Newcomer to the whisky world?
The wee dram can feel like a big tipple to tackle.
There’s so much complicated jargon to learn. So many so-called ‘rules’ that apply. So many different whisky types to choose from. It can be difficult to know where to begin.
The main thing to remember is, there’s a style of whisky to suit everyone (no matter how much you think it ‘all burns’). You just need to find it!
Read our quick guide for beginners, treat yourself to a few whisky tasting sets and start to discover which are your favourites.
Let’s start with the basics – what is whisky?
Essentially, whisky is an aged spirit that’s distilled from grains – usually barley, corn, rye or wheat.
The exact legal definition differs depending on the specific type of whisky and where it’s made. But most require a minimum amount of time to be spent in wooden casks (e.g. at least 3 years in Scotland) and a minimum alcohol content of 40% volume.
Separating your ‘Glenlivet’ from your ‘Jim Bean’
Whisky is an incredibly diverse spirit. That’s why it’s practically impossible to say, ‘I don’t like whisky’ (you probably just haven’t found the right one for you yet!). So many factors contribute towards its eventual taste. But generally speaking, it can be categorised based on two main factors: where it’s made and how it’s made.
Where it’s made
The flavour of a dram differs greatly depending on the country and region in which it was produced.
Many counties now produce whisky and every single one has a distinct, personal style. These countries include everywhere from England, Wales, France, Italy and Sweden to Canada, India, Taiwan, Israel and Australia.
Four of the most famous whisky-making countries include:
Scotland is often regarded as the home of whisky.
Not only has it been produced there for hundreds of years, it’s one of the most respected drams in the world. So much so, the word ‘scotch’ is now more synonymous with whisky than it is with being Scottish!
Scotch whiskies can be split into a further five ‘Scottish regions’, including Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay. But no matter where it’s been made in Scotland, to be legally classed as scotch, it must be aged for 3 years in oak casks and bottled at a minimum of 40%.
Ireland is where the first mention of whiskey was ever recorded in 1405. But fast forward to 2023, and there are still only 10 distilleries on the island – most of which have popped up in the last decade.
Just like scotch, Irish whiskies have to be aged for a minimum of 3 years. They’re usually triple distilled in a copper pot and tend to be made from unmalted barley – which gives it a very distinct flavour profile, often described as being light and fruity with subtle cereal grain notes.
America is primarily famed for its bourbon.
Most bourbons are made in Kentucky and, to meet official regulations, they must be made with a basic recipe of at least 51% corn and matured in brand-new charred oak casks. As a result, they usually have a sweet taste – often displaying clear notes of toffee and cinnamon.
Tennessee and rye whiskies also come from the US, which are both fairly similar to bourbon – yet differ slightly in terms of their ingredients and how they’re made.
A relative newcomer to the whisky field. Japan has only been producing whisky for the last hundred years or so. But during that time, it’s certainly become a top favourite among whisky lovers.
Heavily inspired by scotch, Japanese whiskies usually rely on malted barley that is mashed and distilled twice in pot stills. Most are reminiscent of the Lowland and Speyside style – smooth, delicate and perfumed to add sweetness. But technically there aren’t any rules or regulations.
How it’s made
This is where a lot of people get confused.
From traditional single malts and blended grains to single pot stills, vatted malts, bourbons and ryes, there’s a seemingly endless list of whisky styles – which all differ in terms of their ingredients and how those ingredients are brought together. The three most common types in the UK include:
This is a whisky that’s produced at a single distillery, using only malted barley, water and yeast.
Contrary to popular belief, the whisky isn’t taken from a single barrel or a single batch. To ensure a consistent flavour, most distilleries will mix liquids together from multiple barrels and batches.
If a single malt is stated as being 10 years old, this is the youngest age that went into the mix.
Just like a single malt, a single grain is produced at one distillery.
But rather than just being made from malted barley, other grains – such as wheat and corn – can be added to the ingredient list. Which gives the spirit a much lighter and more subtle flavour.
Single grains are actually a rare commodity, as most are used to create blends!
This is a whisky that contains a mixture of spirits from two or more distilleries.
These spirits can be taken from the same or distinct whisky regions, and they can include just single malts (blended malt), just single grains (blended grain) or a mixture of both. There aren’t any rules. Different flavour profiles are simply fused together to create a drink that’s smooth and unique.
Ready to start sampling?
Whether you’re a novice or a know-it-all about the different types of whisky available, the only way to discover your favourite is to sample the goods and see which you prefer.
Miniatures – such as those found in whisky tasting sets – are the easiest way to do this. Whisky Tasting Company have a fab selection to choose from, with sets featuring many of the types and styles outlined above. So why not treat yourself? Set aside an afternoon (or two), extend your whisky repertoire and see which one turns out to be your favourite.
The more knowledge and experience you have, the less daunting the wee dram seems. Which sounds like the perfect excuse to get a little tipsy!