Whisk(e)y Cheat Sheet

New to the wonderful world of whisky? Here’s a quick guide to get you started!

First things first, how to enjoy whisky.

Answer: Any way you darn well please. You can drink it from a nice whisky specific tulip shaped glass, you can drink it from a tea cup, you can add ice, you can not add ice. With anything, it’s not fun if you’re not enjoying yourself so don’t let the snobs get you down and enjoy responsibly!

So is it whisky or whiskey?

Most of the world uses whisky but the Irish and Americans tend to use whiskey. Either way, don’t worry too much about it. There are worse ducking auto-correct problems.

How does scotch fit into all of this? And bourbon and rye?

They’re all types of whisk(e)y! Scotch is simply whisky that is made in Scotland using malted barley.  So don’t be that dick at a bar that says “I don’t drink whisky, only scotch”, true story. If you ever encounter such a person in the wild try not to face palm too hard.

So then what’s the difference between single malt, bourbon, and rye?

Whiskies are made from grains and the most common choices are malted barley, rye, wheat and corn. Each has its own unique flavour profile. Corn whisky tends to be sweet, rye is spicy and single malts, when not matured, tend to have a cereal taste to them. Whisky can be made from just one or any combination of these grains to create a blend. A single malt is made from malted barley from a single distillery. A blended malt whisky is a mix of single malts sourced from various distilleries. Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn. Canadian rye, or just simply rye to us Canucks, is a mix of rye, corn and/or wheat. Rye doesn’t even have to be the dominant ingredient, but some distillers do make a 100% rye whisky. For more on Canadian whisky I can’t recommend this site enough.

What’s this malted word though? And how do we get from grains to whisky?

Malting is when you soak the barley so that it will sprout and it is then dried to stop the sprouting. So why produce all these baby sprouts just to hang them out to dry? All that grain contains energy in the form of starch to help feed the wee little sprouts when they decide to grow. But starch isn’t useful on its own, ever try eating spaghetti without cooking it? So with some water and a little help from some enzymes that starch gets turned into sugar to feed the sprouts. The distillers and brewers, however, aren’t in the business of artisanal hipster sprout salads, they want that sugar to make booze. So after a few days when that starch has turned into sugar they shut that process down and dry out those sprouts. Some distilleries will enhance the malt with peat smoke giving a unique flavour. All that grain sugar is then milled and fed to ravenous yeast which in turn poop out alcohol! From there it gets distilled and then finally matured in barrels. Tasty delicious matured yeast excrement!

So why do whiskies all taste so different if it’s just made from a few grains?

Well there are a lot of factors to this but a big one is what kind of barrels were used to mature the whisky and how long it sat around in those barrels. Barrels can be made from different types of trees that each give a certain flavour profile. Some barrels are leftovers from aging sherry or port. Others will use bourbon casks to mature single malts or rye blends. With time, what’s in the wood is soaked up by the whisky giving it its color and enhancing the flavour. The longer it sits the more it soaks up.

Ok so now I know what’s in the glass, but how do I taste it?

First, observe the colour. Is it golden? Pale yellow? Dark like wood stain? Look like honey?

Second, nose it. The smell of whisky will change with time too, even after as little as a few minutes. I’m always sniffing to see what else pops up over time. Dab a little bit on your hand, rub it in and then smell it like perfume. This helps remove the alcohol leaving behind the subtler smells you might otherwise miss. If using a tulip glass, tilt it and smell from the bottom up, you’ll notice different scents sit at different levels.

Thirdly, taste it! If the taste of alcohol is too overpowering, add a few small drops of water to the whisky and try again. Keep adding water a little bit at a time until it’s right for you and you can taste those more elusive flavours.

It’s perfectly ok if you don’t have the vocabulary to describe what you’re smelling or tasting. It comes with time. It’s not like you could describe the colour blue if you’ve never seen it before, so it’s fine if you didn’t taste that hint of treacle pudding because you’ve never had it (seriously, what the heck is treacle?). If you have a decent spice rack, whiff some spices and then your whisky and see if anything matches. Taste the spices on their own even, just don’t go all cinnamon challenge while drinking your whisky.


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