Whiskey is one of the oldest drinks in the world. It is a classic alcoholic beverage, and well appreciated by the lovers of fine spirits. It is perfect for pouring a glass to relax at the end of a long day, or simply to enjoy its flavour. Whiskey has a long tradition, and this drink comes with complex nuances, aromas and flavours.

There are many different brands of whiskey, just as there are various types. For the whiskey-lover, each brand has its own distinct and recognisable flavour. In choosing a good quality whiskey, you should consider various factors: age, wood, colour and aroma. If you are interested in learning to identify the best whiskey, read on.

Key Facts

  • Whiskey, or specifically scotch, is considered the national drink of Scotland. There they have developed and refined its production over the centuries. There are currently 100 distilleries in that country. Other countries are producing famous whiskeys, such as Ireland and the UK, and Japan boasts some well-known distilleries.
  • Whiskey is traditionally produced in Europe, and particularly in Scotland. Bourbon, which is often confused with whiskey, is traditionally made in North America. As well as differing in terms of name and origin, whiskey is made from barley whereas bourbon is produced from corn or rye.
  • The wood which the whiskey is stored and aged in has big impacts on the aroma and flavour of the end product. Likewise, the time spent in the barrel and the way the ingredients are treated during production have their effects.

Shopping Guide: Everything you should know about whiskey

Whiskey has a long tradition and is one of the most consumed spirits in the world. Furthermore, it has experienced a huge rise in popularity in recent years. In this section is a list of the top FAQs from budding whiskey drinkers, to help you develop an understanding of this popular drink and be able to make a great purchase.

Each type of distillation adds different flavours and nuances to the spirit.
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What is whiskey exactly?

Whiskey is a traditional Scottish spirit, although there is evidence of historic distilleries on the Irish isles also. It is made by distilling fermented malt, which comes from cereals such as barley, wheat or rye. The whiskey is then aged in wooden barrels, traditionally white oak.

Its name means “water of life” in Gaelic. Originally distilled by monks, this process was later specialised and commercialised. Whiskey was the favourite drink of many great historical figures, including Winston Churchill and the great writers Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.

Where is whiskey made?

Whiskey is traditionally made in Scotland, the most famous coming from centuries-old distilleries in Islay and the Isle of Skye. Ireland is another country which has long produced whiskey.

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Did you know that Canada and the USA also make whiskey? Although there it is a specific type called bourbon and is made from corn in the place of malt.

What types of whiskeys are there?

There are different types of whiskey which depend on how long it is aged. They can also be categorised depending on the previous contents of the barrel. Sometimes barrels containing port, sherry or bourbon are used for ageing. This affects the aroma and flavour of the spirit, being the key differences between the different types of whiskey.

The taste of each type of whiskey is very distinct, as are its nuances and aromas. Choosing between one or the other really comes down to personal taste. However, to get an idea of the key differences, check the following table.

Type of whiskey Characteristics
Malt whiskey Made from malted barley and distilled in copper stills
Single Malt A whiskey made with barley from a single distillery, usually higher strength and the most popular are marketed as a base or “Cask Strength”
Vatted Malt  Mix of whiskeys from different distilleries, often labelled “malt”. Also known as “Pure Malt”
Grain Made from unmalted barley, corn or other grain cereals. Distilled in continuous stills or distillation cereals
Blended Whisky Young, stronger whiskeys are mixed with softer ones. Generally good quality at lower prices

What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?

There is a long-running rivalry between whiskey and bourbon: which is superior, the traditional Scottish flavour, or the soft American taste? The flavour, quality and aroma of each is due to how they are processed. Whiskey is distilled from barley, whereas bourbon comes from corn, rye or other grains.

The major difference is the flavour. Whiskey has a more intense flavour of wood and peat, while bourbon is much sweeter. Additionally, for a spirit to be considered whiskey it needs to spend at least three years ageing in the barrel, whereas there is no set requirement for bourbon. We’ve put together a table outlining the differences.

Whisky Bourbon
Ingredients Malt, barley and wheat Rye, corn grain cereals
Place of origin Made in Europe, especially Scotland and Ireland  Made in the USA and Canada
Flavour Strong taste Sweeter flavour
Notes  Smoked, wood or peat flavours  Sweet touches of caramel, honey and vanilla
Aging Minimum of three years in white oak barrels In charred oak barrels

How is whiskey made?

The whiskey distillation process goes back hundreds of years. First, the best barley is chosen. Then it is submerged in water and malted so that it germinates. Once the shoots appear, it is baked in an oven to dry before grinding. When dry, it is ground and then mixed with hot water to soften.

The soaked grain is then transferred to large fermentation tanks. There, yeast is added and the liquid is allowed to ferment, meaning that the sugar forms alcohol. This fermented substance is heated in stills to start the distillation process. The best quality liquid is collected and poured into oak barrels for ageing. The rest is extracted and distilled again.

How is whiskey aged?

In order to be considered whiskey, regulations state that the malt must mature for three years. This ageing process also needs to be done exclusively in white oak barrels. The age shown on a whiskey’s label refers to the minimum time it has been aged in a barrel.

Contact with the lid can damage the spirit. Don’t store it close to chemicals, because it can absorb their flavour.
(Source: Bizoon: 75038238/ 123rf.com)

How should you drink whiskey?

The best way to drink whiskey comes down to individual taste. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that not all whiskeys are equally good for drinking on their own. A good spirit, distilled slowly, can have a sweet palate which is be suitable for drinking neat. Others are ideal to be mixed in cocktails or to drink on the rocks.

The way to drink whiskey depends, to a great extent, on personal taste. Some people prefer to drink it with ice, known as “on the rocks”.

Others prefer to enjoy it on its own, at room temperature or with a little lemon. There are also those who mix it with water or soft drinks. At the end of the day, it depends on your personal taste.

How long does a bottle of whiskey last?

Whiskey is a robust spirit. However, to keep it in perfect condition you need to take a certain level of care. It is best to store it in a cool, dry and dark place, away from sunlight. If the liquid comes into contact with sunlight it will lighten, losing many of its nuances and flavours.

Most good whiskeys come in boxes, so it’s a good idea to hang on to them and store the bottle inside its box. Unlike wine, whiskey bottles should be kept upright rather than lying down.

Shopping Criteria

Next, we will examine the questions that you should ask before buying a good whiskey. Understanding these key factors it will make it easier to make a good purchase. After all, you do not want to regret your purchase within a few months. If you want to buy a quality whiskey, follow these criteria:

  • Origin
  • Age
  • Flavours
  • Health
  • Reviews
  • Materials
  • Aroma

Origin

When comparing the best whiskeys on the market it is essential to know their origin. The best spirits come from Scotland, which is why many whiskey-lovers exclusively buy Scotch whiskey. For many, it is the original and the best. However, there are quality distilleries in other countries also.

Although not the most common, there are good whiskeys produced in other parts of the world. Argentina, Spain, Ireland and Japan all distil high-quality whiskeys. Of course, we can find some excellent spirits from Canada and the United States. Bourbon, as it is called there, has a sweeter flavour, ideal for drinking neat or with ice.

Age

Before asking yourself how much a bottle of quality whiskey should cost, you must take into account the ageing time. By law, to be considered whiskey a spirit must be matured in white oak barrels for at least three years. The longer it has been aged in the barrel, the better the flavour and the more nuances and aromas it will have.

As you can imagine, the age directly influences the quality and also the price of the whiskey. Many people are drawn to older whiskeys for their flavour. Alternatively, you could go for a NAS (no age stated) whiskey. These are much younger, cheaper and have a softer and lighter flavour.

Whiskey is not a solution to your problems, however of course it can help.
(Source: Nrey: 52119254/ 123rf.com)

Flavour

The most important thing is to choose a whiskey that you like. Drinking whiskey is a pleasure and you have to enjoy it. The flavour will depend on the malt used, the fermentation processes and the distillation of each spirit, among other factors. Some, like Lagavulin or the Talisker whiskeys, have a dry, smoky aftertaste.

For non-whiskey-drinkers, whiskey may seem bitter, too dry or too strong. Remember that it is a spirit with a high alcohol level. The taste of whiskey depends on the oak barrels used in the distillation. Some companies use new or old barrels, and they may also be smoked. This is where the flavour comes from.

Health

The word whiskey is Gaelic for “water of life”. It has long been thought that the spirit has health benefits, and this is in fact true. You may be sceptical of this as an alcoholic beverage, and this is also a consideration. It is, of course, recommended to always drink alcohol in moderation.

In moderate consumption, whiskey can help prevent some diseases, thanks to the ellagic acid found in the spirit, which destroys cancer cells. In addition, whiskey consumed in moderation contains zero fat. In this way, neat whiskey or on the rocks is perfect for those watching their weight.

Reviews

Whiskey is a high-end spirit, but it is also very personal. Choosing the best whiskey is a matter of taste. In choosing the best product, a good start is to look through the reviews. If you are unsure which to choose, read the comments, and this might give you a better idea.

Also, among the reviews, you can often find comments from specialists or fans. These usually offer very valuable and interesting information about the product. You may discover a new product, or you may realize that you were about to choose the wrong one.

Aroma

Before tasting any whiskey you should take time to smell its aroma. The nose is able to differentiate between 32 primary flavours, while the tongue only distinguishes four. Whiskey has many different shades and aromas that you can enjoy. Move the spirit a little in the glass and bring your nose closer to experience the full intensity of its aromas.

Although at first, you will only smell the alcohol, gradually you will begin to differentiate the complex and deep smells of its ingredients. If you want to experience all its flavours, before drinking the whiskey, have a drink of fresh water. This refreshes the palate and cleans the tongue. Keep the whiskey in your mouth for a few seconds and enjoy.

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Summary

Whiskey is an alcoholic drink made from the distillation of malt and the fermentation of grain. Barley, wheat or corn are distilled and age in a centuries-old process. The end result is a well-appreciate drink with a lot of class, full of aromas and flavours.

Choosing a whiskey is something very personal. It is a spirit made to be enjoyed, so you should choose the one you like the most. Follow our shopping guide and take into account factors such as age, flavours and aroma. And, of course, you shouldn’t forget about the price either.

If you liked this article, leave us a comment or share it with your friends and family to help them buy the best whiskey on the market.

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