If you’re new to the world of whisky and feel a little intimidated at the thought of getting to know all about this centuries-old spirit, don’t be! Whisky is an exciting category, with diverse flavours created by hundreds of distilleries worldwide.
Whisky Live Festival, the organisers of the Whisky Live Showrooms that are taking place in Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town this year, have created this quick and simple guide to whisky to get you started on your tasting journey.
Although monks in the Scottish Highlands were the first to make whisky, it is now produced all over the world, including in South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and China.
Whisky is made in Scotland, whiskey is made in Ireland, and bourbon is made in the United States, with the distillation and maturing processes distinguishing them more than their spelling…
Whisky is made from just three ingredients: water, barley and yeast.
Whisky is made in a five-step process: Malting (the barley is allowed to germinate); mashing (the barley is ground down to be ‘grist’ and then added to pure, warm water); fermentation (yeast is added); distillation (in copper stills); and maturation (stored in oak casks until the desired flavours emerge).
Sometimes peat is used to dry the malted barley, and it imparts its flavours to the whisky – which is why you’ve heard of ‘peaty’ whiskies.
Whisky is matured in oak casks that have previously been used to store American bourbon or Spanish sherry.
Only oak casks may be used, and the wood is chosen for its toughness, tight grain (to prevent leaking) and porosity. Because the casks are porous, they ‘breathe’ in aromas from the environment where they are stored, lending these flavours to the whisky. The whisky also draws its flavours from oils in the wood called ‘vanillins’, as well as from the charring that is part of coopering (building a cask).
The whisky flavours are also developed in the distillation process, with taller stills giving a finer, lighter spirit, and shorter, fatter stills giving a fuller, flavour. Because the casks are porous, around two percent of the whisky is lost each year to evaporation. This is quaintly called ‘the angel’s share’.
When a whisky is labelled by its age, this refers to the length of time it was matured in casks. Because older whiskies have lost more to the ‘angels’, they tend to be more expensive.
A single malt whisky is distilled at one distillery, and then matured and bottled there. A blended (or vatted) whisky is produced by mixing different whiskies of different ages and flavours together. Some blended whiskies can contain more than 50 different whiskies!
There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ whisky to enjoy – and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong way to drink it, as whisky can be enjoyed neat, on ice, with water, or in cocktails. Sample as many different expressions as you can to find the one that you love the most.
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