When it comes to alcoholic beverages, whisky can be one of the hardest to get into. This isn’t because it doesn’t taste great, but because, generally speaking, a decent bottle of whisky is going to cost a great deal more than a decent bottle of wine, and many people are reluctant to commit to such a cost when they’re not sure which whisky they will enjoy.
Here at Havana House, we’re all about whisky and love nothing more than a good glass of Scotch alongside our cigar. We’d love for more people to be able to enjoy the wonders of whisky and to be able to choose a bottle that’s right for them.
To help achieve this, we have compiled a complete guide to whisky – from the very basics right through to how you can enhance your dram or invest in the whisky industry! Everything you need to get sipping is right here in this guide.
What better place to start than at the beginning, with the basics about whisky!
What is Whisky?
Whisky is a distilled alcohol made from a grain mash that has been fermented. Commonly, barley, rye, wheat or corn will be the grains used. The beverage is usually aged in a wooden cask, which enhances its flavour. It is then bottled and enjoyed as a sipping drink or in cocktails.
The Missing ‘e’
Next, we’ll answer one of the most common points of confusion when it comes to whisky – is it spelled whisky or whiskey? Simply put, the inclusion or lack of the letter ‘e’ in the word whisky/whiskey is down to regional variations in spelling.
If you’re buying ‘whiskey’ from Ireland or America, then it is whiskey with an ‘e’. If your ‘whisky’ comes from Scotland, Canada, Japan (or pretty much everywhere else in the world), then it’s whisky without the ‘e’.
The Different Types of Whisky
While we’ll explore regional differences in whisky in more depth later in the guide, it is important to understand the main types of whisky available.
Malt whisky is made with malted barley as the key ingredient.
Grain whisky is made using any type of grain, for example, corn, rye or wheat.
These two types can be combined or bottled in a number of ways:
- Single Malt – single malt whisky is made from one mash, from one distillery, using one type of malted grain.
- Blended Malt – a blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries.
- Blended Whisky – blended whisky is a mixture of different types of whisky, which may be from different distilleries.
- Single Cask – a single cask whisky is bottled from an individual cask, rather than coming from a mix of multiple barrels.
- Cask Strength – cask strength whisky is bottled from the cask undiluted or only slightly diluted. This is a rare type.
Whisky is produced in many different countries around the world; however, Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada and Japan are some of the more notable producers.
Each country produces whisky with its own distinct flavour. Some countries also have strict regulations regarding the ingredients and production methods used if the whisky is to be labelled as being from that place or type of whisky.
Widely known as Scotch, Scottish whisky is renowned worldwide for quality single malts and blended whiskies.
Whisky is a huge part of Scottish heritage, with over 133 distilleries still operating across six whisky distilling regions in Scotland.
To legally be described as “Scotch”, the whisky must be produced at a distillery in Scotland using water and malted barley. Other whole grains may be added, but the mash must be made at the distillery. The Scotch must also be produced to a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%.
What Does Scotch Taste Like?
The taste of Scotch will largely depend on the location of the distillery, the casks used and the specific blend of the whisky. For example, smokey, peaty and salty notes can be found in many whiskies distilled on the coast and islands of Scotland, whereas those made inland tend to offer lighter, creamier whiskies.
American whiskies are distilled from fermented cereal grain mash. They have a number of types of whiskey, each of which has very specific requirements that must be met to be described as such type.
- Bourbon whiskey – mash must contain at least 51% corn, and the whisky must be aged in a new charred oak barrel.
- Corn whiskey – mash must contain at least 80% corn and is typically not aged. If it is aged, it will be done in an uncharred or used barrel.
- Rye whiskey – mash must contain at least 51% rye.
- Malt whiskey – mash must contain at least 51% malted barley.
- Wheat whiskey – mash must contain at least 51% wheat.
What Does American Whisky Taste Like?
American whiskies can offer diversity in flavour, although you can expect certain flavours depending on the key component of the mash. For example, a Bourbon or corn whiskey will likely offer a sweeter taste, due to the high amounts of corn in the beverage. Whereas, a whiskey with higher quantities of rye will likely offer a slightly spicy hint.
Canadian whisky is typically blended, and made from a range of grains. Often, these grains will be fermented, distilled and matured separately, before being combined during the bottling process.
Canadian whiskies are typically comprised of a base whisky and a flavouring whisky. The base whisky is high strength but not too flavourful, while the flavouring whisky is distilled to a lower strength, but with a stronger flavour. The blend of the two offers the best of both, creating a well-balanced sip.
Rye is a common addition to Canadian whiskies and is used to add spicy notes. In Canada, whisky can be called ‘Rye’ regardless of how much rye it contains – in fact, it can be called ‘rye whisky’ even if it doesn’t contain any rye! On the other hand, there are Canadian rye whiskies that contain 100% rye.
While Japan is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky, it has become one of the best-loved drinks for whisky lovers, with Japanese bottlings regularly picking up awards for ‘Best Whisky in the World’ and similar.
Japanese whisky is greatly inspired by Scotch, with the founder of Nikka Whisky starting off learning the art of whisky-making in distilleries near Glasgow.
What Does Japanese Whisky Taste Like?
Japanese whisky is similar to Scotch, with bold complexities in each sip. It is often served either neat or as a Highball, with the whisky poured over ice with soda and a slice of lemon. In Japan, whisky is often drunk as an accompaniment to a meal.
Whisky Making Processes
Having learnt about how each country makes whisky, from producing and fermenting a mash to ageing the whisky in a cask, blending and bottling, we can explore the processes a little more.
Why Are Casks Used?
Casks are a big part of whisky-making. When whisky is aged in a cask, the wood imparts some of its flavour, aroma and colour into the liquid – in fact, around 60% of a whisky’s flavour comes from the cask!
Most whisky barrels will be made from oak, with the wood typically being toasted before use. The toasting of the wood helps to draw out more flavour and can help to soften bitterness while adding spicy, toasty notes to the whisky.
In America, Bourbon barrels will be charred rather than toasted, with the char creating a darker colour and sweeter caramel and smokey taste.
While we have covered the stricter rules of whisky making from each country, regarding the production techniques and grain quantities, this doesn’t mean that every single whisky in the world has to adhere to such rules.
In fact, there are plenty of outright whacky whiskies out there! From strange whisky distilling techniques like playing the whisky hip-hop or sending it to space to using alternative grains like quinoa, sorghum or millet.
Now you have a better understanding of what each type of whisky is, and the flavours whiskies from different areas offer, you may have an idea of which types you would like to try.
Whether that’s the case or not, there are still a few things to consider when choosing a bottle of whisky.
Do you want a single malt, single grain or blended whisky? This might not have much of an impact on the flavour – a blended whisky can be made to taste very similar to a single malt.
However, when it comes to quality, you may want to be wary. While this is by no means a steadfast rule, blended whiskies may contain lower quality grains with a small amount of high-quality malt or grain to balance out the flavour.
You can probably tell if this is the case from the price point, but check out reviews from other whisky lovers if you want to be sure the whisky you’re interested in is worth it flavour-wise!
When it comes to whisky, the price will often determine the quality. But this will also depend on what you want the whisky for. If you just want to mix it with cola in a cocktail, then a £20 bottle of Jack Daniels can be satisfactory!
But, if you’re looking for a quality dram to sip neat, then you’re likely going to be looking closer to the £70 mark.
If you’re a complete beginner to whisky – or you’ve tried some and aren’t sold yet – then it may be an idea to try out a sweeter whisky.
While it is tempting to start off with a Scotch, which we’ve all heard wonderful things about, the smokiness and peatiness can be off-putting for beginners who are not used to the complex tastes of Scotch.
Instead of jumping in here, you could try an Irish or American whisky, which tends to be sweeter, with fruitier notes.
Once you’ve chosen the whisky you want to try, or have established a few bottles you enjoy, then you can work on ways in which to enhance the whisky drinking experience.
As a popular drink for hundreds of years, there have also been lots of myths and misconceptions about how whisky should be enjoyed, which we will be dispelling here too!
Do You Add Water?
Something that has divided whisky lovers for many years is whether or not the spirit should be enjoyed with water. We’re not talking fully diluting a shot of whisky with a glass of water, but rather simply adding an actual drop or two to the whisky.
It is argued that by adding a drop of water, the flavour and aroma of the whisky can be enhanced.
Alternatively, pop an ice cube in, as the coolness can help to reduce the intensity of the whisky; plus, as it melts, it can dilute the whisky too!
Try your whisky in a number of configurations, including with and without a drop of water or an ice cube, and discover which way you like best.
Do You Decant Whisky?
Often, when we see whisky drinking depicted on screen, the character pours themselves a dram from a fancy crystal decanter. While this looks fantastic and can really add a special something to a whisky shelf, the actual practice of decanting whisky is certainly for aesthetic purposes only.
Decanters were originally used when distilleries didn’t bottle whisky; instead, people would fill their decanter straight from the barrel. Now that whisky is bottled properly, decanters are largely redundant.
Some whisky lovers are under the impression that using a decanter will help the whisky to develop in terms of flavour, but this is not the case. Pouring whisky into a decanter will not affect the flavour, unless there is a small amount in the decanter and it is left for so long that oxidisation affects it.
If you are determined to use a decanter for your whisky collection, then make sure it is airtight, lead-free and has a bigger capacity than the bottle you are planning to empty into it!
Try a Cocktail
If you’re not enjoying straight whisky, or want to experiment with different flavours, then incorporating whisky into a cocktail can be a great idea. We’ve shared some of our favourite whisky cocktail recipes on the blog before:
Another way to enhance the enjoyment of your whisky is to try pairing it with another item, like food or a quality cigar!
Pairing involves matching two things together that will complement and enhance the flavours and aromas of each. A good pairing needs to be equally matched in terms of intensity so that one item does not overwhelm the other.
For example, a smokey and peaty Scotch would work excellently with a full-bodied cigar, as the bold flavours of each can easily compete. Likewise, a cigar with notes of spice or dried fruit could pair well with a glass of rye whiskey.
If you’re interested in smoking cigars, then take a look at our Japanese whisky and cigars pairing guide for more suggestions.
If you’re more into nibbles than cigars, then you can check out our whisky and cheese pairing guide instead!
Collecting and Investing
Once you’ve tried out a variety of whiskies and discovered how you best enjoy your dram, then its time to grow your collection!
If you love the taste of whisky, then growing your whisky collection can show off your passion for the drink and will always mean you have a bottle to hand when you want a particular tasting experience.
But some people take it further than this, crafting serious collections, or even investing in whisky.
If you’re not sure which way is right for you, then you can take a look at our collecting versus investing blog post for more information.
Investing in Whisky
Something that may have gotten you into the prospect of enjoying whisky is the idea of investing in whisky. With auction prices for rare whisky skyrocketing in recent years, whisky is now worth more than gold.
When you buy whisky as an investment, the idea is to leave the bottle unopened and to one day sell it on as a collector’s item for more money. This can be achieved by purchasing limited edition, rare or old bottles of whisky.
If you’ve found a type of whisky you love, then you could begin to craft a collection around the specific areas you like about the whisky. For example, if you could collect whiskies from the same distillery or the same region as the one you like.
Alternatively, you could base it on a grain type, for example collecting rye whiskies from each country.
However you choose to enjoy your whisky is a personal preference left completely up to you, but hopefully, this guide has provided you with all you need to get started in the world of whisky!
If you’ve enjoyed this guide, please share on social media and help inspire other future whisky lovers!