Rum & Reviews Magazine presents ‘A Beginners Guide to Whisky’ by our own whisky connoisseur, Steve Crotty. Self-proclaimed ‘whisky tsar’ Steve has been seriously drinking and studying whisky since legally able to, and has sampled over 1,000 different whiskies.
It occurred to me as I started with these reviews that there will be some people who read them and know nothing about whisky. Whisky distillers, writers and critics love nothing more than to use complicated terms to justify the price of the stuff (let’s be honest, it isn’t cheap) and to make it sound like a highly specialised area of expertise. Whilst this is true for the making of it, which has been taught and handed down through the generations, anybody can get started on the long enjoyable, occasionally hangover-ridden, road of discovery. This guide aims to demystify some of the terms and help you make a decision on where to begin your journey.
I’m not going to bore you with the history of whisky, suffice to say that the Irish and the Scots still argue over where it was first invented (it was in Ireland, but the Scots perfected mass-production).
1. What is Whisky?
When broken down into its core ingredients, whisky is essentially water, malt or grain and yeast. That’s it. The complication comes in turning those ingredients into a drinkable solution. This is done through a system so complicated and precise that it makes whisky nigh on impossible to reproduce at home (example: when mixing the grain with hot water, the water must be at exactly 63.5°C. Not above, not below). However, each distillery has its own version of this process to give their brand a unique flavour and allow us drinkers to revel in the subtle nuances it provides.
Different size/shape stills, different lengths of fermentation time and even how much of the finished product is saved (known in the business as ‘the cut’) can produce different results. Some companies pride themselves on the fact they only use a small amount of finished product to make sure they use the best of each cut (The Macallan) where as some say their greatness lies in the fact that they repeat certain stages of the process to produce a smoother flavour (Auchentoshan).
Once the spirit has been distilled it is then deposited into casks (barrels) to age. This is what gives whisky its colour and its unique taste. From a legal point of view a spirit is not a whisky unless it has spent at least 3 years aging inside a cask. (Different rules apply for Bourbon and Rye etc.) Up until that point it can still be sold but can only be called a spirit. Other laws regarding the production of whisky state that it must have matured inside an oak cask and be of at least 40% ABV.
The taste of a whisky can be defined by the type of cask that is used. The majority of Scottish whisky is matured in bourbon oak casks shipped over from America in parts and reassembled, simply because it is cheaper. However, the use of sherry, port and even rum casks have been used by many different distilleries to give each of their whiskies a distinctive flavour. A whisky can also have been matured in one type of cask, i.e. it could have started its maturation in a bourbon cask but have been transferred to a sherry cask for the last two years to change the flavour.
Although it only takes three years maturation for malt spirit to become a whisky, the whisky is still generally regarded as not having gained enough flavour from the barrel and as a result there are few examples of whisky at this age. The standard whisky produced by most companies for their ‘entry-level’ (cheapest) single malt is either 8 or 10 years. More years equals a higher price although it is widely agreed that anything above 20 years does little for the whisky. This does not stop companies maturing whisky for long periods, in fact in 2008 there was much excitement in the whisky community when Mortlach introduced the world’s first 70 year old whisky (see below). To put this in perspective, when this whisky was first poured into a barrel the Second World War hadn‘t even started!
(Below) The Mortlach 70 – The world’s oldest whisky
(Part 2: ‘Whisky Definitions’ to follow)