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In High Spirits

What’s your poison, Whisky Or Whiskey? Serena Cowell discovers its nuances to help you make your choice

Cult Whiskies They’re out there. If you can find them, that is. You see them on display at specialty whisky shops, but they’re often not for sale; if they are, you’re going to pay dearly for them. Whisky collectors show you pictures of them with pride, as if they were pictures of their first-born child. They also command exorbitant prices during speciality whisky auctions. Welcome to the world of cult whiskies. Some whiskies might seem relatively expensive when they’re first released, but their value can increase several fold within a few years. Some popular cult whiskies are The Macallan, Laphroaig, Springbank, Maker’s Mark and Old Potrero.

‘Do you know your whisky?’ is a question that can put a number of well-read, extensively travelled corporates in a tight corner and make them look around for hints. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, ‘Whisky’ - better-known by the Americans and Irish as ‘Whiskey’ - is a spirit distilled especially from malted barley, other grains potatoes etc. However, there is more to it than what meets the eye. A lot of research has gone into knowing what whisky is and how it is different from another. Why two spellings? The Celts, ancestors of both the Scotch and Irish, called their drink distilled from grain ‘visgebaugh’ - pronounced ‘wis-ge-baugh’ and spelled with one ‘e’. The English, who liked the drink, Anglicised the name and spelled it ‘whisky’ no ‘e’. But the Irish didn’t agree and it seems that neither did our forefathers. So whiskey with an ‘e’ is the drink from Ireland or America, and without an ‘e’ is the spirit from Scotland and Canada.

History has it that the oldest Scotch is known as malt whisky and written records of production in Scotland go back to 1494 when monks were making aqua vitae (the water of life) for mainly medicinal purposes - but not for long! On the other hand, the Irish claim that they are the inventors of whiskey. But who cares about the trivia as long as it is known as aqua vitae - the water of life. One may see a minor difference in the spelling, but the same extends to the method of distillation, water, ingredients used and influences of the climate.

Whisky is a distilled liquor, made from the starchy materials of various grains. The grains are first ground into a mixture somewhat like cornmeal. This ‘mash’ is then fermented, distilled, blended and aged. Although not always necessarily in that order. That is where differences come into play. There are different grain mixtures, various distilling methods, diverse blending methods, with about as many varied aging methods.

Know Your Whisk(e)y

Rolls Royce of Single Malts - The Macallan

All information about your whisky can be found on its label. For example, Jack Daniels, the label states that it is a Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, meaning it was made in Tennessee and the mash used in making one batch of whiskey is added to the next. Hence, the term sour mash. Another example is Johnny Walker Black Label. The label clearly states that this is a blended Scotch whisky. Meaning that this whisky is made in Scotland from a blend of several different batches of whisky.

We take a look at some of the popular whiskies available in the market:

Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey is distilled and matured in Ireland. They are triple distilled by the Patent Still method and have to be bottled in the country as per the government regulations. This blended whiskey is made from barley and grain malts. The malt is dried in coal-fired kilns so that the aroma of the fire does not flavour the malt. Irish whiskey is heavier, sold at 86 proof and can be produced only in Ireland. Bushmills and Jameson are top sellers of Irish whiskey.

Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky is distilled in Scotland from malted barley in Pot Stills and from malted and unmalted barley or other cereals in Patent Stills

Scotch Whisky is distilled in Scotland from malted barley in Pot Stills and from malted and unmalted barley or other cereals in Patent Stills. The well-known brands of Scotch whisky are blends of a number of Pot Still and Patent Still whiskies. Most Scotch whiskies are blended whiskies made generally from malt and grain whisky. This whisky is known for its smokey flavour that comes from drying the malted barley over peat fires. It can only be produced in Scotland, in order to be exported to the United States. The Scotch must be aged at least four years and have a proof from 80 to 86. Popular Scotches include Dewars and Johnnie Walker. Single malt Scotch is produced at one distillery using a barley malt and must be aged for three years. Renowned brands include Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian Whisky is blended and distilled from rye, corn and barley. It may only be produced in Canada under strict government control. The Canadian Whisky sold in the United States must be aged at least four years, and be 80 proof. It is much lighter in taste and colour than most other whiskies. Canadian whisky and Scotch will be very similar, since in the early days of whisky-making Scottish immigrants came to Canada and started distilleries using their original recipes from Scotland. Canadian Whiskies include Black Velvet, Canadian Club and Windsor Canadian, to name a few.

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon Whiskey is distilled from grain mash containing 51 per cent corn and aged more than four years in new charred oak barrels. It is amber coloured, and a little sweeter and heavier in texture than other whiskies. Bourbon gets its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky where it originated. Examples include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark.

Blended Whiskies

Blends of straight whisky, neutral grain spirits and other stuff, such as sweeteners and colour additives.

Single Malt Whisky

This term is applied to Scotch or Irish Whiskey, typically. It means that the malt (the barley which was malted to make it fermentable) was entirely distilled at the same distillery.

For The Taste Of Your Whisky

The argument that Irish whiskey is older and better than Scotch whisky and vice-versa will always continue as long as whiskies exist. The only way to decide which is better, is to taste and sample them and adhere to the ones suitable to your palette. Each brand of whisky has its own scent, taste, look and texture. If you really want to sample the different tastes, it is best to drink it neat (straight up) or with a few drops of water added (while tasting, avoid ice cubes as they numb the oils in the whisky). It is said that to judge a whisky one must use all five senses, and to buy it - the sixth sense. Here are some useful tips on what to look for while judging a whisky.

Colour: Look at the colour, while most are amber coloured, there are different degrees of the shade. Generally if a whisky has a light colour, the taste will be lighter too.

Viscosity: Now look at the viscosity - this is the amount of whisky that clings to the side of the glass when swirling. This will tell you a bit about the texture of the whisky. If a lot of the whisky clings to the sides of the glass, this means that it is a heavier whisky.

Whisky is never drunk, it is sipped. It is best to drink it neat (straight up) or with a few drops of water added

Smell: Now smell alcohol, and keep smelling, do you smell a bit of smoke or charcoal? What about a little sweet smell? Take a deeper sniff and you will be able to pick up other scents besides alcohol. Some whiskies smell of pepper, cinnamon, clove, rosewood, herbs, sherry etc. Good whiskies even emit the smell of fruits like melon, apple, cider and other citrus fruits.

Taste: Lastly taste, take small sips to start, there will be an ‘alcohol burn’, but getting past that you will be able to pick up other tastes. Peat, smoke, sweetness of the grains and the oak from the barrels will slowly come to you. There are different after-tastes also. As your palette becomes more experienced, you will be able to tell the different grains that were used in making the whisky.

Ultimately, whisky is never drunk, it is sipped. Good whiskies can be determined by the price you pay for the bottle. Eminent whisky tasters recommend sipping your whisky with a little splash of water and probably with an ice cube to release the aroma and the characteristic of the brand. Never ever have your whisky with a cola or any carbonated drink, you will never taste the whisky!

(The author is a malt consultant for Highland Distillers)
With inputs from Rajesh Rodrigues