Baffled by bourbon? Mystified by malt? Worried about being a whiskidiot? Our handy cheat sheet will teach you everything you need to convince your friends that you’re an expert in the golden stuff.
What’s the difference between “whisky” and “whiskey”?
The main difference is in where it comes from: in general, if it’s from Ireland or the United States it’s usually whisk*ey*, everywhere else it’s whisk*y*. The rest of the name is important too – Scotch whisky can only be produced in Scotland, while Bourbon whiskey is only made in America. The reason where it comes from matters is that different places make it in different ways, as whisky expert (and owner of Leeds’ The Whisky Vault) Richard Hawley explains:
“Scotch mostly uses malted barley and must be matured for a minimum of three years, though it can be matured in many different casks – such as ex-Sherry or Bourbon casks. Bourbon, on the other hand, must be matured in new charred oak barrels and must contain a minimum of 51% corn and be distilled at 160 proof or less.”
What is whisky made of?
Whisky has three key ingredients: some kind of grain (typically barley, corn, rye or wheat), water and yeast. Grist – crushed grain – is mixed with water and heated to form what’s known as a mash. Yeast is then added, which turns sugar in the mash into alcohol, producing a ‘wash’ – a bit like a very strong beer (albeit one that’s not very tasty, because it hasn’t had any hops added to it).
This is then distilled, a process which purifies and removes much of the water content. And we haven’t even got to the most time-consuming part: ageing – the whisky is placed into oak barrels to mature. And in terms of flavour, it’s only time spent in the barrel that counts – once it’s in the bottle, a 5-year-old bottle of whisky is always a 5-year-old, even if you’ve had it for 10 years.
What do people mean when they talk about a “smokey whisky” or a “peaty whisky”?
Smokey and peaty are ways of describing the flavour of a whisky – and it’s not just an expression. Scotch whisky is made from malt barley, which is dried during production in kilns often heated with peat – a kind of soil common in the highlands that makes good fuel because it’s mostly made of dead plants. The barley absorbs compounds called “phenols” from the peat smoke and their flavour is retained in the resulting whisky.
Do different kinds of barley affect the flavour? Dr Julian South of the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain says: “In principle I would say yes, but then it is likely that any differences in flavour between barley varieties are masked by other factors such as maturation in oak casks.”
How should I drink whisky? Neat? On the rocks?
While many people have strong views about how you should drink whisky, it’s ultimately down to personal preference. Richard Hawley is wary of snobbery, saying he “would never tell someone they should drink anything a certain way or criticise their taste preferences” but for a classic single malt Scotch he advises: “there is nothing wrong with adding a few drops of water in as this will release more aromas and flavours and can really enhance your whisky experience”.
Why does it cost so much?
The ageing process involved in making whisky mean that it’s relatively expensive to produce. Manufacturers have to have barrels of it sitting around for years – and the longer it sits around in those barrels, the higher the costs and the more desirable the end result – leading to some eye-watering prices. Richard Hawley explains: “We are steadily seeing an increase in new releases coming out at crazy high prices, this can be for a number of reasons; limited availability, long-aged whisky, expensive packaging or decanter.”
But you don’t necessarily have break the bank, Hawley says: “There are some brilliant single malt Scotch whiskies available for £30-£50.”