Whisky for beginners: 5 ways to get into whisky

The wide world of whisk(e)y can be a daunting prospect, with so many different distilleries, methods, descriptions making it difficult to pick out a drink you might like and such a varied price range you could risk losing good money on something you don’t enjoy.

Before you start to get serious about whisky, it’s a good idea to think about these five tips to keep you focused and protect your investments as simply as possible.

1. Get to grips with the basics

First of all, you’ll need to understand some of the basics to better get to know what you’re dealing with. For example, the different production types, popular whisky-producing countries, and how aging affects the end product.

Countries

The difference between ‘whisky’ and ‘whiskey’ is typically a country divide, easily remembered with this simple trick: countries with an ‘e’ in their name, like the States and Ireland usually use the spelling ‘whiskey’, where countries without, like Scotland, Canada and Japan, spell it ‘whisky’.

Each country also has its own strategies for distillation and some even have strict requirements on how to qualify their whisk(e)y depending on how it was made.

Different production types

As mentioned, there is a wide range of ways to make whisky and many of these production methods have limitations that help them stand out. For example, bourbon can only be made in the US, has to be made from at least 51% corn and put into a new oak cask. On the other hand, Scotch whisky is any whisky made in Scotland, whether it’s single malt or blended, peated or unpeated, made on the Isle of Skye or in Edinburgh .

Aging

Aging is one of the most vital steps of whisky production and the step that gives each batch its distinct flavours. Depending on the type of whisky being produced, the spirit can be distilled in new casks but is typically aged in casks which held other liquids. These can include whisky, sherry and rum with each different spirit giving the new liquor a distinct flavouring of what was held before.

Aging also stops once the product is bottled; meaning a 12-year-old whisky on your shelf will stay 12 years old until it’s all gone.

2. Understand common flavour profiles

Different production areas have specified methods which have typical flavour profiles. Identifying which types you like best will help you spread your net wider when looking for new drams you’re bound to like.

American bourbon and whiskey is usually aged for a much shorter period than Scotch whiskies due to higher humidity meaning more alcohol is lost quickly. Because of this, the tastes are usually much sweeter, including notes of toffee, caramel, maple syrup and brown sugar.

On the other hand, Islay whiskies from Scotland are smoked using peat fires which give them a much stronger, smokier flavour which can sometimes be overwhelming for whisky newcomers.

Japanese whisky has been growing rapidly over the last few years and, while it mostly depends on imported Scotch, has its own distinct flavour palate which is fruiter and smoother than many bottles of bourbon and Scotch.

3. Try out different distilleries

Explore as much as possible

Once you’ve identified a whisk(e)y type that you enjoy, explore as much as possible within this range. If you’re bourbon mad, look for independent distilleries to move away from the standard, mass-produced products and find something more special.

Speyside is one of the more popular Scotch whisky regions and contains many of the most famous distilleries, including Glenfiddich, Aberlour, Glenlivet and Macallan. If you’re into the richer flavours of this region, you have a lot of choice to drink your way through.

4. Learn the keywords

With so many specialised words, it’s a good idea to start learning so you can distinguish features of a particular whisky more easily. We’ve included definitions of a couple here:

Dram

A dram is simply a measure of whisky.

Angel’s Share

The angel’s share is the whisky lost to evaporation; percentage varies depending on the environment the casks are kept in.

Cask Strength

The cask strength is the alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage of the whisky when it comes out of the barrels. This is usually reduced with water but some bottles are maintained at cask strength.

Peat

Peat is carbonised soil, common in Scotland. This is what gives some whiskies their smoky flavour.

5. Understand the process

As mentioned, there are countless ways to produce whisky, so we’ve just going to cover a basic whisky process:

  • Grains are ground and malted

  • Water is added to form a ‘mash’ and cooked into a ‘wort’ (liquid)

  • This wort is fermented into a distiller’s beer

  • The beer is then added to a still where the alcohol is separated from the water to increase purity

  • The finished ‘new make’ spirit is then poured into casks to age

  • The aged product can then be mixed or kept separate

  • The final alcohol is bottled and sold

This article was provided by Damon Culbert from The Spirits Embassy, top quality and collectable spirits including whisky, gin and rum.

An addition by John Stuart

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