The world of whisky can be confusing and intimidating, but don't let yourself get overwhelmed. Just remember, the best bit about learning is the tasting, so pour yourself a dram or two and buckle in for BarChick's ultimate guide of what's what in whisky.
So to make whisky, you need a fermented grain mash. You can use a loada different grains to create a bunch of different varieties such as barley, corn, rye, and wheat. We'll get more into that later. To put it most simply, whisky is distilled beer. We know, they don't taste anything like each other, but trust us, that's what it is.
So to start, the grains are all dry and hard, and full of starch. To start the process, we gotta get that starch converted into sugar before fermentation can get underway, and the classic method is to let the grains do all the work. First the grains go through a process called malting, then they're crushed and mixed with water to create a sugary liquid.
Yeast is then added to this sugary liquid to get fermentation underway. This is where it starts to get boozy, baby, so now it's time to start distillation.
Whisky producers use both column and pot stills for the distillation process, but hold up! Don't go thinking you can pick and choose any kinda still for creating your whisky, cos there are some pretty strict laws knocking about in this biz depending on where you are. In most cases, producers will use a copper pot still. Why copper? Cos it removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it a bit nasty to drink.
All whiskies are aged in oak barrels (this is called maturation AKA bringing it to maturity). How long you leave your whisky to age for is again mostly down to the laws of wherever you are, and also down to a producers preference (and levels of patience!)
Once maturation is complete, the whisky can be bottled straight from the cask, or blended with other whiskies (and if necessary coloured) to create the exact style the producer is looking for. Most whiskies are diluted to 40% abv prior to bottling which is the minimum strength whisky has to be to actually be called whisky.
'I say potato, you say potato...'
Whisky derives from the Gaelic word "usquebaugh" AKA Water of Life, and is, in its simplest sense, a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash. You've probably noticed that it has two different spellings. Why? Well believe it or not, back in the 1800's, Scotch whisky was not good. In fact it was so bad that Ireland wanted to distance themselves and their produce from their cousins across the Irish Sea, so they added the "e" found in the Irish Gaelic translation to make sure everyone knew they were drinking the best when they plucked for whiskey.
America is the only other country that has adopted the "e" in the whisky title (and you know what they say about Americans thinking they're Irish), the rest have kept it at "whisky".
Blended whisky lost its street cred for a while there, pushed to the back of the cupboard to make room for the single malts. It was believed that whisky from a single distillery, made from a mash that used only one particular malted grain, was far superior to blended whiskies, those made by mixing different single malts together. Everything old is new again though and producers, especially younger innovative types, are blending together some pretty awesome stuff.
The idea with blended malts is pretty much self-explanatory: take two or more single malts and blend them however you like to make a new product. Compass Box is a great example of the resurgence of blending, their Spice Tree is a blend of Highland malt whiskies, matured in American and French oak, it's full of big clove and vanilla flavours.
Do you believe in a previous life? The whisky industry definitely does, and what a barrel held in a life gone by is hella important to whisky producers. For us, this is where we think whisky production can get really fun and exciting. Hitting up a cask that used to hold a different liquid will mean its ghost will work its way into the whisky as it ages. If we were gonna be haunted by anything, we'd want it to be an epic booze.
The most popular barrels used in whisky maturation include wine, sherry and bourbon casks (bourbon can only be made in virgin oak casks, so once their whiskey is done ageing, they ship them off to other whisky producers to use) but some distilleries are getting creative with their choice of barrels in order to make interesting and unique liquids. The distillers of Stauning whisky in Denmark are partial to a bit of experimentation in this arena; "The most interesting result we’ve had so far is ageing our Rye whisky in vermouth casks," Co-Founder Hans Martin Hansgaard told us, "It’s like a Manhattan on steroids". Sold.
One issue that can come up in the ageing process is the difference in characteristics from one barrel to the next. Usually, a distillery will have hundreds of barrels sat with liquid that ages at a different rate depending on where it has been stacked, with those stored in the warmer area close to the ceiling developing faster than those down in the cooler basement, so whisky companies will often employ a master blender, who painstakingly blends them together to create a product that's consistent.
However sometimes a producer will sell bottles of the liquid from each single barrel, and in this case, one bottle will be completely unique from the next. Jack Daniel’s single barrel is a great example of this. An extreme version is the trend of bars buying entire barrels and having the liquid bottled just for themselves, so you know you can only get that one unique whisky at their bar. Nice touch, assuming they got a good ‘un.
Age is just a number, but when it comes to whisky, people can get pretty serious about what's on the bottle. Most whiskies have to spend a specified amount of time maturing in a barrel before it can be legally called whisky, and once the minimum time has been reached, producers have the option: tap that barrel and bottle it up for drinking... or exercise some patience and let the ageing process keep on doing its thing. It might be hard to resist that instant gratification, but the longer the whisky spends in the barrel, the more flavour will be imparted from the wood, usually resulting in more characterful (and expensive!) whiskies. It's a guessing game for some - will the wait be worth it?
There's a few rules and restrictions that come with age statements. First off, you gotta remember that the moment you bottle your whisky, it stops ageing - even if you keep a 12-year-old in the bottle for another 20 years, it will still remain a 12-year-old, so drink it or keep it in the barrel, we say. Then when it comes to slapping an age statement on a blend, the number on the bottle will only refer to the youngest whisky found in there. That means if you blend a 3-year-old with a 50-year-old, only the 3-year-old is gonna be getting the mention on the bottle. Better save that oldie for another time, yeh?
Ever wondered why people add water to their whisky? Or why they specify how many cubes of ice to throw in? Us whisky drinkers are a funny bunch, some like to add water to enhance and open up the aromas and flavours, purists like to keep it neat (and be warned: they'll tell ya about it). Adding ice will obviously chill the drink, and it will also add a bit of dilution to it as it melts. If you want your whisky chilled but at full strength, it's worth investing in some whisky stones that do the job without affecting the liquid. In the end, it's all up to personal taste, but please remember every time you add coke to a single malt, a whisky angel dies. Fact.
When it comes to cocktails, we're big fans. They're delicious and kinda sexy. From minty bourbon-based Juleps, classic Old Fashioneds, Rusty Nails and Sazeracs, BarChick is a sucker for them all. Though we wrote this while sipping a wee dram of single malt with a single cube of ice (it's literally our job), when we wanna mix it up, we hit up one of these riffs on the classics.
You're gonna wanna check out the list of our fave whisky bars in London if you're looking for a dram to blow your mind. Of course, whisky is one of those spirits that lends itself perfectly to home drinking, so for that, you're gonna need your own collection... and we've got a few suggestions we don't think any home bar is complete without.
Want to continue your whisky education? Take it to a granular (or should we say... grain-ular) level with our guide to world whiskies... cos variety is the spice of life, baby.