What is whisky?

Whisky is usually an ethanol-based spirit produced in Scotland, though it doesn’t have to be made there. Today, Japan makes whiskies that are very highly regarded. Sometimes these are produced in very small amounts and command exceptional prices.

Scotch whisky is distilled all over Scotland from ethanol created by the fermentation of the sugars in malted barley. To malt barley, grains are regularly wetted in a controlled atmosphere until they start to sprout, at which stage they're dried. The sprouting/malting process converts 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. This is then distilled to make a stronger, purer spirit. This distilled alcohol is clear, but absorbs colour from the barrels in which it's aged. Companies are also permitted to add a little caramel colouring.

The variety of barley, timing of malting and type of yeast (if used) all affect the final flavour, as does the water used for dilution. The wood of the barrel used in the ageing process and the duration of ageing will also produce changes in flavour.

The term ‘whiskey’ is properly used to distinguish similar spirits made in Ireland and the US.

See our best ever whisky cocktail recipes.

How to use whisky

Purists will not drink whisky neat, and won’t add ice or mixers – instead, they'll add a splash or two of pure water, believing this helps ‘open’ the flavours to the nose and palate.

It's not common to cook with whisky, as it can become unappetising when heated with food. Too much or the wrong type added to the cream, oats and raspberries of traditional cranachan, for example, can spoil otherwise delicious ingredients.

You might add a splash to gravy or jus to serve with roasted grouse or venison, or flame game with it before roasting or stewing.

See more whisky cocktail recipes.

How to store whisky

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. 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.

Where to buy whisky

Widely available wherever alcohol is sold.

Choose the best whisky

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, floral style – Dalwhinnie features local heather and honey
  • Speyside whiskies offer warm vanilla and honey undertones with the freshness of crisp orchard fruits – these react especially well to ageing in sherry casks
  • Lowland whiskies are light and elegant, and rarely contain even slight peaty notes

Within each of these areas, local custom and preference will produce many a whisky that is not what you might expect. Some companies age 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's 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 and from one single malted grain. 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.

See our whisky review for our top picks.