A beginner’s guide to whisky: 7 key questions answered

Everything whisky novices need to know about the water of life.

Demand for whisky is growing and along with being one of the UK’s top 10 exports, we’re drinking more whisky at home than ever before.

[Read more: 5 must-drink whiskies for Peaky Blinders fans]

Our thirst is for single malts, which are fast becoming our whisky of choice. But before we can appreciate the style and flavours, it’s important to get to grips with the basics…

Made from three simple ingredients – grain, water and yeast – Scotch can veer from fragrant to fruity, from rich to smoky, and can be enjoyed neat or with ice and a splash…

1. What are the different types of Scotch whisky?

A selection of different whiskies

Single malt whisky

Made from malted barley and distilled in batches in copper pot stills. It’s produced by one single distillery. The well-known brands include Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Oban.

Single grain whisky

Made from a different type of grain, usually corn or wheat, in 30ft-high column stills using a process of continuous distillation. Usually, a small percentage of malted barley is added as a catalyst. Well-known brands include North British, Black Barrel and Cameron Brig.

Blended malt whisky

A mixture of single malts only, from various distilleries. There is no grain whisky in a blended malt. This type of whisky is sometimes called a vatted malt or a pure malt. John Walker & Sons Odyssey, Monkey Shoulder and Johnnie Walker Green Label are the brands to look out for.

Blended grain whisky

A mixture of various grain whiskies. This is a rather rare type, not often seen on store shelves. Snow Grouse, the brother of The Famous Grouse, serves as a good example.

Almost 90 percent of Scotch is blended whisky.

Blended whisky

A mixture of mature malt whiskies from various distilleries, blended with a certain amount of mature grain whisky. The percentages of the two types vary by brand.

The well-known brands include The Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Black Bottle and Dewar’s.

2. Is older whisky better than younger whisky?

(A Field Guide to Whisky/PA)
(A Field Guide to Whisky/PA)

Older whiskies aren’t necessarily better than younger ones per se. Age is a number; maturation is character.

Some whiskies want to stay in the cask for a long time; others should be released into the world sooner. Producers also play around with different ages to increase the variety of their assortment, while maintaining the quality of their products.

3. Is whisky always matured in wooden casks?

Whisky barrels (A Field Guide to Whisky/PA)
(A Field Guide to Whisky/PA)

Whisky has to mature in wooden casks, other­wise the bottled spirit isn’t whisky. Most countries specify oak as the only permitted wood for casks. The character of the wood has a huge influence on the eventual taste of the whisky.
By law in Scotland, all Scotch whisky has to mature in oak casks for a minimum of three years.

4. What is the angels’ share?

Oak casks and barrels breathe, which is why some of their content evaporates during maturation. The percentage of liquid that evaporates annually from a cask is called the angels’ share.

5. How many single malts come from Scotland?

Picture of Macallan Gold
The Macallan Gold (Thewhiskyexchange/PA)

There are about 120 working distilleries in Scotland. However, every distillery makes various versions of their single malt and may give them different names.

The Macallan, for example, produces a special series of single malts called Gold, Amber, Sienna, and Ruby.

6.  What is the effect of adding water to whisky?

Picture of whisky glasses

Adding water ‘opens’ the whisky and reveals more aromas. But beware – too much of it can drown the flavour, and old whiskies may completely collapse.

A plastic pipette is a handy tool for adding water by the drop.

There’s no golden rule; in the end, how much water to add is a matter of trial and error, and personal preference.

7. What type of glass should I use to drink whisky?

Nosing and tasting start with the choice of the perfect drinking vessel. The well-known broad tumbler glass makes drinking easy and is suitable for whisky on the rocks.

If you like mixing whisky with ginger ale, cola or soda water, you may prefer a tall glass.

But if you’re looking for the finer nuances in flavour and aroma, you may want to try a special tasting glass: tapered on the top, rounded at the bottom.

In this type of glass, sometimes referred to as tulip or copita, whisky can be well swirled, and the narrow opening prevents aromas from escaping too quickly. Pour about an ounce into the glass, swirl the whisky slowly, and take the time to enjoy its colour.

Picture of front book cover

A Field Guide to Whisky by Hans Offringa (Artisan Books Copyright © 2017/ Photographs by The Whisky Couple/PA)

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