Once the preserve of old men in tweed with red faces, whiskeys today come in a range of flavors and proofs that would have blown the minds of yesteryear’s connoisseurs. It’s not that Scotch, Blanton’s full set Bourbon, Irish, or rye are any less popular than they once were – it’s just that there is so much more variety now. Even without counting niche micro-categories such as peated whiskey or single malt, there are now so many different kinds of whiskey to choose from. How then do you make sure you pick something you will enjoy? The recommendations below should help you navigate your way through the labyrinthine world of whiskeys:
Know your Bourbon
Bourbon is made primarily from corn and must be produced in the US and aged in new American oak barrels for a minimum of two years. If it is aged less, it cannot legally be called Bourbon. There are fewer categories of Bourbon than there are of Scotch, but the variations are enough to confuse even the most experienced drinker. The general categories of Bourbon are
Straight bourbon: This is un-blended bourbon. It means the whiskey comes from one distillery, and no other whiskey has been added to it. An example of a straight bourbon is a Kentucky Weller special reserve.
Pure or straight bourbon: This is a blend of whiskies, but all of them come from the same distillery and all of them are at least four years old.
Single barrel bourbon: This Bourbon comes from a single distillery, but it has been mixed with other whiskies from other distilleries.
Know your rye
This is a category that is gaining in popularity but remains a niche interest. The general categories are blended rye whiskey, straight rye whiskey, and single-barrel rye whiskey. You will have to go to a specialist whiskey retailer to find rye whiskey because it is not as widely distributed as Scotch or bourbon. A typical example of a High Rye Blended Scotch Whisky is the Johnnie Walker Collection set which features a unique mash bill of 60% rye aged in American oak barrels.
Things to know before you buy
Age: The older a whiskey is, the more expensive it will be. Some people believe there are benefits to drinking whiskey with an age on the label, others don’t. There is no consensus regarding the ideal age for drinking any given whiskey.
Potency: The proof that is stated on the bottle will give you an indication of the strength of the whiskey. Bottle proof is 50% alcohol. A whiskey that is 40% alcohol will be less strong than one that is 50%.
Price: Price is not always a reliable indication of quality. But it can be a useful starting point when you are short of time.
Brand reputation: There are some brands with a reputation among whiskey enthusiasts that is almost unassailable. But you have to be careful to buy the right expression of that brand. For example, a case of buffalo trace is a bourbon whiskey, but only a particular expression of that brand is suitable for drinking neat.
Know your Scotch
Scotch, by definition, is a whiskey produced and distilled in Scotland. But that doesn’t tell you much about the flavor or quality of a particular bottling. The trick is to get to grips with the various flavor categories that the Scotch Whisky Association has recognized. The categories are:
Grain whisky: The most common form of Scotch, this is produced from a mash consisting of barley and other grains such as corn, rye, and wheat. Will generally be light in color and taste.
Malt whisky: A more expensive and rarer form of Scotch, made from barley malt. – Blended whisky: Usually a combination of grain and malt whisky, this is more common and cheaper than single malts.
Single malt: The most expensive and rare form of Scotch, made from a mash of malted barley.
Know your Irish whiskey
The categories here are blended Irish whiskey, single pot still whiskey, and single malt Irish whiskey. Blended Irish whiskey is made from a combination of grain and malt whiskies. Single pot still whiskey is made from a blend of malted and unmalted barley. You can recognize it by its clear color. Single malt Irish whiskey is made from malted barley and is usually a darker color.
Know your Japanese whiskey
Japanese whiskey is very popular right now, with exports rising by almost a third in the past year. The categories are blended Japanese whiskey, single malt Japanese whiskey, and single pot still Japanese whiskey. Again, you will have to go to a specialist whiskey retailer to find these whiskies.
Once you’ve picked a whiskey, it’s time to try it out. But how do you approach tasting whiskey? It’s easier than you might think. First of all, you must decant the whiskey. In general, you should pour the whiskey into a new clean glass at least an hour before you plan to drink it. This allows the alcohol vapors to evaporate and the flavors to develop. It’s also a good idea to store your whiskey in the correct conditions. Ideally, you should keep your whiskey in a wooden cabinet or a closed cupboard away from direct sunlight. Keeping your whiskey in the correct condition will ensure that it lasts for years to come.
Finding the right bottle for you
Whiskey is a very subjective thing. You may love a blend that turns another’s stomach. You can’t choose a whiskey based on someone else’s taste buds. There are plenty of websites that offer reviews of different whiskeys, but the best way to pick the perfect bottle for you is to try them. A good whiskey shop will offer you tasting samples, so you can try a range of whiskies before you buy a full bottle. Alternatively, a whiskey club will send you different samples every month. With a bit of research and patience, you will soon find the whiskey that is right for you.