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Whiskey 101

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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:

  • Color
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Preparation

Color

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?
  • Bitter?
  • Earthy?
  • 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:

CEREAL

FEINTY

FLORAL

FRUITY

WINEY

WOODY

PEATY

SUPHURY

maize

sweetcorn

bran

yeast

shoe polish

tobacco

leather

honey

flowers

perfume

cut grass

hay

herbs

citrus

fresh fruit

jams

dried fruit

port

nuts

chocolate

oils

oak

pencils

coffee

toffee

burnt toast

peat

tar

bog water

sea-shells

matches

burnt rubber

fresh laundry


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.

Drinkware

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. 

 

 

 IRISH WHISKEY 

For Irish Whiskey to be considered Irish Whiskey is MUST (in no particular order):

  1. Be from Ireland
  2. Aged at least 3 years
  3. Be aged in wooden casks
  4. Be tripled distilled
  5. 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.

SCOTCH

Scotch MUST:

  1. Be from Scotland
  2. Aged for at least 3 years
  3. Be age in oak barrels
  4. 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).

BOURBON

Bourbon MUST:

  1. Be made in America
  2. Be 51% or more corn
  3. Aged in a charred barrel never previously used
  4. Not have any [artificial] coloring added
  5. 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. 

SUMMARY

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.

Finding Buddies While Traveling Solo
 

Comments 14

Guest - Wallis on Tuesday, 22 August 2017 12:35

Thanks for writing this! I love whiskey, but am not very knowledgeable of it (especially when it comes to differentiating/ recognizing them) - I do love Bourbon more than any of them, but that's probably because I tend to like sweeter things more. Definitely an interesting read!

Thanks for writing this! I love whiskey, but am not very knowledgeable of it (especially when it comes to differentiating/ recognizing them) - I do love Bourbon more than any of them, but that's probably because I tend to like sweeter things more. Definitely an interesting read!
Guest - bee on Tuesday, 22 August 2017 15:26
whisky unveiled

Thanks for a comprehensive breakdown on the art of whiskey tasting. I'll be sure to bookmark this and share this with friends.

Thanks for a comprehensive breakdown on the art of whiskey tasting. I'll be sure to bookmark this and share this with friends.
Guest - Melissa on Tuesday, 22 August 2017 20:36

I'll admit I'm not a whiskey drinker, but I found this super interesting. I would probably look so uncultured if someone handed me a glass of whiskey because I wouldn't have known anything about the clarity, the different ways to smell it and taste it.

I'll admit I'm not a whiskey drinker, but I found this super interesting. I would probably look so uncultured if someone handed me a glass of whiskey because I wouldn't have known anything about the clarity, the different ways to smell it and taste it.
Wayfaring Broad on Thursday, 24 August 2017 13:49

Don't worry about how you look.

I'm constantly learning new things too! I think after traveling for a bit I stopped caring about how ridiculous or stupid I might look. Mostly because it leads to funny or interesting stories for me. lol

Don't worry about how you look. ;) I'm constantly learning new things too! I think after traveling for a bit I stopped caring about how ridiculous or stupid I might look. Mostly because it leads to funny or interesting stories for me. lol
Guest - amit on Tuesday, 22 August 2017 20:44

My granddad used to be really into his whiskeys and in-turn I learnt to drink whiskeys from him but reading through this I've just learnt so much more. Thanks for this

My granddad used to be really into his whiskeys and in-turn I learnt to drink whiskeys from him but reading through this I've just learnt so much more. Thanks for this :D
Guest - miranda on Tuesday, 22 August 2017 21:58
Miranda

I actually really dislike whiskey, but it was interesting to read how it's made.

I actually really dislike whiskey, but it was interesting to read how it's made.
Guest - Shaun on Wednesday, 23 August 2017 01:11

Yessss! Great explanations and tips. Still tastes like firewater to me

Yessss! Great explanations and tips. Still tastes like firewater to me :)
Wayfaring Broad on Thursday, 24 August 2017 13:50

Haha...yeah but some are more like ember water while others can be an inferno.

Haha...yeah but some are more like ember water while others can be an inferno.
Guest - Medha on Wednesday, 23 August 2017 04:33

I don't really drink whiskey but it's amazing to know that there's so much to learn for whiskey lovers! I'm more of a wine person but even I don't know so much in detail about wines. Very interesting that you got all this knowledge!

I don't really drink whiskey but it's amazing to know that there's so much to learn for whiskey lovers! I'm more of a wine person but even I don't know so much in detail about wines. Very interesting that you got all this knowledge!
Guest - lisa on Wednesday, 23 August 2017 08:32
Learnt something new!

I'm not the biggest whisky drinker, but your post really shed some light on the subject. I like how you listed all the differences between whisky, scotch and bourbon. I'm still not sure about the taste, but I'll give it another go!

I'm not the biggest whisky drinker, but your post really shed some light on the subject. I like how you listed all the differences between whisky, scotch and bourbon. I'm still not sure about the taste, but I'll give it another go!
Wayfaring Broad on Thursday, 24 August 2017 13:52

Before I started delving more deeply into whiskey, they all tasted the same to me too. It's really interesting how once I started focusing on picking up and detecting flavors, the more whiskey started to grow on me. Going deeper into the rabbit hole.

Before I started delving more deeply into whiskey, they all tasted the same to me too. It's really interesting how once I started focusing on picking up and detecting flavors, the more whiskey started to grow on me. Going deeper into the rabbit hole.
Guest - Caroline on Wednesday, 23 August 2017 14:13

I love ending the night with a whiskey drink, but I never knew much about it. Thanks for sharing this, I learned a lot!

I love ending the night with a whiskey drink, but I never knew much about it. Thanks for sharing this, I learned a lot!
Guest - Kate on Thursday, 24 August 2017 04:26

I feel like such a peon reading this! I've tried so hard to get into drinking whisky neat and it's just way too harsh for my palate! I'm hoping that I will enjoy it more with age, like I've tricked myself into eventually enjoying red wine.

I feel like such a peon reading this! I've tried so hard to get into drinking whisky neat and it's just way too harsh for my palate! I'm hoping that I will enjoy it more with age, like I've tricked myself into eventually enjoying red wine.
Wayfaring Broad on Thursday, 24 August 2017 13:55

Any whiskey, especially drinking it neat, requires training your palate. Nobody drinks it the first time and loves it. And drinking some whiskeys neat are easier than others neat. It really depends on the Mash Bill, the proof, and the dilution of it out of the cask. Just the other day I drank a 120 proof bourdon that kicked my butt and had to add water to it. Everything is trial and error to really figure out what type of spirit you like and the way you like it.

~Happy drinking! ^_^

Any whiskey, especially drinking it neat, requires training your palate. Nobody drinks it the first time and loves it. And drinking some whiskeys neat are easier than others neat. It really depends on the Mash Bill, the proof, and the dilution of it out of the cask. Just the other day I drank a 120 proof bourdon that kicked my butt and had to add water to it. Everything is trial and error to really figure out what type of spirit you like and the way you like it. ~Happy drinking! ^_^
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Tuesday, 22 May 2018

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