In 2003 I took a job transfer that relocated me to Scotland for nine months. Prior to moving there, most of my knowledge of Scottish history was taken from Mike Meyer Saturday Night Live skits or from the movie Braveheart. Even worse was my knowledge of Scotch whisky. Up until then I had had one really bad experience with a cheap blend and had all but given up on ever drinking Scotch again. One of the first things that was taught to me by my Scottish co-workers (besides the fact that William Wallace was much taller than Mel Gibson) is that Scotch is as much of part of their day-to-day life as is football and fish and chips.
When I returned home nine months later and had been properly schooled in the joys of savoring a nice dram of a single malt Scotch, I wanted to further expand my horizons by trying other whiskeys from around the world. I try never to limit myself to just one type or origin of any of my favorite beverages and felt that I had enough basic knowledge to begin my quest. Whiskey is a fermented grain mash that is distilled at a minimum of 40-percent alcohol by volume (abv). The common types of grains that are used are barley, rye, wheat and corn. Distilleries can also use malted rye or barley in a process used to dry the grain. Each region has its own preference of the grain and the type of barrels used to age the whiskey. Some distilleries will use freshly charred barrels, and others prefer used wine barrels that have held port, sherry or Madeira to create the flavor profile they want. A lot of the flavor and color are extracted from the barrels, so picking the right type of barrel is very important.
Here are some of the more famous regions that produce whiskey, along with some of my favorite distillers:
United States – There is a wide range of types and diversity that make up American whiskey. Depending on your palate, you can choose from Tennessee, bourbon, rye or corn. While the traditionalist in me loves a smooth bourbon, the adventurous side really loves a good rye whiskey. Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey has an explosion of crème brulee when it first hits your tongue and then finishes with a subtle hint of dried fruits. This has a lot of those classic American rye flavors that will be appreciated by novices and veterans alike.
Scotland – Five regions in Scotland produce whisky. Speyside and Highland are the more popular and larger regions followed by Islay, Lowland and Campbeltown. I am more of a Highland fan since that is where I spent most of my time while living there. While the Balvenie 12-year-old double cask is my go-to, the 14-year-old Oban is my favorite to drink. The nose has a beautiful peaty, tobacco and salty flavor that transports me back to one of Scotland’s many coastal towns. I always keep a bottle around the house for any occasion that deserves a little something special.
Canada – This is usually a rye whiskey that needs to be barrel aged for a minimum of three years. Caramel and other flavors may be added. Most of my experience with Canadian whiskey has not been favorable, but I have found one that I really like. Spicebox Whiskey is appropriately named since it has every flavor of your grandma’s spice rack. There is a strong presence of vanilla and caramel on the nose as well as white pepper and nutmeg on the tongue. This is a great starter whiskey since it has a strong similarity to rum and is very easy to drink.
Ireland – This is a barley whiskey that is distilled three times and barrel aged for at least three years. These are generally smoother than their Scottish neighbor since they lack the peaty smokiness that is present in Scotch. Over the Christmas holidays my neighbor broke out a bottle of 16-year-old Bushmill that was fantastic. It is a blend of whiskey that has been aged in both a sherry barrel and a bourbon barrel. This made for a wonderful intermingling of a nutty almond flavor and a honey sweetness that made it the highlight of the night’s festivities.
Japan – While not as well known for their whiskeys as some others, they have been making a lot of headway recently with their single malts. The Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s oldest distillery, produces a very approachable 12- year-old single malt that has hints of orange peel and clove that make it reminiscent of a Scotch whisky. I predict a lot more Japanese whiskey will start popping up over the next few years as its popularity grows.
Some of the fine points about whiskey
I do get a lot of questions of whether the proper spelling is whisky or whiskey. I am not a stickler when it comes to this confusion with the exception of Scotch whisky. I’m pretty sure that I raised my glass a few years ago at Deacon Brodies in Edinburgh and made a solemn oath to never use an “e,” and I am pretty sure that was a legally binding agreement. A good rule of thumb is that countries with an “e” in their names (United States and Ireland) will use the whiskey spelling.
I generally drink from a tumbler glass because I prefer a wide-mouth opening on my glass so I can get a good swirl and catch an array or aromas as I tip the glass back. When I choose to open a nicer bottle, I will switch over to a Glencairn glass. This is a tulip-shaped glass with a small opening that will concentrate the flavors at the neck and allow for a fuller appreciation of the aromas. I have used a Quaich (traditional Scottish drinking cup), but this should be used only with your best friends since it is the equivalent of sharing a toothbrush.
I am not a big fan of adding water to whiskey since it will change the essence of the liquor, but in some cases it will allow for some whiskeys to open up and the flavors to be more pronounced. In these cases I use distilled water that is at room temperature. Generally a splash is all that is needed. Traditionalists do not like ice in their drinks because the cold temperatures will hide a lot of the aromas that the distillers work so hard to create. I like a slight chill to mine so I was very excited a few months ago when my wife gave me an ice ball maker as a gift. It makes a solid ball of ice about the size of a tennis ball. The ice is visually appealing in a tumbler and melts very slowly, making it ideal for social drinking situations and still allowing me to savor the bouquet in the glass.
Regardless of your preference in glassware, temperature or spelling, the world of whisky(ey) is fun to explore with friends or even by yourself.
A brief vocabulary of whiskey terminology:
Single malt whiskey – Made by a single distillery and unmixed with grain or pot stilled whiskeys.
Cask strength – This is a higher proof of alcohol by volume, usually 60 to 65 percent abv.
Neat – Ordering your whiskey without ice or water being added to the glass.
Angel’s share – A portion of the whiskey that evaporates from the barrel during the aging process.