I’m definitely a whiskey gal, but never really knew what to look for in a whiskey. After all, there are so many different varieties. Scotch, Irish Whiskey, American Whiskey, Bourbon, etc. What’s the difference? I couldn’t differentiate, but always thought it would be nice to know. That’s when, by chance, I received an invitation to go to the Neat Whiskey Society’s event, “The Big 3.”
“The Big 3” was in reference to the three main types of whiskeys, Scotch, Irish Whiskey, and Bourbon. The event was for beginners to learn more about the differences between each one. It was the perfect opportunity for me to hone my whiskey drinking skills and level up on some knowledge.
Here’s what I learned.
Characteristics to Look For
When trying a new whiskey, here’s some of the characteristics to be mindful of:
When looking at color, many people just see a brownish liquid and go “yep…. that’s whiskey…,” right? I did for the most part. There a many things color can tell you about the spirit.
- How clear is it?
- Is it closer to a yellow or brown?
Clarity usually indicates how many times the spirit has been distilled. The more a whiskey is distilled, the clearer or more yellow it will be. If a whiskey is more amber or brown, it’s usually been aged longer. Aging of whiskey typically happens in charred wooden barrels or casks. As it sits in these casks, the spirit picks up characteristics from the barrel, such as flavors and colors. The longer a whiskey is aged in a barrel, the more color it can pick up. When whiskey isn’t aged at all, it’s clear like vodka (essentially making it moonshine).
Smell & Taste
Considering 80 percent of the flavors we pick up come from smell, it plays an important role when enjoying whiskey.
So, how does it smell?
- Is it sweet?
- Does it remind you of another food? (i.e. - Does it smell like maple syrup?)
When you sniff a whiskey, believe it or not, the way you sniff makes a difference. Sniffing in a particular way can lead to detecting various characteristics of the whiskey, many times adding another layer to it.
The first way is sniff with mouth closed. Let the scent diffuse, think about what flavors you can detect, then try again leaving the mouth slightly ajar to get a flow of air. I was surprised that I was able to distinctively pick up new flavors between my mouth being closed and open.
Next, and most obviously, how does it taste? Like the smell, you can taste using different methods too! Sip and let the whiskey roll around on the palate, enough to hit all the flavor spots. Or try moving the liquid to the back of the throat and swallowing. Being mindful during each sampling can lead to detecting more flavors.
Things to ask yourself when tasting:
- What do I taste first?
- Is it smooth on the palete and burn on the way down?
- How long does the burn last?
- Is there an aftertaste? If so, what is it?
- Are there different flavors the second sip?
Here’s a helpful guide that was given to me from the Neat Whiskey Society, on some common flavors to look for when tasting whiskey:
Neat or No?
This speaks to the preparation of the whiskey. For a really great whiskey, neat is always nice. Meaning, nothing else in the glass beside the whiskey.
An alternative, if you’re still training your palete or it’s too strong, ask to have a branch added to your drink. Don’t expect it to come back with a wooden twig sticking out of your glass. “Adding a branch” simply means adding 1 teaspoon of water to the whiskey serving. Though it’s just water, adding it to your drink can drastically change the dynamic. I sampled a scotch that was relatively smooth, but when I added a branch it left an oily aftertaste. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding a branch has a negative effect all the time, but does highlight that adding water can make a significant change to the flavor. So watch out for the branches! And add wisely.
Another choice is adding ice to the whiskey, or getting it “on the rocks” (rocks being the ice). Drinking whiskey chilled can lead to a smoother experience because colder temps dull the flavors of the whiskey making it easier to sip.
There is a proper glass for every drink. The most preferred one to drink whiskey from is called a “Glencairn” [glen-care-n] (my own pronunciation guide). Best quoted from Home Wet Bar
“These crystal whisky glasses are ideal for proper assessment of the nuances for several reasons. First, the shape of the bulb at the bottom of the glass creates the perfect lens for investigating the color and texture of the spirit. Impurities can be easily spotted, and light is reflected in a way that allows a deeper understanding of the golden tones and hues. Also, the tulip shape allows the aromas to collect inside the glass.”
There is other drinkware such as old fashioned tumblers, snifters, Paris goblet, among others. The Glencairn, after being developed in 2001, is the glass commonly used throughout Ireland and Scotland.
Now....onto the whiskeys, starting with Irish Whiskey.
For Irish Whiskey to be considered Irish Whiskey is MUST (in no particular order):
- Be from Ireland
- Aged at least 3 years
- Be aged in wooden casks
- Be tripled distilled
- Be no more than 95 proof and no less than 40 proof
Irish whiskeys such as Tullamore Dew, tend to be light in color, very clear, and very smooth. This is a nice whiskey to start on for beginners as it isn’t harsh on the palate and has a little aftertaste.
- Be from Scotland
- Aged for at least 3 years
- Be age in oak barrels
- Be no more than 95 proof (94.8 to be exact) and no less than 40 proof
Find out the other regulations here.
Scotch can be categorized by its region and blend. I’m going to focus on the blend because this is a 101 and personally I’m not well-versed in the differences in Scotch regions yet.
There are two main Categories: Single Malt and Single Grain. From these, you can make three blends: Blended Malt, Blended Malt & Grain, and Blended Grain. (See Pic Below).
- Be made in America
- Be 51% or more corn
- Aged in a charred barrel never previously used
- Not have any [artificial] coloring added
- Be no more than 160 proof and no less than 80 proof
Bourbon is definitely the sweetest of the three whiskeys. I didn’t realize how sweet until it was compared to Scotch and Irish Whiskey.
Keeping in mind, color, smell, taste, and preparation (neat, on the rocks, branches added), here are the five whiskeys I sampled.
- Tullamore Dew
- Monkey Shoulder
- Ardbeg (my favorite of the night)
- Makers Mark
- Hudson Maple Cask Whiskey
Now I have a foundation to continue my whiskey education and something to think about when I sample new ones. Too bad I didn't have this knowledge when I was visiting Nikka Whiskey in Yoichi. You can read about that more in That's the Spirit(s)!. I’m planning on delving more deeply into Bourbon and look forward to what I learn.