Scottish whisky for beginners: The Ultimate Guide by Jeffrey Street
Drinking whisky can seem like a daunting experience with so much terminology, different options and very different (and very passionate) opinions.
This two-part series is about Scottish whisky for beginners and will teach you everything you need to know to start enjoying Scotland’s national drink.
WHISKY FOR BEGINNERS: WHAT IS WHISKY?
Whisky comes from the Gaelic term ‘uisge-beatha’ which literally means ‘water of life’ and in Scotland is simply a spirit which has been made using barley or grain and has been matured in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years and a day.
Different countries have different requirements to be called a whisky (or whiskey in Ireland and America) but to obtain the title as a ‘scotch’ then it must be produced and matured in Scotland. There are many types of whisky from malts to bourbons to ryes but for this guide we will just be focusing on scotch (because it’s the best, in our opinion).
SINGLE MALT VS BLENDED MALT VS BLENDED WHISKY
So what’s the difference between a single malt and a blended malt? Or a blended whisky and a single grain?
The name comes from two factors; what it was made with and whether it was made in one distillery or came from multiple distilleries.
Single Malt – To be called a single malt whisky in Scotland the whisky must be made with 100 per cent malted barley and come from a single distillery.
Blended Malt – As with a single malt, a blended malt must be made using only malted barley but the difference is that instead of coming from a single distillery it’s a mix of single malts from multiple distilleries.
It is often thought by some that a blended malt is ‘inferior’ to a single malt but it’s not necessarily the case with whisky producers treating the blend of different malts as a science trying to create the perfect whisky.
Blended Whisky – A blended whisky differs from a blended malt by being made with a mix of blended malts and grain whiskies (normally two parts malt and three parts grain).
This is often thought to be the poorest quality whisky, of course this is subjective and is a matter of taste.
Single Grain – A single grain whisky is a whisky made using grain that is not malted barley and comes from a single distillery.
You may wonder why whisky is aged in a barrel for a number of years and what difference it makes if a whisky has been aged for 3 or 18 years.
The simple answer is that the colour, smell and, most importantly, the taste is hugely determined by the oak barrel it is stored in and how much time the whisky spends in contact with the oak barrel.
In Scotland, it’s typical to use American oak bourbon casks or sherry casks to mature the whisky and before going through this process the initial raw spirit made from distilling barley (or other grains) is clear and lacks the characteristics normally associated with whisky.
It is through the maturation process that the whisky picks up its particular taste and so if you take a whisky out of its barrel after five years of maturing then it can taste completely different than if you allowed it to mature for 10 years.
The choice of barrel used for maturation will greatly affect the taste of the whisky and producers now often age whiskies in multiple barrels to add different flavours and give whisky a different finish.
WHISKY FOR BEGINNERS: WHISKY TERMS
There are some terms used by whisky drinkers that you may not immediately know so here’s a brief explanation of some common whisky terminology.
Peaty: When a whisky is described as being ‘peaty’ or ‘peated’ this means that the malted barley used to make the whisky has been dried using a peat fire and will take on the flavour of the peat smoke. Typically, the longer the malted barley has been exposed to the smoke of a peat fire the peatier (or smokier) the taste of the whisky will be.
Smokey: The term ‘smokey’ is often used interchangeably with peaty but it is possible to have a smokey whisky that doesn’t taste peaty by drying the malted barley with a fire that hasn’t been fuelled by peat.
Angels’ share: This is the term used to describe the natural evaporation of whisky as it matures in a barrel and in Scotland around two per cent of whisky in a barrel is lost to the angels’ share every year. In warmer climates, the angels’ share is much higher and as much as 12 per cent a year can be lost in countries such as India.
Cask finish: A cask finish is when a whisky is removed from its primary cask and then put in a secondary cask or sometimes tertiary cask for additional maturation which adds variation to the taste of the whisky. For example, a whisky that is described as a ‘rum cask finish’ has been matured in a barrel and then transferred to a used rum cask to finish the whisky.
Triple Distilled: The standard process when making a whisky is to distil the liquid alcohol twice before beginning the maturation process but in Ireland and the lowlands of Scotland it is common to distil the alcohol three times. When this happens, the whisky is described as triple distilled and it is thought that this process will produce a smoother whisky.
Cask Strength: Most whisky is diluted after being removed from the cask and bottled at between 40 and 50 per cent but a cask strength whisky refers to a whisky that has been bottled at the ABV percentage the whisky was at straight from the cask, often between 50 and 60 per cent.
Many people believe that a cask strength whisky which is diluted with a splash of water in a glass has a superior taste to a whisky which has been diluted with water before being bottled.
In part two of Scottish whisky for beginners: The ultimate guide by Jeffrey Street, we’ll be looking at the whisky regions of Scotland and how the novice whisky drinker can start to enjoy our national drink.