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A Beginner’s Guide To Whiskey

A Beginner’s Guide To Whiskey

Everything you need to know before you start drinking whiskey

Whiskey is a drink that has been made for hundreds of years in Scotland and is now produced all over the world. The word Whiskey comes from the Gaelic word – ‘uisge beatha’ – which means water of life. 

Glass of Whiskey

No one knows who started brewing the first Whiskeys but there is a local legend in the Scottish Highlands that suggests it was Christian missionaries that were the first to make the hard stuff. 

When people think of a sophisticated drink their minds will inevitably settle on whiskey. Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye whiskey have a reputation for being the drink of choice for the well-to-do and the well-educated.

This reputation draws a lot of people towards the drink but scares an equal amount of people away. We talk to a lot of people who want to drink whiskey but don’t know where to start and are worried about starting in case they make a mistake.

If that sounds like you then you have come to the right place. This is the ultimate guide to whiskey. We will teach you what it is, how to drink it, and what the best types of whiskey to drink are.

We will answer the age-old question – is it whisky or whiskey? We will also look at how where the Whiskey is brewed affects how it tastes and how much it costs.

So, if you want to learn more about one of the world’s favorite spirits, then continue reading.

What Is Whiskey?

What is Whiskey

Whiskey is an alcoholic spirit that was first made in Scotland. It is a distilled spirit that is made from grains – traditionally malted Barley or Rye. Although, some companies will use Corn or Wheat if they are grown in the local area. Whiskey can even be made from Rice.

The grains are mashed or rolled – this releases their natural sugars. It is these sugars that are eventually fermented until they become alcohol. Once the sugars have transformed into alcohol, they go through a distilling process – this makes them stronger or more potent.

After the liquid has been distilled it is typically transferred to a barrel and left to age. This aging process can change the color of the Whiskey and mature the flavor. The type of wood the barrel is made from can also affect the flavor of the whiskey. Most companies use Oak barrels to age their drinks.

This is a rough description of how whiskey is made. However, every company does it slightly differently. Because every company makes their own Whiskey differently, there is a huge range of flavors, colors, and strengths when it comes to the drink. This means that the drink has a much wider appeal.

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Is it Whiskey Or Whisky?

Is it Whiskey or Whisky

This is a pretty simple question and it won’t take us long to answer it.

If it is from Scotland, Canada, or Japan then it is called Whisky. However, if the drink is from America or Ireland then it is called Whiskey.

For the sake of simplicity, we will be using Whiskey throughout this article.

How To Drink Whiskey?

How To Drink Whiskey

There are three different ways that you can drink Whiskey – neat, with water, and on the rocks. How you choose to drink your Whiskey will depend on the type of Whiskey you have ordered and how you like your whiskey.

Whiskey Neat

There are some Whiskeys that are best enjoyed neat. This gives you a chance to experience the complete range of flavors the drink has to offer.

Because of Whiskey’s high alcohol content (usually 30-40%), most people are tempted to water it down. But if you are sipping a high enough quality Whiskey you won’t need to do this. If you want to enjoy your Whiskey cold then you are better off chilling the glass or the bottle rather than adding ice to the drink.

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Whiskey and Water

This has come to be known as the Irish way to drink Whiskey – when it’s not being served in coffee.

Some Whiskey can be enhanced by adding a few drops of water. This can take the edge of the alcohol aftertaste and help to heighten some of the milder flavor notes in the Whiskey.

You can do this by taking a pipet (or a straw) and adding 2-3 drops of water into your glass. Mix the water into the Whiskey and taste it. Depending on Whiskey, you might have to do this a few times to get the flavor you want.

Whiskey on the Rocks

The final way you can drink Whiskey is on the rocks (over ice).

Ice tends to be added to drinks to dilute the flavor and because the cold numbs your tongue (so you can’t taste as much). So, this is not something you will always want to do when you are drinking Whiskey – particularly high quality and expensive Whiskey.

If you are going to add ice to your Whiskey then you should only use one large ice cube or a ball of ice. This will allow you to chill your Whiskey without diluting it too much.

Types Of Whiskey For Beginners

Types Of Whiskey For Beginners

When you are new to the world of Whiskey, it is hard to know where to start buying and tasting. We hope that this section will help you as you start exploring the drink.

Now, we are going to discuss the 5 most popular countries that make Whiskey, as well as the most popular Whiskey cocktails.

Scotch

As Whiskey was invented in Scotland over 800 years ago, it is no surprise to anyone that Scottish Whiskey (or Scotch) is the most respected and valuable Whisky on the market.

The earliest reference to Whisky being made in Scotland can be found in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494. However, many believe that Whisky production in Scotland could go back even further. There are some who suggest that the process could have been started as far back as the 7th century.

It is thought that Whiskey was first used as a medicinal treatment for ailments that were common in the Mediaeval Period.

Scotland has the strictest rules in the world when it comes to how its Whisky is classified and labeled. For example, if a Whisky is to be labeled as Scotch then it must have been aged for at least three years in old oak barrels.

As Bourbon has to be aged in new barrels, most used Bourbon barrels are sold to Scottish companies after use.

Scotch is typically distilled twice and there are 5 categories of Scotch.

Single Malt

A single malt Scotch must be made entirely from single malt barley and have been made in a single distillery.

These recipes are so simple that if one bad ingredient is used then it really stands out in the final product.

This is the rarest and most expensive type of Scotch.

Single Grain

This type of Whisky can be made from multiple types of grains but must be made in one distillery. This type of Scotch tends to be used in Blends rather than being bottled and sold on its own.

Blended Malt

This is a Scotch that is made of two Single Malt Whiskys. Both of the Shotches used in this Whisky must meet the classifications for Single Malt Whiskys. They can be from the same or different distilleries.

This is a rare type of Scotch. If their Whisky meets the standard of Single Malt, most distilleries will sell the Whisky unblended.

Blended Grain

This type of Whisky is made from a blend of two Whiskeys that meet the standard for Single Grain Scotch.

Blended Scotch

Blended Scotch is made up of a mixture of any Single Grain Scotch and any Single Malt Scotch. Including the Single Grain,  makes the Scotch much more affordable to make.

This is the most common type of Scotch sold around the world.

Scotland is split into 5 official Scotch production regions. There is also an unofficial region that has recently started to have a bigger impact on the Scotch market.

Campbeltown

This used to be the epicenter of Scotch production, however, over the years, Whisky production has moved to other areas of Scotland. There are now only 3 activity distilleries in this region.

Highlands

The Highlands region covers the biggest area of Scotland and is also home to some of its biggest brands. Such as The Macallan, Oban, Old Pulteney, and Glenmorangie.

Islay

If you want rich and complex Scotch with notes of smoke, peat, and salt – then you will need to buy an Islay Scotch. This area is home to some of the oldest distilleries in the country.

Lowlands

This is another region that used to be full of distilleries but now makes a lot less Whisky.

Speyside

There are more distilleries in this region than in any other Scottish region. Many of Scotland’s biggest brands are based in this area.

The Islands (unofficial)

Islay is the only island not included in this region. However, many newer distilleries have opened up in this area and have started to make a name for themselves.

Scotch Recommendations

After reading that, you are probably quite excited to try out your first Scotch – here are three Scotches that are perfect for beginners and one wild card that we think you will love.

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Scotch

If you talk to Scotch lovers about this Whiskey, they might tut or roll their eyes at you. While this isn’t the most sophisticated Scotch out there, it is perfect for beginners.

Why? Because it is crisp and full of flavor while being overwhelming or painful to drink.

The water used in Dalwhinnie (which means “the meeting place”) is drawn from Lochan-Doire-Uaine, which is a loch surrounded by peat bogs. 

Glenfiddich 12 Year Scotch Whisky

This Whisky hails from Speyside and has won many awards. Many more experienced Whisky drinkers may be put off this Scotch because it is from a big brand and is widely available. But that really is their loss.

This is a lighter Scotch that has a spicy yet floral pallet. It has notes of honey and stone fruits. Later on, it develops citrus notes. It also has notes of oak throughout.

This is a great bottle for those who are looking to get to know the region or who want a sweeter, after-dinner Whiskey.

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Bladnoch 11 Year Scotch Whisky

If you want all the complex flavor notes of a Scotch, without the biting alcohol aftertaste (that many beginners find a little overwhelming) then we recommend picking out a bottle of Bladnoch 11 Year Scotch Whisky.

This Scotch really does have a complex flavor that leans sweet overall. It is another Lowlands Whisky.

The first wave of flavors that you will get from this Whiskey are honey, apple, and peppered oak. After that, you will be hit by a wave of lemon blossom and honeysuckle.

Bladnoch describes the aftertaste of this Scotch as ripe pear and heather honey.

Glenkinchie 12 Year Old Whisky (wildcard)

This Scotch is made in one of the few still-running Lowlands breweries. We have listed this as our wildcard because the Whiskys from this part of Scotland tend to be a little different – but we think this is what will make it perfect for a beginner.

When you first take a sip of this Whisky, you will notice that it is fresh and sweet – with grassy top notes and deeper notes of cooked fruit. It is a perfect Scotch to have before you eat a meal.

Irish Whiskey

For a Whiskey to be sold as Irish Whiskey it must be made and bottled in Ireland, as well as being aged for at least 3 years. Much like Scotch.

Irish Whiskey, however, must be triple distilled. Irish brewers are also allowed to add enzymes to the grain before it is fermented to speed up the process of sugar production.

While Scotland has the strictest regulations when it comes to labeling Whiskey, Ireland also has some classification rules. For example, if more than one Whiskey is bottled together, it must be labeled as “blended”. Most Irish Whiskeys are blended.

There are only 10 licensed Whiskey distilleries in Ireland. One of them is Old Bushmills, which first opened in 1784. This is the oldest licensed distillery in the world right now. 7 of the 10 distilleries are less than a decade old. The final two were opened in 1975 and 1989.

American

If you are shopping for American Whiskey then you are going to find 7 main types:

  1. Bourbon
  2. Tennessee Whiskey
  3. Rye
  4. Moonshine
  5. Bottled in Bond
  6. Straight
  7. “Undefined”

Bourbon

To be a Bourbon American Whiskey must be both 51 percent corn, and aged in charred, new oak barrels. It can be made anywhere in the US, not just in Kentucky.

Tennessee Whiskey

This type of Whiskey is a subcategory of Bourbon. Tennessee Whiskey must meet all the requirements for Bourbon, be made in Tennessee, and go through an extra charcoal filtering process known as the “Lincoln County Process.”

Rye

To be an  American Rye Whiskey must be both 51 percent Rye, and aged in charred, new oak barrels.

Moonshine

One of the key factors of Moonshine Whiskey is that it is not aged. It is typically made from Corn, but it can be made of any blend of grains.

Bottle in Bond

This type of Whiskey must be bottled at 50 percent ABV or higher. It must be made from grains harvested in a single season. It must be made in a signal distillery. And finally, it must be aged for at least 4 years.

Straight

In America, Straight Whiskey is a type of Whiskey that meets the classification for Rye, Wheat, or Bourbon (51%+ of the key ingredient) and is aged for over 2 years.

Undefined

If a Whiskey does not fit into any of the above categories then it must just be labeled as American Whiskey.

Canadian

One of the things you must be aware of when it comes to Canadian Whisky is that it does not have to stick to the strict labeling laws that Whiskeys have to do in America.

For example, in America, for a Whiskey to be allowed to call itself a Rye Whiskey it has to contain at least 51% Rye. There is no such law in Canada. So, you could find yourself drinking a Canadian Rye Whisky that actually has no Rye in it.

If a Canadian Whisky is made of straight Rye then it must be aged for at least three years in an oak barrel. Because of this most Canadian Whiskys are mostly made with Corn and then have a small amount of Rye or Rye flavorings blended into them.

If you are looking to get a lot of Whisky for your money, then you should look into Canadian Whisky – especially if you are just getting to know Whiskey and aren’t too fussy about what goes into your bottle. Canadian Whisky also tends to be on the sweeter side.

Japanese & World Whisky

Finally, let’s talk about Japanese Whisky. If you are new to the world of Whiskey, then you won’t be aware of how much the reputation of Japanese Whisky has changed over the last decade. The world really has fallen in love with it.

Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist and founder of the Japanese Whisky industry, first visited Scotland in the 1920s.

This was where he fell in love with the spirit and decided that he was going to make his own to sell in his home country. Taketsuru is responsible for 4 of the biggest Whisky companies in Japan today.

So, what is so special about Japanese Whisky?

Well, there is no distinctive style when it comes to Japanese Whisky – but the companies do have a reputation for making very high quality blends based on the best that other countries have to offer.

For example, many Japanese companies make Scotch-style single blends, as well as blends Inspired by Irish Whiskeys.

What sets the Japanese companies apart is the fact that they will tend to make multiple blends per company. This differs vastly from countries like Scotland where traditionally each brewery will only make one Whisky.

Flavored Whiskey

As with all types of consumer goods, brands are now making adventurous flavored versions of this popular liquor. There is a whole range of flavors, the most popular being peanut butter whiskey.

Peanut Butter Whiskey

Whiskey connoisseurs might not consider it to be as sophisticated as a traditional bottle, but perhaps we should not be taking it that seriously.

It’s a playful take that mixes PB with a base whiskey.

Banana Whiskey

Banana whiskey is growing in popularity primarily due to the Howler Head brand. An incredibly sweet variation this has become a pre-game shot favorite.

Whiskey Cocktails

Drinking Whiskey on its own is not the only way to enjoy the spirit. You can also make cocktails out of it. However, we don’t recommend using your 50-year aged, single malt Scotch in a cocktail. Try something a little less precious.

Highball 

This is one of the easiest Whiskey cocktails to make. It is simply a mix of 1 part Whiskey to 3 parts Ginger Ale. Sometimes soda or tonic water can be used instead of Ginger Ale.

This is best served over a generous serving of ice and no garnish.

Whiskey Manhattan

The Manhattan is an elegantly simple cocktail that doesn’t overwhelm the tongue but still manages to excite it.

This is best served chilled but with no ice, in a martini glass, and garnished with a morello cherry.

Old-Fashioned

As classic as they come, the Old-Fashioned plays with the sweet and sour flavors to bring out the complexity of the Whiskey that is being used in it.

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Irish Coffee

There is nothing more satisfying at the end of a meal than a large Irish Coffee. Don’t forget to add the cream.

Bourbon Mint Julep

A cocktail perfect for summer and is so delicious that stopping one glass can feel impossible.

How to Get Started Tasting Whiskey

How to Get Started Tasting Whiskey

Depending on which Whiskey lover you talk to, they will give you different advice on how to taste Whiskey. Some will tell you that you should try it with ice for the first time, while others will even suggest trying it with soda water for the first time.

While they may have their own reasons for suggesting this, we recommend that when you first taste a Whiskey, you try it straight, before altering it later (if you feel like you need to).

Here is our guide to tasting Whiskey to see if it is right for you. You will find this particularly helpful if you are looking to buy a bottle of Whiskey, rather than buying a dram at a bar.

Research the Whiskey

When it comes to buying Whiskey, it pays to be prepared. You should go into a shop with an idea of what you will be buying – even if you have just narrowed it down to the country you are going to buy from.

The more you know about the Whiskey, the better your tasting experience will be.

The Glass

When you are tasting Whiskey, you should make sure that it is served in a nosing glass. This will give you the best chance to understand the drink and how you feel about it. There is one glass that is an exception to this rule – the Glencairn glass.

Copita Nosing Glass

This is a traditional Whiskey tasting glass. It has a wide base and a medium stem. The glass itself is curved (like a tulip). You can swirl the liquid without having to worry about losing too much alcoholic vapor.

 Glencairn Glass

This product is a more recent invention that has been designed specifically for tasting scotch. It has a wide base but no stem. The taper on the glass is sharper, making nosing the Whiskey much easier.

Visually Examine The Whiskey

You can tell a lot about a Whiskey and how it was made just by looking at it. For example, if the Whiskey is slightly cloudy then it has gone through a chilled distillation process. However, a darker liquor suggests that the Whiskey has been aged for longer or it has been flavored.

Smell (Nose) The Whiskey

There are two stages to nosing Whiskey – the first nose and the second nose.

The first nose will take place straight after the Whiskey has been poured out. Raise the glass towards your nose and breathe in the aroma (this one might burn), then lower it and breathe in again. Repeat this process.

Then bring the glass up to eye level and swirl the Whiskey around the glass for 20 seconds. Then the glass towards your nose and breathe in the aroma and then lower it and breathe in again. Repeat this process.

Taste The Whiskey

To taste the Whiskey, you will want to take a small sip. If you have nosed the Whiskey correctly then the alcohol in the Whiskey will not burn as intensely – which will make it easier for you to taste the Whiskey.

If you do find the flavor too overwhelming, then you should take a series of small and shallow breaths until it is easier to cope with.

You will want to swirl the Whiskey around your mouth, allowing it to coat your whole tongue. Different parts of your tongue are responsible for different flavors, so it is important to cover the whole tongue.

Once you are happy that you have covered your whole tongue, swallow the Whiskey.

Add Ice Or Water?

After you have tasted the Whiskey straight, it is time to talk to the seller about whether it is recommended to serve this Whiskey on ice or with water. If this is the case, then it is now time to taste it again but served differently.

What Is A Dram Of Whiskey?

What is a Dram of Whiskey

When you’ve looked at a menu at any good bar, you probably would have seen Whiskey prices listed by the dram and by the bottle.

So, you have probably realized that a dram is some kind of measurement and you’d be right. A dram is ⅛ of a fluid ounce or 4ml. This is the smallest serving that Whiskey comes in.

While the dram used to be an exact measurement, most bars do not use it anymore. Some bars treat a dram as a splash of Whiskey, while others use it as an interchangeable word for a glass of Whiskey.

So make sure you ask before you order your dram.

How Do You Drink Whiskey?

How Do You Drink a Dram

There is no wrong way to drink Whiskey, but there are ways to do it that can enhance the flavor of the drink and your experience.

Once you have chosen the type of Whiskey you are going to drink and how you are going to serve it, it is time to think about how you will drink the Whiskey.

Ask for a sample of the Whiskey without ice first.

Before you start sipping your Whiskey, make sure that you take the time to breathe in its aroma. This will help you to get an idea of what you are about to drink – does it make woody or smokey notes, does the liquid have a heat to it, would you prefer it with ice?

Then take a small sip of the Whiskey and roll it around your tongue. Make sure that it covers the whole surface area of your tongue – that way you will be able to taste all the flavor notes.

Take a sip of water to clear your palate before taking a second sip of Whiskey. This time drink it normally.

If you enjoyed the drink you can order a glass of it. You may want to ask the bartender to add ice or a few drops of water. You can always ask the bar who they recommend the Whiskey be served. 

Summary

Whiskey

Whiskey is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the world. It is hugely popular throughout pop culture, with it being the drink of choice for some of the most sophisticated characters on page and screen.

The drink originated from Scotland, UK, and was supposedly first made by monks. This drink is now brewed across the world – with some of the big brands being based in the United States and Japan.

Whiskey can be drunk straight or mixed into a cocktail. There are Whiskeys that are designed to be watered down and served over ice, while others are designed to be sipped.

Good luck on your adventure into the world of Whiskey.

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Written by Macie Maislin

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