Discourse over what makes a fine whiskey is one of the oldest conversations one can have. It is a topic varied by so many different types, tastes and varying opinions, that it can be difficult for beginner tasters to tell which varieties and brews are of a substandard quality, and which of those (despite their harsh tastes) are considered superb examples of a sophisticated drink.
When one talks about what makes a good whiskey, care should be taken to not assume that all whiskeys can be assessed according to equal canons. No, there are so many types and varieties out there, with twice as many ways to enjoy them.
So, next time you are at a swanky bar or office party and want to impress your social peers with your outstanding knowledge of fine whiskeys, here is some information that you can pour into drams (a subjective measurement for whiskey portions), and wow all those that surround you with your sophisticated trivia.
But before we go into what makes the perfect whiskey, let’s explore the different types of this divine and masculine mixture that exist around the world.
A Type for every Taste
The production of whiskey is an age-old phenomenon, one that is shrouded in history and the national pride of its brewers. Evidently originating in the UK, there are now specific types which come exclusively from varying corners of the globe, each with their own distinct tastes, qualities and expectations to meet.
- Scotch: Scotch whisky originates (as its name would suggest) from various areas in Scotland. It is a commonly distributed liquor in most parts of the world and is typically made from malted barley, much in the same way that beer is. It is known for its flowery notes and earthy tastes, usually with a hint of pepper due to its time spent in oak barrels.
- Bourbon: Bourbon is exclusively brewed in the United States, a fact which is actually protected by regulation. It is also made up of at least 51% corn mash, which is what gives this whiskey its caramel and vanilla sweetness.
- Tennessee: Tennessee whiskey is fairly similar to Bourbon, but with one detail that sets the two apart (both legally and practically). It involved the process of charcoal filtering that it undergoes; so, although it is made from corn just as bourbons are, producers prefer to have their bottles classed a little differently due to the way it is processed.
- Rye: Rye whiskeys are typically native to Canada and is commonly made up of a corn to rye ratio of around 9:1, of which the mash is made up of at least 51% rye. This mash of rye gives it a dryer taste than most bourbons, and it is commonly associated with spicy undertones.
- Irish: Irish whisky, which is only distilled in Ireland, is associated with a longer, more complex distilling process and is characterised by a smooth nutty taste and perfumed aroma. It is generally lighter on the pallet than other whiskeys, making it a common favourite around the world.
Ranges from differing Regions
As you can no doubt infer from the above list, whiskeys are strongly associated with the areas in which they are brewed.
Having said that, you will practically never find a bourbon that has been distilled in Ireland or Scotland, and vice versa (and if you have, it falls outside of the bounds of regulations and therefor shouldn’t be trusted). However, each country still has sub-regions which are famous for their particular brands and blends, and getting to know them will make you seem like one hell of a whiskey guru.
- Some of the best scotches come from Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown.
- Most quality bourbons come from the northern part of the state of Kentucky where at least 7 notable distilleries can be found.
- Tennessee whiskey, as its name would suggest is produced in the area of its name’s sake, and a decent bottle is unlikely (and unlawful) to be produced elsewhere.
- Rye whiskey has its origins in Canada, where it was brought from distilleries in Windsor and Ontario; from these locations, it was easily smuggled into Detroit and Michigan during the US prohibition of alcohol.
- The most notable Irish whiskeys have roots that stretch far back through history, stemming from the regions of the County Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, Cooley and Midleton.
The Quality of the Cask
To balance its flavours, whiskey off the still is left to the devices of casks which allow oxygen to round off the harshness of the brew. These casks also play a role in adding flavours and undertones to the whiskey. Bourbon barrels are typically made of white oak while sherry barrels are used for the maturation of Scotch.
Bearing this in mind, the quality and material of the cask will certainly have a lot to do with the overall quality of the whiskey, whether it affects the flavour or the maturation process as a whole.
Casks are typically scorched before housing the still whiskey and can take a number of loads before it becomes less effective at transferring flavours and aromas which will have an eventual effect on the batch during maturation, lessening their unique tastes and smells. However, once the cask is prepared again by being re-scorched, they become suitable once more.
The Age of the Whiskey
As it is with most alcohols (especially spirits), the age of the whiskey in question, and the time that it has had to distil and mature has a lot to do with its overall quality.
By law, Bourbons and Scotch whiskeys need to distil for a minimum of 2-3 years, while some of the market’s finest whiskeys come in 15-20 year additions.
To each their own
These canons for determining whether your dram of whiskey hits the bar or raises it are all fine and well, but when it comes to enjoying whiskey, one must account for personal taste. Some of the oldest and most carefully distilled whiskeys might not meet the taste of novice or even experienced tasters because at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal enjoyment.
So, to finish off, I’ll help you navigate your way around the overwhelming selection before you.
Here is a quick guide to different whiskey profiles:
- Light: Generally fruity, nutty and light. Slightly grassy and refreshing
- Delicate: Subtle and floral, made from sweet grains and matured in light wood.
- Rich: Warm, flavoursome and reminiscent of deserts. Not for the novice taster but great once you can enjoy it.
- Smokey: Spicy with a long-lasting aftertaste. Hits the pallet with a smoky taste that is common amongst Scotch whiskeys.
Terrence Kennedy for