Whisk(e)y is an acquired taste.
As a child I would sneak small sips out of my grandfather’s glass of Crown Royal when but it wasn’t until I moved to the Yukon and spent a long winter in Dawson City though that I came to appreciate what a fine drink it is.
Here’s an introduction to the diverse world of whisk(e)y, so you will know what to buy for yourself or, more importantly, your father-in-law.
First things first: how do you spell it? With an ‘e’ or without depends on where it is made. Americans and the Irish spell it ‘whiskey’ while the rest of the world, including Canada, spell it ‘whisky.’
Types of Whisky
There are three main types: bourbons, ryes, and malts.
Bourbons are your classic American whiskies and are made from at least 51 percent corn. Commonly associated with Bourbon county, Kentucky, any American made whiskey meeting the required corn content and aged in new oak barrels can be labeled as ‘bourbon.’
Ryes are associated with Canadian whisky and must be made from at least 51 percent rye and aged for at least three years. The barrels can be either new oak or reused after containing other spirits.
Malt whiskies are made from malted barley and can be made anywhere in the world. Scotch is by far the most famous type of malt whisky.
When in Scotland never ask for a ‘scotch’, always ask for a ‘whisky’, which will always be a scotch unless you specify otherwise. To be labeled as scotch it must be distilled, matured and bottled in Scotland and aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels, usually ones that previously contained bourbon or sherry.
There are two main types of scotches, single malts and blends. Single malts must be made from only one type of grain and all the whisky in the bottle must come from the same distillery.
If a bottle has an age statement (e.g. 12-year Macallan), then all whisky in the bottle must be at least that age. In the bottling process distilleries often combine whiskies from different barrels of different ages to get their product just right.
Although there are many high quality blended scotches, they are often considered inferior to single malts because their ingredients are not specified and can contain lower quality grain alcohols. With a few exceptions (Johnny Walker Blue Label), I tend to reserve blends for cocktails and mixed drinks.
Single Malt Scotch
The most pretentious of all whisky drinkers are single malt enthusiasts.
There are four main types of single malts, each characterized by their region of origin:
Speyside: These sweet, creamy whiskies are often aged in sherry casks and exhibit and fruit, spice, and caramels flavours. They are quite popular with those new to scotch. Examples include Macallan and Aberlour.
Lowland: Light, smooth, and inoffensive, whiskies from southern Scotland may lack in complexity but they are easy drinking and enjoyable. Examples include Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan.
Islay: (Pronounced ‘EYE-luh’) Famously potent, these whiskies are known for their smoke, salt and peat — a result of malted barley dried over a peaty fire and left to age in the coastal air. Examples include Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Highland: The most complex and varied region of scotch production, these whiskies capture the flavours of the other three. Examples include Scapa, Clynelish and Highland Park.
Glenmorangie: glen-MOR-angee (rhymes with ‘orangey’)
Old Pulteney: OLD Pult-nay
The industry standard is the ‘Glencairn’ glass. These bulbous glasses allow for maximum appreciation of a whisky.
In the Yukon, expect to spend at least $70 on a decent bottle of scotch. Glenmorangie Original is very easy drinking and affordable. Macallan 12-year (sweet) and Lagavulin 16-year (smoky) are both excellent high-end choices.
The Kensington Wine Market on Kensington road in Calgary or the BC Liquor Corporation headquarters at 41st and Cambie in Vancouver have great selections. The Brown Jug ‘Warehouse Store’ in Anchorage is a whisky lover’s paradise.
Kevin Erskine’s book, The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch is a short and easy read. Jim Murray’s annual release The Whisky Bible is also a great resource.
To quote Mark Twain, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whisky is barely enough.”