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Bourbon to Scotch Whiskies - Your Ultimate Guide To Whisky

Bourbon cover

Whisky has come a long way. It used to be seen as a ‘man’s’ drink, sipped on by the fire, or a drink that men enjoyed together while smoking cigars and playing billiards or cards. Today, this outdated view of whisky no longer exists and whisky is enjoyed by everyone. And there are so many different types of whisky out there it can be hard to keep up! That's why, we’re giving you the lowdown on all things whisky. So, let's start at the beginning, shall we? Where the story of whisky began…

Whisky 101: Your Essential Guide to Whisky

Who invented whisky? 

An interesting fact as told by an expert is that "Ireland is the birthplace of whisky but it was the Scottish that made it the world-renowned spirit that we know and love today." 

It was first distilled in the 15th century by Scottish monks who picked up the technique from Irish settlers. And the first commercial distillery opened in Scotland in 1608. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, how is whisky made?

It’s a long (but worthwhile) process, which all starts with soaking barley in water (kicking off the germination process, if you want to get technical) and then drying it with peat smoke or hot air. The barley is then ground into coarse flour, mixed with hot water to create a mash, and fermented with yeast. The resulting liquid is twice distilled and aged in oak barrels for many, many years, giving it all those lovely flavours and aromas.  

What are the different types of whisky?

Scotch, Irish, and American to Japanese, you don’t get more multi-cultural than whisky. Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years (and one day, to be exact!). Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled, giving it a lighter taste. American whiskey, including bourbon and rye, is aged in new charred oak barrels, giving it a distinctive flavour, while Japanese whisky is heavily influenced by the traditional Scottish whisky-making process. And also, by its landscape and culture, which we get into later.

OK, so it is whisky or whiskey?

It's both! And it's quite the story. The short version is this: Ireland added an 'e' to distinguish their liquid from the Scottish version in the American market. With lots of Irish immigrants making a home in the US, America adopted the same spelling. But with single malt Scotch whisky recognised as the world's leading whisky, every other country has opted for the original spelling.

So, in short, ‘whisky’ is typically used to refer to Scotch whisky and other types of whisky that are made outside the US, while ‘whiskey’ refers to American and Irish whiskey.

What are the different whisky regions in Scotland?

Scotland is the spiritual home of whisky with five distinct whisky-producing regions, including the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay (its "pronounced EYE-la" by the way), Speyside and Campbeltown (which has only three distilleries). Each region has its own unique style and flavour. Oh, if you ever fancy a Scotch whisky adventure, there are nine distilleries you can visit along the North Coast 500, including The Singleton with its newly reopened visitor experience.

What is a single malt whisky?

As the name suggests, single malt whisky comes from just one distillery. And it's made using 100% malted barley. But, get this, even though it's called a single malt, it's usually a mix of different whiskies from different casks, as long as they're all from the same distillery. Blended whisky, on the other hand, is made up of different whiskies from different distilleries, including single malts and grain whiskeys. It's kind of like making a recipe with a bunch of different ingredients. 

What does the number on the whisky bottle represent?

whisky bottle
Here’s a fun fact for you: the number on the label is the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. But each bottle often has older whiskies that help create the complexity and long finish we all love about whisky.

Are whisky and bourbon the same thing?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey made in the United States. It uses at least 51% corn and is always matured in new oak casks (although there’s no minimum for how long). It can be made from a variety of grains, such as rye, barley, or wheat, each bringing different flavours. 

How should you drink whisky?

Neat, on the rocks, with a dash of water - basically any way you like! Whisky is that versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in so many different ways. You can also mix it into classic whisky cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned, Whisky Sour, and Rob Roy.

What makes whisky taste the way it does?

Every type of whisky has its unique flavour because many things can influence the taste - like the culture, palate, and location where it's made. For example, in Japan, they really value delicacy, complexity, and balance because of their cultural history. And because Japan is so big, with all kinds of different climates and temperatures, that can also affect how the whisky ages and tastes. It's the same with other countries that make whisky, like the USA, Ireland, and Scotland. They all have their own cultural influences that make their whiskies taste special.

How long does whisky last?

The good news is that time is on your side! An opened bottle of whisky can last many years, but its flavour may change over time due to oxidation. To keep the flavour at its best, try to close the bottle tightly after each pour to keep the air from getting in.

Looking to try something new? Sip your way through these whisky brands

whisky brands
1. Talisker
There's a reason why this single-malt Scotch whisky has won so many awards - its flavour profile is a lovely mix of smoky and maritime notes that will take you on a sensory journey to the rugged shores of the Isle of Skye. It's like an exceptional experience in a glass.

2. Johnnie Walker
One of the most iconic blended Scotch whiskies in the world, Johnnie Walker has a richness and smoothness that comes from only using single malt and grain whiskies. Johnnie Walker Black Label spends 12 years in the cask creating a vibrant body of flavour and the signature flavour notes of sweet, spice and smoke will shine through when mixed, stirred or shaken.

3. Singleton
The Singleton is famous for its rich Speyside character. It's got this amazing flavour that's a result of the way it's made - from a longer fermentation and distillation process.  It's then aged in a mix of European and American Oak barrels, giving it this fruity and vanilla taste that's just so good. It's definitely a must-have for all whisky lovers!

4. Mortlach
Coined the “Beast of Dufftown”, Mortlach is a single malt Scotch whisky that is precisely 2.81 timed distilled. It has an exceptionally rich and complex flavour with notes of light spice, toffee, and tobacco.

5. Haig Club
Distilled at Cameronbridge Distillery and founded in 1824 by John Haig, Haig Club Clubman is matured exclusively in fresh, bourbon casks creating a Scotch whisky which is sweet, light and easy to drink. It's perfect over ice, in long drinks or in short cocktails.

6. Bulleit Bourbon
Bulleit is distilled, aged and bottled in the traditional home of bourbon - Kentucky USA. Unlike traditional bourbons, it has a high-rye recipe which gives a distinct, bold and lightly spicy flavour.

7. Oban
Oban, pronounced ‘Oh-bin’, produces whisky with its own unique and distinctive flavour. The Oban distillery sits at sea level giving the whiskies a subtle salty character. The water used to make every drop of Oban is from a loch just three miles away. Now that’s keeping it local!

8. Lagavulin
Lagavulin is the definitive Islay malt characterised by intensely smoky and rich flavours. Miles of peat bog in the west of the island provide the raw material which imbues the barley with that distinct smoky flavour.

So, what food pairs well with whisky?  

1. Whisky with seafood
Salty, maritime whiskies like Talisker go exceptionally well with seafood. Try it with oysters or smoked salmon and discover new depths of flavour.

2. Whisky with cheese
Peated, earthy and smoky single malt Scotch whiskies like Lagavulin have a natural affinity with the intensity of salty or mature cheese.

3. Whisky with vegetarian foods
Light, dry and even smoky whiskies like Caol Ila find savoury notes in vegetarian snacks like dried fruits and nuts or meals like vegetarian haggis for a traditional Scottish experience.

4. Whisky with meat
Smooth, sweet and dry whiskies like The Singleton bring out the rich complexity of character in air-dried sausage, Parma ham or even mutton pie. You also can’t go wrong with a bourbon, like Bulleit, or a blended malt, like Copper Dog, for a meaty summer barbecue.

5. Is whisky a good gift?

good gift
Absolutely! Whisky gifts are the best! From bourbons for a housewarming or summer BBQ, to classic single malts whiskies to enjoy any time of year, you’ve got a Bar-full to choose from for any occasion, with plenty of offers and gift sets to make it extra special. 

So, what does the future hold for whisky?

A bold and bright one. The industry continues to smash stereotypes and blaze the trail of experimentation and innovation. Distillers of all genders and backgrounds craft unique and delicious varieties, sparking a rise of craft and artisanal whiskies using sustainable production methods.  

So, there you have it. A complete guide to whisky. But how will you use it? Will you drop some fact bombs at the next whisky tasting or dinner party? Or will you use it to find that perfect gift? Whatever you do, it’s a wonderful world to discover.

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