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10+1 FAQ About Whisky

Updated: Mar 6

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Whisky is gaining popularity as more people discover unique and diverse characteristics. But what exactly is whisky, and what are some of the most frequently asked questions about this spirit? We'll answer these questions and more as we delve into the world of whisky.


1. What is whisky, and what is it made of?

Short Answer: Whisky is an alcoholic beverage made from cereal grains and then matured in oak casks. The oak casks give the whiskey its distinctive flavour, colour, and aroma.

Longer Answer: Whisky is a type of spirit that is produced by fermenting and distilling cereal grains. While single malts are always made using malted barley, it is possible to make whisky from other grains as well, such as wheat, rye, and corn.

In Scotland, whisky must be matured for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks before it can be called whisky. Prior to reaching this age, it is referred to as spirit. Although some countries and whiskies have their own regulations regarding the minimum age, the use of oak as the material for barrels and the 3-year minimum have become industry norms adopted by whisky makers worldwide. For example, bourbon and Australian whisky have their own minimum age requirements.

In order to be classified as Scotch, the whisky must be distilled, matured, and bottled in Scotland and have an alcoholic bottling strength of at least 40% ABV.

Turning malt on the floor Springbank distillery

Image by Twitter/ Springbank Whisky


2. Why is 'whisky' sometimes spelt 'whiskey'?

Short Answer: The extra 'e' in whisky refers to the country influenced by the industry, but it is just a different spelling of the same word.

Longer Answer: The question of who invented whisky has long been a topic of debate between Scotland and Ireland. While the earliest records of a spirit called Uisce Beatha were found in Ireland, the first recorded taxation of the spirit was found in Scotland. Over time, the two countries began to spell the word differently, with Scotland using 'whisky' and Ireland using 'whiskey'.

Interestingly, the spelling of the word can provide insight into the influences that have shaped the whiskies of different countries. For example, Japanese whisky makers spell it 'whisky' because Masataka Taketsuru, who is widely credited as the father of Japanese whisky, studied whisky making in Scotland.

Irish immigrants brought whisky-making to America as settlers, and they took the spelling 'whiskey' with them. However, there are exceptions to this rule, and ultimately, it is up to each individual distillery or brand to decide which spelling to use.

glass of whisky on top of a barrel

Image by The Mirror


3. What is the difference between a single malt and a blend?

Short Answer: Single Malt is made exclusively from malted barley and produced by a single distillery. Blends consist of single malts and grain whisky from multiple distilleries.

Longer Answer: Single malt whisky is exclusively made from malted barley and is produced by a single distillery. Scotland alone has more than 130 whisky distilleries, each with its own unique identity. Some distilleries produce more than one style of whisky, such as Bruichladdich on Islay, which creates three distinctive styles: unpeated, peated, and 'knock-your-socks-off' peated. The variety of single malts available is wide, providing a wide range of flavours to choose from.

Blended whisky, on the other hand, is a combination of single malt whiskies and grain whisky, which is made from something other than malted barley. Of course, there are exceptions, like blended malts and blended grains. Blends are designed to be more subtle in flavour and appeal to a wider audience, but they can also be complex on the palate. There is no limit to the number of distilleries or styles of whisky that can be included in a blend, but it must contain whisky from at least two different distilleries. Most of the whisky produced and sold is blended; without blends, there would be no single malts.

Types of whiskies in Scotland

Image by Edinburgh Whisky Academy


4. Does this mean that single malts are not blended?

Short Answer: They can be, but all the whisky must come from one distillery.

Longer Answer: Single malt whiskies that have not been through any blending are often referred to as 'single cask'. These whiskies come from only one cask, which has matured particularly well and has been chosen to be bottled as is. Single-cask whiskies are typically bottled at cask strength, meaning that no water is added, resulting in a higher ABV.

To achieve a consistent product, all distilleries use blending. Different casks mature at varying speeds and may have different individual characteristics depending on their location in the warehouse. In order to achieve the desired flavour profile every time a consumer buys their product, distilleries may blend hundreds of casks together. Most single malt whiskies available in the market have also been diluted to a desired ABV of 43% or so by adding water.

Laphroaig distillery barrel warehouse

Image by Embrace Scotland/ Laphroaig Distillery Warehouse


5. What does the ABV on the whisky bottle mean?

Short Answer: Alcohol By Volume

Longer Answer: ABV, which stands for Alcohol By Volume, is the percentage of pure alcohol in a bottle of alcohol. If a whisky has an ABV of 40%, it means that 60% of the content is water and the remaining 40% is pure alcohol. The higher the ABV, the more potent the whisky is in terms of its intoxicating ability, and it usually has a bolder flavour. However, consuming high-volume alcohol may dull your taste buds faster.

In the United States, the term 'proof' is used instead of ABV. A spirit with 80 proof indicates that it is 40% ABV, as a proof is considered to be twice the ABV.

Nikka from the barrel

Image by Nikka Whisky


6. What is Bourbon, and how does it differ from Scotch?

Short Answer: Bourbon whiskey is made primarily from corn and produced in the US, while Scotch is exclusively made in Scotland.

Longer Answer: Scotch is always made and bottled in Scotland, so contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as American Scotch. However, other types of whisky, including single malts and other grain whiskies, can be produced in America.

Bourbon is primarily produced in Bourbon County in Kentucky, but it can be made anywhere in the United States. The county was named after the French King Louis XVI, who aided Americans in their fight for independence from the British.

To be considered bourbon, at least 51% corn must be used in the production process, along with other grains. Bourbon must be matured in brand new, 'virgin' American Oak casks, but there is no legal requirement for minimum maturation time. Although it is theoretically possible for a whiskey to simply drip through a cask and still be called bourbon, this practice is not followed in the industry. Typically, bourbon is aged for around 2 years.

Different legal requirements apply to the use of bourbon-related terms. For instance, 'Straight' bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years, while 'Bottled in Bond' bourbon must be aged for at least 4 years and bottled at a minimum of 50% (100 Proof).

single malt whisky compared to bourbon

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7. Where does the taste of whisky come from?

Short Answer: Whisky gets its flavour from the base grain and the barrel ageing process.

Longer Answer: Around 70% of the flavour in whisky is obtained during the ageing process. This is why the quality of the cask is so important. During the maturation process, whisky absorbs compounds from the cask. These compounds lend the whisky its distinctive flavours, such as spicy, vanilla, and butterscotch, to name a few. Barrels can be used more than once, but the more times they are used, the less flavour they impart.

You may have also heard of wood finishes in whisky, which means that the cask has previously held another alcohol. The most common finishes include sherry and port wine. These casks are used to produce darker, richer flavours such as prunes, cinnamon, and other festive spices.

The type of grain used in the production of whisky is also important. This is one reason why rye, malted barley, and corn whiskies have different flavours. Another factor is the type of still used in the distillation process. Pot stills generally produce a bolder spirit than continuous stills.

Finally, peat is a major contributor to flavour. If the barley is peated (i.e., burnt during drying), the whisky will have a smoky flavour. This distinctive profile can be divisive, like marmite.

ageing whisky in oak barrels casks

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8. Is darker-coloured whisky better than light?

Short Answer: 'Don't judge a book by its cover', so not necessarily.

Longer Answer: Nowadays, the colour of whisky is not a certain indicator of the taste or the quality of the product. This is because caramel colouring, which can be added to whisky to make it more visually appealing, can give it a deeper and more desirable colour.

During the 1960s, some distilleries began using Paxarette, a syrup made from Pedro Ximenez sherry, to paint the inside of the barrels. This technique gave the whisky a deep hue and enhanced the depth of its flavour. However, this method was replaced by tasteless caramel colouring E150 in the early 90s. Many blends add colour for consistency in their product.

Some whiskies are marketed as 'natural colour' or 'no added colour', which might tell consumers more about the product's flavour. If a whisky has a lighter hue, it may have matured in an ex-bourbon or refill cask and will likely have a lighter flavour. In contrast, a darker hue usually indicates a longer maturation period or a sherry cask influence and will have deeper tones on the palate.

Ultimately, the preference for one colour or another comes down to personal taste.

whisky tasting glasses in a row

Image by Rolling Stones


9. Is expensive whisky better than cheap whisky?

Short Answer: Not necessarily.

Longer Answer: Throughout the years, we have had the opportunity to taste some amazing whiskies that were affordable, as well as some great and expensive ones worth thousands of pounds. However, we have also encountered some terrible whiskies that were cheap in both flavour and price, as well as expensive ones that left a bad taste in our mouths. Thus, we can conclude that being expensive does not always equate to being better.

Most expensive whiskies have been aged for a long time, and the premium price you pay is for the decades of investment the distillery has put into their whisky. Nevertheless, highly-priced whiskies can be more challenging for the palate since they have spent more time in contact with wood. Furthermore, on some occasions, they have a built-up status that does not always taste the best, despite your brain trying to tell you otherwise.

We would always choose a 15-year-old whisky to enjoy over a 50-year-old one any day. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you enjoy the most.

whisky tasting around the table

Image by Whisky Advocate


10. Why some whiskies do not have an age statement?

Short Answer: The producer is able to sell stock more quickly, resulting in faster turnover.

Longer Answer: It has become a worldwide trend to sell whiskies without an age statement because of the high demand for whisky and the need for distilleries to keep up with the demand.

An age statement on a bottle of whisky indicates the youngest whisky in the blend, so if the label reads '12 years old', the whisky must have been aged for at least 12 years. Distilleries mix different years of whisky to obtain a consistent product. If they choose not to include an age statement, they have more flexibility in blending and can add younger whiskies to the blend. If you would like to learn more about blending a single malt, please refer to question 4.

Some whisky producers avoid displaying age statements to avoid the stigma around young whiskies. Catchy names could be consumer-friendly alternatives to stating age.

Ardbeg whisky range

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+1 Bonus How to drink whisky the correct way?

Short Answer: The way you enjoy it the most.

Longer Answer: There are many opinions about the 'right' way to drink whisky, but the truth is that there is no one correct answer. The best way to enjoy your whisky is the way that you personally find most enjoyable.

Some people prefer to add water or ice to their whisky. In both cases, the water will dilute the drink, making it easier to drink. However, adding ice can over-dilute the whisky and numb your taste buds. During tastings, it's common to add a few drops of water to the whisky to help bring out different flavours and aromas. For high-proof whiskies, adding a drop of water can help to mellow out the drink and make it more palatable. We like to taste our whisky as it is first and add water if needed.

Others prefer their whisky straight or in a cocktail. Some people have elaborate methods for analysing their whisky, but ultimately, it's about what makes you happy. Don't let anyone tell you that you're doing it wrong, although constructive advice can be helpful.

woman nosing a whisky

Image by Find Rare Whisky


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