Whisky for beginners
Does your lack of whisky knowledge stop you from ordering it in a bar? Learn the basics with this whisky 101, and dive in.
What exactly is whisky?
Yes, we’re really starting with the basics here! Whisky (or whiskey) is a honey-coloured distilled spirit that’s made from grains and typically contains 43–50% alcohol.
What’s with the spelling?
Whisky (no ‘e’) is always Scottish, while whiskey (with ‘e’) is always Irish. The easy way to remember it: there as an ‘e’ in the word Ireland and not in the word Scotland. The rest of the world uses either one or the other.
Where is whisky made?
Traditionally, whisky is produced in five regions – Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Kentucky and Tennessee – and each area has its own way of making it. What about South Africa, you ask? Indeed, while those above are the biggies, we produce excellent, award-winning even – whisky right here in Mzanzi. (Check out The James Sedgwick Distillery, for which master distiller Andy Watts has been pulling in international accolades). Plus many other countries make it too, including Japan, India, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, England, Wales and even Russia, better known for its vodka.
How is it made?
Think of whisky as distilled beer. First, grains are soaked in hot water to release their sugars. Once this liquid – the wort – has been cooled, yeast is added, which ferments the sugars into alcohol. This is now called a wash; from here hops can be thrown in to create beer, or the wash can be distilled to create whisky. For whisky, the wash is put in a still, and the distilled liquid is in turn put into wooden casks to age. Fast-forward a while and we have whisky. Voilà!
What kinds of grains are used?
Whisky can be made from barley, wheat, rye or maize (aka corn), or a blend thereof. For example, Bain’s is made from local yellow maize, while Three Ships currently uses blends and pure barley malt for its range.
So what is malt?
Malt is a grain that’s been semi germinated, through a process of soaking, drying and heating. Malted whiskies are made from these grains – usually barley.
What types of whiskies are there?
Generally, whisky can be classed by the combination of grain, still and cask used to make it. Other factors include where it’s made, how long it’s been aged for and technicalities of production. Here are the some common ones:
Single malt – made in one distillery with malted barley and pot stills (like Cardhu)
Blended malt – a blend of single malt whiskies from several distilleries (like Monkey Shoulder)
Blended – a mix of different types of whiskey (like Johnnie Walker)
Bourbon – American whiskey made from at least 51% maize and aged in charred new oak barrels (like Bulleit Bourbon)
Tennessee Whiskey – Bourbon made in Tennessee using the Lincoln County Process filtering step (like Jack Daniels)
Rye – American whiskey made from at least 51% rye (like Jim Beam)
How do I know which whisky is for me?
Whisky has a wide flavour profile – from spicy to peaty, smoky, buttery and biscuity – so there really is something for everyone. And don’t be fooled, while many of the finer whiskies carry a hefty price tag, there are plenty of lovely affordable ones too. Spend an evening at a whisky bar, like Bascule, Hankes or Churchills, and ask the bartender for advice, or go to a whisky festival like Whisky Live.
How should I drink it?
Purists will say to drink it neat, or with a drop of water to open up the flavours (termed as ‘awakening the dragon’), but however you take your dram – with soda water, coke or in a cocktail – is entirely up to you.