A Whisky Primer

By / Wine + Drinks / July 14th, 2010 / 2

Every reader of Tidings has surely tried whisky at one time, be it Canadian Club, Chivas, Johnnie Walker or something else. If you liked the taste, you’re happily going back to it from time to time or even enjoying a glass on a more regular basis. Or you could be quietly avoiding it, thinking, “It’s not for me.” But you may have just started at the wrong place.

Whisky comes in a myriad of styles, just like wine. Although its universe is not quite as vast, exploring may lead your palate to some interesting discoveries. Whiskies, from their original incarnations in Ireland (ìuisgeî in ancient Gaelic) to today’s Scotches, Bourbons and Canadians, are all blends. An assemblage made from the fermentation and distillation of barley, corn, rye or wheat, aged in barrels of different sizes and origin during a variable length of time. The possibilities are just endless. Like non-vintage Champagne, the mix is artfully done to reproduce the same taste every time, combining up to 40 different spirits in some cases.

Canada enjoys a fine reputation as a source of quality whisky, selling most of its production to the US. Although it was popular south of the border as well as in Europe from the beginning, sales really took off as the illegal trade during the Prohibition years flourished.

The United States has its own emblematic whisky that originated in Kentucky: bourbon, made mostly from corn and aged in charred new American oak barrels. These barrels often end up in Scotland afterwards and get filled with Scotch freshly condensed off the still pot.

With all this history, it is no surprise that a new category emerged some 50 years ago, pioneered by Glenfiddich. Single malt whisky was introduced, coming from a single distillery — a legend was born. These bottles are the most interesting to explore for an eclectic drinker, and although distillers don’t usually talk about terroir, it resembles appellation wine in a number of ways. Its precise place of origin, the carefully selected and sorted grains of barley, the jealously cultivated yeasts, the secrets of the distillation process, the particular aging method and even the environment all join in a choreography that defines the unique personality of each brand or cuvée.

Single malts represent only a small portion of the total output of Scotland. Each region and sub-region has its own flavour signature found in the distilleries.

The Lowlands, located in the south, generally produces velvety, fruity and easy drinking single malts, making it a good place to start your exploration. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie are two of the few distilleries from that area.

The Highlands — the most important region — sits in the northern part of the country and can be divided further. The east and south portions tend to give fruit flavoured whiskies; Glengoyne is a good example. The Northern Highlands’ whiskies have spicy notes. Try one from Glenmorangie to appreciate their character. The Western Highlands’ are firm and dry with salt and peat aromas, so go for Oban if that appeals to you. Speyside is the richest sub-region, famous for its elegant and subtle flavours, but more exotic ones also exist. Glenfiddich is the most popular worldwide, Macallan has a strong sherry character, and Glenlivet exhibits subtle flowery and fruity aromas.Campbeltown, being a peninsula, is largely influenced by the sea. The air is salty, and so are its whiskies, which have more character than those from Speyside. Glen Scotia is typical, Springbank adds an oily texture.

The Island region collects the islands around the mainland, including Islay, where the imprint of the sea is most evident. Salt, algae, and iodine complement the smoky peat aromas. A glass of Islay will provide one of the most intense tasting experiences. Bowmore and Lagavulin are good examples.

Aside from this “horizontal” exploration, one can also go ìvertical.î Start with the entry product of a distillery’s style you like, a 12-year-old for example, then move back in time with older bottles. The age shown on the label always referring to the youngest ingredient, you may be drinking stuff that is older than yourself. Old oak barrels are the rule for aging single malts, so their initial content is almost never Scotch, as the strong flavours of new oak would dominate. Sherry and Bourbon are most common, but Port, Madeira, rum or cognac can also be used, if only for a few years or as a finishing touch. It is the master blender’s job to find the best combination to achieve the unique character of the final product, be it a classic one, a limited edition (a single cask for example), or a vintage cuvée.

With such a wide range of styles, maybe not all to your liking, it could be wise to check on a bottle before spending a brown or two. Some excellent books exist, but Michael Jackson’s is still the best reference.

Finally, when trying a new single malt, you should first have a sip of the pure spirit, then add a tiny amount of spring water and re-taste until you reach your personal tasting sweet spot. And, please: no ice.


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