I recently had the pleasure of discovering that there are some changes coming in my life… specifically about 300 bottles worth of Whiskey related changes. The distillery I work at is changing it’s licencing and we are to begin carrying the largest selection of whiskey in Arizona. While I am so so excited about this, it also has reiterated just how much I need to learn about whiskey… and how much I will need to be able to guide others through this rather complicated world. With that in mind, I figured it’s about time I made a very beginners guide to Whiskey.
*authors note: This was going to be on all whiskys but then the Scotch section got too long so now I’m breaking it up into parts. Shame on me.
To “E” or not to “E”
It’s not quite so common any more (or maybe I just found better company) but I used to hear a lot of people getting all riled up over whether or not to spell Whiskey or Whisky. As Shakespeare said: “A rose by any other name smells just as sweet” and so too should a Whiskey by any other name smell just as… peat? I know, it’s a stretch. Basically, “ey” is used in the United States and sometimes with Irish Whiskey. Scotland, Japan and Canada all stick to ‘y’. Now that we have the easy answers out of the way, let’s move on.
What is Whiskey?
Whiskey is a distillate made from grain. That means that a distiller took some cereal grains (corn, wheat, rye, and barley are the main ones) and fermented them into something called a mash. The mash is then distilled to extract the alcohol content. This distillate is then aged in barrels until finished, anywhere from a few months to 75 years and more. The average age range however is 2-20 years. Anything produced in this fashion is considered Whiskey. From there, we have subcategories that are determined by the differences in the processes we defined above, as well as where the product was actually made. Scotch is a Whisky that was made in Scotland according to their designated set of rules. Bourbon is Whiskey that is made in America according to their designated set of rules and so on. The primary whiskey producing nations are: Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada, and Japan (in no particular order). Each of these have their own distinct laws concerned with preserving and protecting the unique flavors associated with their Whiskey. Usually these flavors (and hence these rules) are a part of that nations history and heritage, so honoring these differences and honing the craft are extremely important to the people that make and sell these spirits.
What Is Peat?
So a long long time ago in a land far away (Scotland) the people were cold. They were cold and they didn’t have as much wood as they needed to burn to keep warm. Eventually, some clever lad (or lass) discovered that the unusual soil that built up on their lands could be cut into logs and would burn for a very long time. This was called peat. The people of this land used peat to keep many things warm on their chilly nights, including their barley. You see, in this magical land they were able to transform barley into alcohol. To do this they would get the barley wet, and let it start to grown into baby plants. Then they would make it much too hot for those baby plants to keep growing. This was called Malting. To make it hot they would burn the peat, like they did for everything else… but then this peat would make lots of smoke! Well all that smoke and dirt and swamp flavor got into the barley and when they made that barley into alcohol you could still taste it! It turns out that the people of this land really liked that flavor and then everyone else did too and that’s why even today you can still get a nice, Peaty scotch aaaaaalll across the world. (See, I do kids stories too!)
Scotland and Ireland are generally considered the original producers of Whisky as we know it. About mid 1280’s we start to have real evidence that regions had begun developing their own distinct spirits as we know them, as opposed to the medicinal creations that came before. In Scotland they began producing usquebaugh from grains, which eventually turned into the word “whisky”. So, legally speaking the biggest constraint is that it has to be made in Scotland and it has to have “the distinct qualities that pertain to Scotch”. This phrasing is relatively common in whisky laws and is purposefully left vague. I mean really, how is someone supposed to enforce “Tastes like Scotch enough”?
Whatever. We are starting with Scotch because it’s honestly the most complicated in my opinion. There are two ways to break it down: Region and legal categorization. These two classifications are completely independent of each other so when you are looking at a Scotch label it’s important to really take the time to evaluate what it’s telling you.
Scotch can generally be divided into five regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Campbelltown, and Speyside. Islay is an Island that is almost entirely devoted to Whisky production. It’s whiskys generally have a very peaty character to it (though there are always exceptions) and they pride themselves on delivering the ‘taste of the sea’ in many of their drams. If you want to know more about Islay whiskys, on Netflix (as of the time of writing) there is a documentary called WHISKY: The Islay edition. Do a shot every time they say ‘peat’ but don’t tell anyone I told you to because I don’t want to go to jail when you die from alcohol poisoning. The Highland region is composed of vast tracts of land and can be further broken down into other regions which we absolutely won’t do here because this is ostentatiously a beginner’s guide. The whiskys of this region are generally bold and flavorful with lots of smoke and peat. Speyside is a tiny little segment cut out of the highland region that specializes in lighter, sweeter, grassier Scotches. The Lowlands are characterized by their lighter flavored whiskys, due to the fact that they are more often triple distilled instead of the usual double. Campbelltown tends to be less peaty/smoky with a touch of that seaside flavor.
…And this has been the most utterly basic guide to Scotch regions ever composed. If you would like more information, google it. …But also I strongly recommend Master of Malt to get more detailed explanations on some flavors as well as ratings and recommendations on which whiskys to try from there. I also encourage you to keep an open mind. With craft distillation booming and people drinking Scotch in quantities they literally never have before, there are some changes going on. A lowland distillery can produce a bold, peaty Scotch as well as a highland so don’t paint anyone into a corner.
This part is really fun for me because a great deal of ‘bottle language’ is designed to be a little bit misleading. It’s designed to make you feel like something is more exclusive than it really is, and cutting through that language is a cool exercise in opening up your mind to the ‘behind the scenes’ world of alcohol. So when it comes to the legal distinctions behind Scotch Whisky you have: Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Malt (also referred to as vatted or pure), Blended Grain, and Blended Scotch.
Single Malt is probably the most commonly used descriptor that I find a little misleading, or at least misunderstood. Single malt refers to a whiskey that is produced solely from Malted Barley from one single distillery. It can be blended between various batches to ensure consistency or correct flavor, so it is distinct from “Single Barrel” in that it can come from many barrels. Single Batch can also be used in this style, as you can take many barrels, put it in one big tank and thus create a single batch. Single Grain is a type of whisky produced from a combination of malted barley plus one other type of grain. That can be corn, wheat, rye, whatever. Blended Malt is a blend of two whiskys that can be called “Single Malt”. So what happens here is that one company takes a single malt from one distillery and a single malt from another distillery and blends it to get the taste they are looking for. The whole “vatted”/”pure” malt descriptions are legal loopholes that distilleries attempted to use in order to avoid the negative connotations a lot of people have with the term “blended” and its legality is currently under dispute. Blended Grain is the same way except with single Grains. If you can call both (or more) whiskys “Single Grain”, you blend them together and now they are blended grain. Last but not least is Blended Scotch wherein “Single Malt” and “Single Grain” whiskys are blended to achieve the desired flavors.
This is a good spot to stop for a second and take a stand… as someone beginning to get into whisky (or someone who is already into it and needs a reminder) NOTHING IS WRONG. There is no “Wrong type” of whisky and no right type and no inherently superior or inferior whisky. There is only the whisky that you enjoy. When people discover you have an interest in whisky they are often tempted to tell you that big, peaty scotches are what real whisky lovers want, or that a nice, mellow bourbon is the only right way to drink it. Some will say that the only proper way to serve whisky is neat (no ice) or 1 rock (one piece of ice) or with a splash of water. They might say that adding coke or ginger ale or making a cocktail is a waste of whisky. This is all wrong. This is your drink and you deserve to enjoy it the way you want.
…With that said, there are some good guidelines to follow: I advise against adding coke to a whisky that is about $12/glass or more just because you are paying for more depth and flavor and when you just drop soda on there you loose that, so why pay for it to begin with? I only get whisky cocktails at high quality cocktail bars where I am more secure in the idea that they will do the whisky justice and try to enhance it’s natural characteristics. Never order a whisky sour at a dive bar. If you are trying to open up your palate, try the whisky neat, then with one ice cube, then with a splash of water. keep alternating an ice cube and water until you feel like you can adequately enjoy the whisky. If that doesn’t work, don’t order that particular whisky again. Finally, in the immortal words of Wil Wheaton: Don’t Be A Dick. When you really get into whisky, it will be so tempting… but just take a step back and ask yourself… is this something a dick would say or do? If it is, then don’t do it. This is supposed to be fun for everybody.
Thank you for reading, please comment if you have any questions and I look forward to writing some Beginners guides to whiskey from the rest of the world imminently! Follow myself and Mariah on Facebook and Instagram @spiritsirens to see what we are up to… spoiler alert, it’s distilling!