Whisky usually means an ethanol-based spirit produced in Scotland. Ethanol is an intoxicating chemical liquid created by the fermentation of sugar by yeasts and has been used socially for millennia.
Whisky doesn’t have to be made in Scotland, and today Japan makes whiskies that are often very highly judged in international competitions. Sometimes these are made in very small amounts and then command exceptional prices.
Scotch Whisky is distilled all over Scotland from ethanol created by the fermentation of the sugars of malted barley. To malt barley, grains are regularly wetted in a controlled atmosphere until they start to sprout, at which stage they are dried. The sprouting/malting process has converted the starches of the grain into sugars and, when combined with water (sometimes with the addition of yeast), fermentation begins, creating an alcoholic liquid similar to beer, which is then distilled to make a stronger and more pure spirit. This distilled alcohol is clear but absorbs colour from the barrels in which it is then aged; companies are permitted to add a little caramel colouring.
The variety of barley, timing of malting, type of yeast if used, and the addition of such as smoking will all affect the final flavour, as will the tastes of the water used for dilution. The aroma characteristics of the wood of the barrel and how long whisky is in contact with it are two further techniques that affect the final flavour and that make this seemingly simple drink a life time study.
The term ‘whiskey’ is properly used to distinguish similar spirits made in Ireland and in the United States.
Widely available wherever alcohol is sold.
Choose the best
Only you will know what you like best. As a broad starter, it’s good to know that each area of Scotland produces a different but similar style.
- The Western Isles, especially Islay and Skye, make whisky that is robust, peaty and sometimes a little salty
- The West Highlands produce a warm and floral style: Dalwhinnie includes local heather and honey
- Speyside whiskies offer warm vanilla and honey undertones, together with the freshness of crisp orchard fruits; they react specially well to ageing in sherry casks
- Lowland whiskies are thought light and elegant and rarely contain even the slightest peatiness
Within each of these areas, local custom and preference will produce many a whisky that is not what you might expect.
Some companies age their whiskies in barrels that have previously matured sherry or bourbon and these add unique flavours; some also sell whisky that has the equivalent of a vintage and if it is a blend the age stated must be that of the youngest whisky in the mix.
Single malt whiskies are specially revered; the name means they are made by just one distillery; thus minor variations might be tasted from batch to batch, year to year.
Most commercial whiskies are blended from more than one distillery so that each bottle’s contents will taste the same.
Seeing the word grain as a whisky descriptive means that a cereal grain other than barley has been added during the malting process.
Whether it has a year of manufacture (vintage) on the label or not, bottled whisky does not mature or change further, the way a wine might. A tightly sealed bottle will last for years but once a bottle is opened the alcohol will very slowly evaporate. Thus, it’s never a good idea to keep a bottle with a dispenser inserted for more than a few weeks or to leave a half empty bottle sitting around for very long. If you are a slow drinker, it’s a good idea to decant a bottle into smaller ones, which can be tightly sealed until needed. Cool storage is best, whatever the size of your bottle.
Purists will not drink whisky neat and won’t add ice or mixers. They will add only a splash or two of pure water, believing this helps ‘open’ the tastes and flavours to the nose and to the palate.
Cooking with whisky is rare and rarely works well, as it canbecome unappetising when heated with food. Too much or the wrong type of whisky added to the cream, oats and raspberries of traditional Cranachan can spoil otherwise delicious ingredients; lots of honey is the most judicious solution.
You might add a splash to a gravy/jus for roasted grouse or venison or flame game with it before roasting or stewing but serving an accompanying tot of something special is just as good and more respectful of the effort that has gone into making the whisky.
On a cold day, a small glass of a very fine single malt whisky is a superb aperitif with smoked salmon, especially with hot-smoked salmon, which is both more robust in flavour and increasingly available.