowTo article is a beginner's guide on How to Choose the Right Whisky for You and it develops the key considerations you'll need to make when deciding a new favorite tipple.
Single Malt or Blended
The first question you'll need to ask is, "How is it spelled?" If you spell it with the suffix '-ey', then we'll address this in a different article. Here we are concerned with whisky from Scotland. Whiskey is mainly the reserve for whisky from the US and Ireland, including bourbon which has very specific criteria for production. There are also some delicious Japanese whiskies which adhere true to the Scottish method of distillation and various incarnations exist all over the world. I was even able to try one which was made in Nepal named Mount Everest after the world's highest peak.
The next question you'll want to answer is, "Do I want a single malt or blended whisky?" Scottish whisky (Scottish people rarely call it Scotch) falls into these two distinct categories and there are key differences which set them apart.
To be any sort of Scottish whisky, it will need to be made in Scotland from water and malted barley, matured in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years (and 1 day), be between 80 and 190 US proof and have no other additives with the exception of one type of caramel coloring. To be a single malt it has to be made from pot stills from the same distillery and only use water and malted barley.
You can get single grain whisky which is, again, from only one distillery, but may use grains or cereals other than barley and is relatively uncommon as it is generally less flavorful. Blended whisky is one which is made from whiskies from distilleries all over Scotland and constitutes the vast majority of whisky sold there. It consists of majority grain whisky (up to 85%) and is often not considered as good quality. This is why single malt whisky is more sought after and more expensive as it evokes distinct flavors from one distillery and has better quality control.
However, you can get blended malt whisky (previously called vatted malt whisky until regulations changed) which has grown in popularity of late. It is a blend of single malts which means all of its component parts should be of good quality as should be the final result.
To boil these quite complicated categorizations down, the general rule is that grain whisky is the worst quality, followed by blended Scottish whisky (the most common), then blended malt whisky with single malt Scottish whisky considered the best. However, it all comes down to personal preference and single malts are considered best as they are often the richest and most flavorful. A lot of casual whisky drinkers like the paler flavor of a blend.
The Look of the Whisky
If you were to see a range of whisky bottles lined up you'll see a spectrum which runs form the pale yellow (almost the color of dead grass) of many younger whiskies to deep ruby browns which look thick even to the eye. As Scottish whisky needs to be aged for a minimum of 3 years, you'll never see a clear/white one. Color does come from age, but it is not the only consideration. It also depends on how it is distilled (malted or unmalted grains) and where it was aged, specifically in which casks (more on that below).
When you swirl the whisky in the glass, you might see that it sticks to the sides a little or falls off it quickly. This might have to do with age as the older ones tend to have a little more viscosity, whereas younger ones might be paler and have less "legs". However, this is not the case with all of them and I think that sweetness has something to do with it also.
The best way to drink a whisky, in our opinion, is from the specially designed Glencairn whisky glass. It has a small opening which leads to a wider base and allows for the aromas to flow up to your nose when smelling. It is relatively dainty and means you can't easily glug the whole thing back, but good whisky is for sipping and this glass lends to it nicely.
Smell of the Whisky
When I worked in a whisky bar, I would often spend quiet periods opening up bottles at random and having a good sniff at their contents. Some of them are so nice, it's like having a little pick me up in itself, but doing it too often just makes you thirsty for a dram (a dram is the Scottish word for a measure of whisky).
Using either the recommended Glancairn glass or something similar, swirl the whisky around the bottom to let the smells open up. You don't need to stick your nose right down the bottom of the glass, especially as some stronger whiskies might make this unpleasant for your nostrils. Simply hover over the rim of the glass and take a few deep sniffs. If you can, keep swirling it as you smell, but this can take a little practice.
Similar to assessing a wine, there are key scents you'll want to look out for. Lighter and sweeter whiskies can have more fruity notes and you'll be able to assess what type of fruits these might be. Are they more citrusy like lemons and oranges or are they green fruits like apples or kiwi? If you have a sweet tooth then you'll most likely want to explore these types of whisky. You should know the kinds of food or smells that you like and smelling the whisky will help you find the right one for you.
The terroir of a vineyard will have a great bearing on the resultant wine and the same goes for whisky. As water is a key ingredient in whisky, its source has a great impact on the flavor. In the inland Highlands of Scotland the water is rich in minerals with a hardness that allows for more floral and herbal notes. Compare this to Islay malts like Laphroaig which are closer to the sea. They tend to have higher acidity and a brininess which comes from the saltwater. You can even get spice notes depending on the region. Blended malts can have a great nose, but because they come from different distilleries which create different aromas, they have to be well blended to avoid muddling the smell. Doing so can make it too chaotic or even, as happens in cheaper blends, making it bland.
Another common key note is peat. This is a fuel dug up from a bog and the island of Islay is well known for it. It imbues their whiskies with a smokiness many whisky connoisseurs swear by. If you crack open a bottle of Lagavulin, you'll most likely smell medicinal TCP notes along with something resembling gasoline. You might have to drink up quick though, as there are reports that peat on Islay is running out and, potentially, one of the main characteristics of its whisky will go with it.
We have included a great aroma chart below from Whisky Magazine to help you work out what smells you might enjoy and you can ask your bartender for their recommendation.
Taste of the Whisky
Just because Lagavulin has a slight petroleum smell on the nose, doesn't mean that it is the same as filling up a glass at the gas station and having a go on that. The smell on those, as is common with much food and drink, is not the same as the taste on the tongue. Lagavulin has a peat smoke character which is enjoyed the world over (particularly in the Asian markets) and its complexity might well be a good reason for this.
Lift the whisky to your mouth and take a little sip. With wine you suck the taste through your teeth and let it aerate. Some whiskies are so strong in alcohol that doing this can make you gag, so it is not recommended. Instead, you will want to swirl it around your mouth like you did with the glass. Let it coat your taste-buds and see what flavors come out. It can be quite astonishing how different the aroma is to the palate.
You want to look out for key tastes, i.e. sweet, dry, acidic, creamy, and then see when the flavor kicks in. Is it really bright at the start then fades away quickly? Do the flavors take a while to open up, but once they do they are strong and powerful? Does it have a long finish? A long finish means that the taste stays with you for a while, rather than diminishing quickly. Like wine, it is one of the trademarks of a good whisky. In saying that, a really poorly made whisky might stay on your tongue, but for completely different reasons.
Although many whisky drinkers will claim that having it on ice is sacrilege, many swear by adding a little drop of water to the whisky to open up the flavors. Pubs in Scotland traditionally have jugs of water placed about the room for precisely this reason. Too much, however, can just water it down and you might have ruined a perfectly good whisky.
Location of the Distillery
We have already discussed that the water and terroir of a distillery can affect its character, but just because two whiskies are from makers near the sea doesn't mean they'll have the same flavor. The two main categories are Highlands and islands, but there are many other factors to consider so let's take a look at some key areas as well:
- The Highlands: these tend to be mineral rich, give herby notes and the hard water can have an interesting effect on some whiskies. Included in this category are islands such as Orkney, Skye and Jura. This whiskies have a diverse range of characteristics, but may include some peatiness and are often considered easy drinking. Whisky of note from the region includes Dalmore (known for its stag head emblem on the bottles), Talisker (not peaty, but very reminiscent of the sea), Glenmorangie (popular, but of good quality) and Scapa (a fan favorite).
- Speyside: this is the region along the river Spey which, although in the Highlands, has a unique character to its whiskies. They are often on the sweeter side of the scale to its westerly counterparts with its famed freshwater providing honey notes, cinnamon or even grassy aromas. Glenfiddich is one of the most popular whiskies across the globe and this comes from the area, so does the much lauded Macallan, which is a great start for those who already know they like sweeter flavors.
- The Lowlands: with only five distilleries in the region, this area is not most commonly lauded, but there are some fine whiskies among them. If you visit the city of Glasgow, Auchentoshan is a short drive away and has a great tour to see how it is made (of course you get a sample while you're there). These malts tend to be on the softer side, but a lot of development is going into the area and some new distilleries appear to be opening which could change its reputation.
- Islay: much vaunted and a must-go place to visit on any whisky tour, the malts from here include Caol Ila, Bowmore, the aforementioned Lagavulin and Bunnahabhian. Known for its legendary smoky whisky, there is much more to its whisky than just peat. I recommend anyone who is just starting to try Bunnahabhian as it straddles the two worlds between sweet and dry, aromatic and peaty. From there you can see where the flavor takes you.
- Campbeltown: although small in size, this area used to have almost 30 distilleries. This has gone down to only 3, but you can still find collectors bottles from now defunct brands. If you by chance find one, hold on to it as it will be worth a lot of money.
Barrels or Casks
The 3 year minimum ageing process happens in casks and this has great bearing on the final product. These will be made of oak and there are two most common varieties: European oak and American oak. American oak more often than not has been previously used for bourbon. This will impart a sweetness and heavy vanilla notes to the whisky. European oak is usually more bitter than sweet and can give it a spiciness you might not expect.
Of course, as much as where the wood comes from, what the barrels previously contained is just as important. Red wine casks will not only give it an off-dry character, but will also impart some color to the whisky. Sherry casks from Spain were commonly used in the past as a means of transporting it from one country to the other and the flavors which it provides were so well liked that the casks were kept for maturation. Although this process doesn't happen organically very much anymore, some distilleries have been known to loan out their new barrels to sherry producers just so that they can get this flavor.
White wine casks will often give more floral notes and spirits like rum can give a molasses type flavor. Brandy, port, Marsala and other fortified wines all lend their own unique smells and tastes. Another important component is how the barrels are treated. Some are blasted with hot fire to toast them which can, perhaps unsurprisingly, really add to the natural smoky character of some whiskies. Even the size of a barrel can have a bearing on it.
Year of Bottling
Whisky collecting is an expensive business and the bottles which go for the biggest prices tend to be the oldest. Although a "scotch" needs to be matured for a minimum of 3 years, it is rare to find a single malt which has been aged for less than 10. After 10, they tend to go up to 12, then 15, then 18 years old. If you have whiskies aged longer than this, it is because someone is wanting to make something very special and the price will reflect that. There could be whisky that is even older still in each bottle as the year only describes the youngest whisky which appears inside.
Stories of auctions where bottles have gone for tens of thousands of pounds are not uncommon and the most expensive bottle ever was a Macallan which went for $628,205. It was all single malt, but some of the whisky contained within was 75 years old.
In general, the older the better, but if a bottle was opened, it will start to deteriorate. Finding unopened bottles from decades past is becoming rarer and rarer. I can say that, in my personal experience, the nicest whisky I ever tried was a Strathisla from Speyside which was bottled in 1962 and the second best was a Macallan from the same year; they had both been opened for a period of years.
New distilleries have been in business for a long time, but haven't even released their first batch as there is no way to make time hurry on. Some distilleries will make something else, like gin, while they wait to keep them ticking over, but one of the reasons whisky culture is so admired is because of the time and knowledge which goes in to making a good one.
This doesn't mean that you will need to break the bank to buy well, there are many 10 year old malts which are incredibly tasty. It does mean that older bottles make great gifts or are to be enjoyed on special occasions.
There are many things to consider when choosing the right whisky for you, but hopefully this has been a good guide to get you started. A decent bartender will at least know a single malt from a blend and can advise on what products they have in stock. However, the best advice is to trust your own palate and drink whiskies which you think will respond to it. Also, just go ahead and try them. If it is aged, from a good distillery and has had care and attention given to it, it will be a quality drink. You will also develop a better sense over time, so you maybe you don't start off liking smoky whiskies, but you might be open to them in the future.
If you want to know what else you can do with whisky, why not read How to Make the Perfect Hot Toddy to Treat a Cold. If you want to know about other spirits you can enjoy, you can learn How to Make a Carajillo Coffee.
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