A gentleman’s drinks cabinet should be a thing of pride. It can tell a story of travels, landmark anniversaries and ill-judged late-night purchases, but at the core of it all should be whisky. Always whisky. Whisky to round off a day, whisky to celebrate, or whisky to sit back and pontificate. As Paul Newman playing pool hustler and liquor salesman Fast Eddie Felson said in the opening sequence to Scorsese’s The Color of Money, “It does something to you nothing else can. You just want to lay back and have it roll all over you.”
There’s a time and a place for almost any incarnation of the amber liquid and it pays to know a little about it. You might have lived by the epitaph ‘the older the better’, which is a fair (and often expensive) place to start, but there are as many nuances to quality as there are tasting notes in the glass. Let’s start by drinking down some of the basics.
How To Drink Whisky
It’s all very well ordering up a dram or two of the best whisky you can afford, but if you don’t know how to taste it, you can’t fully appreciate it. Once you learn the basics, it’s easier to determine what you do and don’t like, which is key in evolving your taste.
“Make sure you have a clean palate – so take a sip of chilled water before you taste,” says Georgie Bell, global brand ambassador for Craigellachie. “I enjoy tasting from a tulip-shaped nosing glass, although a rocks glass also works. Bring the liquid up to your nose and take short, sharp little sniffs and keep your mouth open while you’re smelling as it creates a circulation.
“Let your mind focus on the flavours you’re getting and have a think about the clues given away on the bottle. If it’s been matured in a bourbon cask you’ll probably pick up notes of vanilla, toffee, fudge and coconut. If it’s been matured in a sherry cask, you’re likely to get chocolate and rich fruit notes.
“Then take a sip and think about not only the taste, but the finish: how does the whisky feel in your mouth (smooth or prickly) and how long does the flavour last.” Remember a few key adjectives from each whisky you’ve enjoyed previously to inform future purchases: sweet, peaty, smooth, well-rounded and honeyed will all help a bartender guide you in your selection.
The Difference Between Bourbon And Whisky
Whisky, made in the highlands of Scotland, is the first-generation spirit. The earliest references to ‘uisge beatha’ – or ‘water of life’ in Old Gaelic – come in the 15th century, though many suggest that Scottish farmers had been distilling a whisky-style drink from surplus barley for several hundred years previously. The Scots have been doing it the longest and, many would argue, doing it best.
“There are plenty of differences between bourbon and whisky, but the main one people look to is rooted in geography,” says Jason Glynn, bar manager at whisky-specialist bar Iron Stag in London’s Hoxton. “Bourbon is made in the United States and whisky is made predominantly in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan, though now great varieties are emerging from all over the world. There are different regulations dependent on style and country, such as ABV and the ratio of grains in your mash bill [the ingredients list]. For a spirit to be called bourbon, it must be contain at least 51% corn and be aged in new American Oak casks.”
Scotch whisky, on the other hand, has more varieties. It is split into five categories: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain and blended Scotch. All of it must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Any number which you see on the bottle is known as an ‘Age Statement’ and this refers to the youngest whisky used in a blend, or the minimum number of years that this liquid has been left in the cask.
Variety Is Best – The Types Of Scotch
Most argue this is the best quality – a whisky produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery in pot stills. Because it has only come from one area, it’s regarded as the purest expression of this whisky from this particular part of the world and thus commands a bigger price tag. The Macallan produces consistently superb single malts.
Single grain is the poor relation of single malt. Being ‘single’, it has to be produced by the same distillery but, confusingly, doesn’t have to come from a single grain. Single grains are often made from wheat or corn, or a blend of the two. David Beckham’s Haig Club is a good example of a single grain whisky.
Under Scottish whisky regulations, blended Scotch must be a blend of two or more single malts that have been distilled at more than one distillery. Royal Salute makes excellent blended whisky at a range of accessible prices. We like the 21 year old.
Blended malt was once known as ‘vatted malt’ or ‘pure malt’ and comes as a blend of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. Johnnie Walker is arguably the best-known exponent of a top-quality blended malt. Blended grain means a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery. Compass Box makes some of the best examples of these.
So What’s Best?
The prime thing that all whisky experts agree on is that ‘best’ is utterly subjective. “Basically, you need a good distiller that knows what they’re doing and that understands the full process,” says Tristan Stephenson, co-founder of whisky subscription service Whisky-Me and award-winning bar Black Rock.
“Good barrels are an important factor,” says Elliott Davies, bar manager at London’s Genuine Liquorette. Make a mental note of the barrel employed for a drink that you’ve enjoyed, be that sherry, port, rum, or wine casks. The flavour profiles will remain similar whatever the age and price point of the spirit and is a great place to start in deciding what you like.
The Best Scotch
It’s a huge category and everyone has their favourites. “For a Scotch boy, I like to recommend the Lagavulin 8-year,” says Davies. “It’s a wonderful way in.”
‘Peaty’ is a flavour-descriptor you’ll hear regularly applied to Scotch and is one that you’ll quickly work out whether you enjoy or not. On a basic level, it comes through as a smoky flavour that has an extremely long finish. “Peaty whiskies mainly come from Islay, the most southernmost of the Inner Hebrides,” says Glynn.
“They become peaty in the very beginning stages of production. During the malting process, maltsters add peat (decomposed vegetable matter) onto the fire during kilning – which will impart a smoky character on the final whisky. The more peat you put on the fire, and for how long you put it on there, will determine how peaty your whisky is,” says Bell.
This creates a level of smokiness which is called Parts Per Million Phenol or PPM. Laphroaig 10-Year-Old is 45PPM and is one of the peatiest on the market today. If that’s too smoky for you there are less peated ones you can look for, just look into its PPM rating and make your pick.
The Best Bourbon
This category is now as big as Scotch. In the early days of bourbon production when travelling Americans brought whisky back from the United Kingdom and tried to replicate it, the quality was poor. The Scots insisted that non-Scottish whisky should be spelled ‘whiskey’, using the ‘e’ as an indicator or a lower-grade spirit. Now, however, the American process is as sophisticated as that in Scotland. “I really love Angel’s Envy Bourbon,” says Bell of Craigellachie. “It’s finished in Port casks so it’s big on vanilla toffee, dark chocolate and ruby red fruit note. I love drinking it neat, or stirred up in a Manhattan. It’s a great everyday enjoyable sipper.” Though note it’s not easy to get hold of in the UK.
The Best Irish Whiskey
“If you held a gun to my head, I consider Bushmills 16 to be the best whiskey I’ve ever tasted,” says Glynn of Iron Stag. “It’s aged in bourbon casks, with port pipes on the still and sherry barrels. It’s smooth, easy to drink and I’ve used it several times as an example of an accessible whiskey to get people into it.” Traditionally, Irish whisky is smoother than Scotch and bourbon, thanks mainly to its triple-distillation process where it is filtered three times.
In the late 19th century, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world, with numerous distillers each producing some two million gallons a year. To put that in context, Scottish distillers were producing around 5% of that number at the time. Poor manufacturing, a trade war with the UK and prohibition saw the majority of Irish distilleries shut down in the early part of the 20th century. Bushmills was the only to survive. It’s only been in the last 50 years where Irish producers have gone back to their roots and spurred a renaissance in the spirit. Irish whiskies will always have a less peaty flavour and often reveal more caramel notes than its Scottish and American cousins.