Today I’m celebrating World Whisky Day and you should too! Whisky has an amazingly rich cultural history and I encourage you to learn about this divine spirit in the best way possible – by drinking it! My hope is to share a way of thinking about whisky that helps you find what you like and helps you explore the wide, wonderful world of whisky. Bear in mind this is a layperson’s view of whisky - albeit informed by plenty of very enjoyable experience!
Whisky is referred to classically as the “water of life” for good reason. While I enjoy and appreciate beer, wine, and other liquors, whisky goes beyond enjoyment and appreciation into obsession. The complexities, subtitles, and endless variations of the drink are enthralling. If you delve into the world of whiskies, you’ll find that it stimulates all the senses. The pop of a pulled cork or clinking of an ice cube in a tumbler initiate Pavlovian anticipation for consecrating the day’s end. Then there’s a ballet of elegance in the feel of glassware when dancing between a hefty bottle to a decorative decanter to a delicate Glencairn copita. Staring at the amber liquid as a moth stares at a flame brings you to the point of closing your eyes to take in the peaty perfume of Islay. The fragrance transports you immediately fireside to another time and place. Finally, you feel the surprising chewiness and taste an explosion of malted grain in a cascading slow burn that creates a sensory maelstrom and draws you in deeper and deeper for the next sip and next one after that.
The mechanics of whisky production are fascinating and range from simple (just watch the TV show Moonshiners…) to ridiculously complex. But, the basic process is:
- Malting: Grain (i.e. starch) has to be converted to sugar to make alcohol. The process starts by first “malting” the grain by soaking it in water then drying it out again.
- Mashing and Fermenting: Next, yeast is added to convert the grain into alcohol. It is put in large vats (aka “tuns”) and water is added again. The liquid ferments as a “wort” which is basically like beer.
- Distilling: After mashing, the liquid is put in metal stills and heated then cooled. This process creates a vapor followed by condensation. This step increases the alcohol content and filters out impurities like methanol.
- Maturing: The liquid is blended with water and aged in wooden barrels.
- Bottling: The liquid is bottled. Once in glass bottles the flavor is stabilized.
The technical aspects of whisky making are absurdly complex. And, the process of whisky making can vary greatly. Many of the rules are changing over time as marketing influences production and labeling and as distillers experiment with new and improved processes. That’s not all bad because there are plenty of innovations in the world of whisky and rules are indeed made to be broken.
The details of each step in the process affect the flavor of the end product. For example, just consider the barreling of whisky. The origin of the wood for the barrel, the size of the barrel, the temperature and humidity where it is stored, and even the location it is stored inside the warehouse all impact whisky's flavor.
Fortunately, there are really just a few things you need to learn about a whisky to know if you're going to like it (or at least know what to expect before you taste it!). This is really a way of thinking about the “flavor profile” as opposed to a comprehensive analysis of the technical aspects that might be used by professional tasters. But it works for me and I've spent nearly thirty years collecting whisky and have sampled whiskies in 25 countries. Here are the six major factors:
Grain: The “mash bill” is basically the recipe for grains that go into the whisky. Whisky is just distilled grain and can be made from a single grain or a mix of grains, including corn, barley, rye, wheat, and even oats and other cereal grains. Surprisingly, most whisky is made from a combination of grains, but there are dominant ingredients that you can hone in on. Bourbon and American whisky are primarily made from corn. By law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Single Malt Scotch whisky is made exclusively from barley. Rye whisky is fairly unique and will be labeled and marketed as such.
Smoke: At the end of the malting stage, the grain is dried in a kiln and sometimes peat (or even other ingredients) may be added to create smoke.
Age: Wine ages in the bottle. A wine that was bottled ten years ago that you drink today is a ten year old bottle. Whisky ages in the barrel. A whisky that was barreled for 15 years before bottling is a 15 year old whisky if you drink it today. If you drink it ten years from now, it’s still a 15 year old whisky. The length of aging of ranges varies based on style and greatly impacts its flavor and price. However, there is a bit of a law of diminishing returns for aging. I’ve had a collection of the same bourbon aged 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23 years. For my taste, the 15 was the best. At 20 and 23 it lost some of the corn taste and burn that I like in bourbon. It was so smooth it tasted like an Irish whisky to me. To be fair, it was still marvelous! But, since aging can radically affect price, it’s important to find the sweet spot for your palette and budget.
Blend: Blending is a very confusing term of art in the whisky business and is used to distinguish styles of Scotch whisky. Most whisky is blended in some way within the distillery in order to balance flavors between casks (i.e. barrels), unless it is a “single cask” whisky, which does indeed come from one cask. But in general, the distinction between single malt scotch and blended scotch is that single malt scotch comes from one and only one distillery, whereas blended scotch comes from multiple distilleries and is blended before bottling. A master distiller is like a chef. When you get their product it is their vision and represents their desired flavor. Having said that, blending can add wonderful complexities to whisky and master blenders play an important role.
The relationship between age and blending is another factor. A single malt scotch has a “pure” age statement. A 15 year old whisky from Balvenie is their whisky that was barreled for 15 years. A blended whisky often doesn’t have an age statement as it combines barrels of different ages. But, the advantage is that if you get a blended whisky with an age statement, that age is the youngest of the whiskies in the blend and is mixed with more mature whisky, which enhances its flavor.
Finish: Finishing is the key to understanding your flavor profile. As whisky matures in a barrel, it picks of the flavor characteristics of the barrel. The type of wood matters for starters. Is it American oak? French oak? Japanese Mizunara? Was the barrel charred or just toasted? Bourbon barrels are by law made from American oak and can only be used once. Believe it or not, most single malt scotch barrels are actually previously used bourbon barrels. But Scotch whisky barrels can be emptied and refilled. Whisky other than bourbon can also be aged in barrels that were previously used to mature port, sherry, or rum. This is called “finishing” and imparts certain mellowness and even fruit to the whisky.
Water: The amount of water used in bottling changes the proof (i.e. amount of alcohol). So, the ratio of whisky to water has an important effect on its flavor and how you feel the next day. Cask strength whiskies are straight from casks with no water added in bottling. Distillers are very precise about their ratio. But some distillers provide whisky to third party bottlers. A Bunnahabain whisky bottled by a third party will taste different to a Bunnahabain bottled by the distillery because they use a different ratio of whisky to water. They also get their water from a different source, which impacts the flavor. This is where the notion of terroir comes in. Most people who drink Scotch whisky will classify whisky based on where the grain comes from and where it was made. The Scotch whisky regions are Highlands, Lowland, Speyside, Islands, Campbeltown, and Islay. But I think this is what the French call a faux ami, or false friend. The terroir of the grain is heavily altered by the process of whisky making, but the water itself can have tremendous variation. Kentucky bourbon uses local water which is flavored by the limestone there. If you were to bottle it with water from a different source, it would have a completely different flavor.
I found my preferred flavor profile through good, old fashioned (pun intended) trial and error. But by paying attention to these six aspects of whisky, I’ve determined what I like. And, I like what I like. Your mileage may vary. Here’s what it means to me…
Grain: I prefer barley to corn, so that means Irish Whisky and Scotch Whisky
Smoke: I don’t like smoky whisky, so I tend to avoid “peated” whiskies. Even though Balvenie is my favorite whisky manufacturer, I don’t care for their peated whisky.
Age: I like aged whisky, so generally shy away from 12 year old bottles and look for 17 to 21 year old bottles.
Blend: In general, I find I prefer single malt to blended whiskies.
Finish: I love finished whiskies, especially port or sherry cask.
Water: I don’t mind them strong, so if I can find a cask strength whisky I go for that.
Here are a few of my favorite bottles that fit this profile:
- Abelour A'Bunadh (no age statement, cask strength, sherry finish)
- Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (12 Year Old)
- Glenmorangie Port Wood (14 Year Old)
- Balvenie 16 Year Old Triple Cask
- Balvenie 17 Year Old Double Wood
- Balvenie 21 Year Old Port Wood
- Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Year Old
- Glendronach 18 Year Old Sherry Cask
Having said that, the Bunnahabain 25 is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had and I much prefer it to their finished cask. And the most exquisite whisky in my collection is a Port Ellen, which is nice and smoky and something I love to have on a special night with a special cigar. I love whisky, but I’m not a whisky snob. My favorite whisky is the one in front of me.
Sláinte, my friends!