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The Beginners Guide to Whisky

Whisky Wall

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain, American author and humorist

“Whisky is liquid sunshine.” – George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” – Raymond Chandler, Novelist and screenwriter

Whisky or Whiskey has rapidly grown in popularity. Previously reserved for the more mature gentleman, whisky has now become the go to drink for many men. Ordering a whisky and enjoying it as it was designed can actually be a daunting thing for the unaware. This guide will take you through the world of whisky and will leave you at a point where you can begin to develop your own tastes and palate.

Whisky or Whiskey

You’ll see people spelling it both ways and probably wonder what the difference is. It’s actually quite simple. Whisky or whiskey is the general term that refers to distilled spirits made from grain mash. Bourbon, rye and scotch are all types of whisk(e)y. The difference in spelling is very subtle and to be honest doesn’t really matter that much. Generally if it’s made in Scotland, Japan or Canada, it’s spelled whisky while if it’s made in the United States or Ireland, it’s whiskey. There are some exceptions to this like the American Makers Mark which call themselves whisky. So all in all this doesn’t really matter. It’s good to know but not something to get hung up on. Moving forward in this guide I will refer to this spirit as whisky.

makers mark bourbon whisky

American Makers Mark calls itself “Whisky”

Bourbon, Rye and Scotch

Bourbon, Rye and Scotch are all types of whisky. Bourbon is American whiskey which contains a minimum of 51 percent corn, and is aged in charred, new oak barrels.

Rye whiskey is made with a minimum of 51 percent rye. Like bourbon, it has to be aged in charred, new oak barrels. Similarly, wheat whiskey must have a minimum of 51 percent wheat.

Scotch is whisky from Scotland and at a minimum is aged for three years in oak barrels. It is produced in different regions within Scotland creating different flavors, textures and experiences for the drinker. There are five official Scotch regions; Campbelltown, Highlands,Lowlands, Islay, Speyside. Scotch regardless of region is also placed in strict classifications based on how it is produced. The two that you’ll see most is Single Malt and Blended Scotch.

  • Single Malt: Single malt Scotch whisky refers to whisky that is made only from malted barley. Single malts are produced at a single distillery.
  • Single Grain: Single grain whisky is also made at a single distillery, but incorporates additional grains in the mash bill beyond malted barley.
  • Blended Malt: Blended malt whisky is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Grain: A blend of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Scotch: A blend of one or more single malts with one or more single grains. The vast majority of Scotch sold around the world is blended.

How to enjoy and drink?

There are multiple ways to drink and enjoy whisky. You can enjoy it neat, with water, on the rocks or in a cocktail. Personally I drink my whisky in all of these ways depending on the type, my mood, and how I feel. Despite what people may say, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky as long as you enjoy it.

Neat – Neat is straight whisky in the glass. This is enjoyed as the distiller intended without adding anything extra or diluting the spirit.  It is generally one or two shots, and often people use the “finger unit” to describe the amount of drink. This refers to the level of whisky in the tumbler when you’re holding it.

With Water – This is probably one of my favorite ways to enjoy whisky. This is straight whisky in a tumbler with one or two drops of water in order to open up the flavors and smells of the whisky. The best way to do this is to take a sip neat to gauge the taste. You will feel a sensation as the liquid hits your tongue and palate. This is the alcohol content anesthetizing your taste buds. Depending on the whisky, if you continue to drink it neat, you will eventually lose the ability to truly taste the drink as your tongue will go numb.

Source: http://www.sipdark.com/products/angels-share-whisky-dropper

Source: SipDark.com


On the rocks – This is a very popular way to enjoy whisky which is with ice, however there are two strong arguments against this. Firstly ice is typically made from tap water, meaning it’s full of chlorine and secondly as the ice melts it will water down your drink and dilute the whisky, well beyond juts adding a drop or two of water to open up the flavors.

Drinking your whisky on ice does make it ice cold which a lot of people like. You can get whisky rocks which will cool your drink without diluting it which is another option.

Cocktail – Like another other spirit, whisky can be mixed with other drinks to create killer combinations and delicious cocktails. I personally leave this option to parties when I’m not trying to really enjoy the whisky, but instead just being social. Some of my favorite whisky cocktails include, old fashioned, the new york sour, the whisky smash and the glenmorangie velvet smoke.


Once you have poured your whisky it’s time to begin the tasting. The first thing to do is to let it sit for a couple of minutes before giving it a gentle sniff to begin the experience. Don’t inhale too hard or the alcohol content will sting your nostrils. Simply wave the glass under your nose and absorb the smells. There’s no need to for aeration or swirling of the whisky. This tends to release more of the alcohol content and can overwhelm your nose.

After smelling the whisky it’s time to actually taste it. Initially take a small amount into your mouth and let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds. Be sure not to keep it there too long as the alcohol will numb your tongue. Then swirl the whisky in your mouth before swallowing and savouring the after taste. You should be able to to taste subtle differences at during each step.

You can then try adding some spring water (don’t use tap water as this contains cholorine), start with one or two drops and repeat the above to see how the whisky taste changes. You’ll often be able to unlock completely different flavors just by adding a small amount of water. You can continue to add more water to see how it changes. If you feel you have diluted the flavor too much, you can add more whisky to balance out the water.

They’ll be a lot of different flavors that you’ll be able to to taste, and they’ll often be different from someone else tasting the same whisky. As you try more whisky and your palate develops you’ll be able to taste more and be able to tell the subtle difference between each. Whisky tasting is an experience and each time you enjoy a whisky you’ll be able to unlock different flavors. If it is a peaty or smoky whisky, like Laphroaig or Talisker it means that peat has been used to malt the barley. The more peat that is used the smokier the whisky will taste.

Sweeter whiskies get their flavor and sweetness from being stored in wine or sherry casks for an extended period of time. For example Glen Fiddich 12 year old is stored in Oloroso sherry and bourbon oak casks.

The wood used in the casks that store the whisky is a big contributor to the overall flavor. This includes the actual type of wood as well as what was stored in the cask previously.

Here is a whisky flavor wheel which you can reference when enjoying your next drink:


This flavor wheel consists of three concentric circles. These circles are divided into ten flavor categories (separated by color): fruity, floral, cereal, vegetable, woody, roasted, spicy, winey, off-flavors and taste. In the inner circle these categories are divided into respective sub-categories such as stone fruit, berries, citrus, etc. The outer circle consists of 75 unique attributes, which are characterized by flavor references. They provide evidence of the great diversity of flavors and tastes in whiskies and help generate individual flavor profiles for each variety.


Whisky is a drink that has been enjoyed by men and women for centuries. It has a lot of history and has been increasingly gained popularity in recent years.

To start just go out and try as many whiskies as you can. I find that starting off with two completely different whiskies help you refine and develop your palate.

Here’s a bit of arrogance in a whisky vs whiskey poem that’ll I’ll leave you with.

Whisky or Whiskey

A Scotsman who spells
Whisky with a n ‘e’,
should be hand cuffed
and thrown head first in the Dee,

In the USA and Ireland,
it’s spelt with an ‘e’
but in Scotland
it’s real ‘Whisky’.

So if you see Whisky
and it has an ‘e’,
only take it,
if you get it for free!

For the name is not the same
and it never will be,
a dram is only a real dram,
from a bottle of ‘Scotch Whisky’.

~ Stanley Bruce.

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