Long before Mad Men reminded everyone of how cool it is to drink whisky, the fiery amber liquid was the drink of choice for man’s men across the English-speaking world. But drinking whisky isn’t as simple as putting on a suit à la Draper and swigging from the bottle of your chosen brand. Oh no, appreciating whisky is an art, and just like any art form, it takes practice to perfect. Fortunately, this is the fun kind of practice.
A gentleman should be knowledgeable about what he’s drinking. Your days of imbibing anything alcoholic without asking questions are over, banished to the memories of your misspent youth where they belong. Let’s start with the basics…
#1 What is it?
Whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash and aged in wooden casks (typically oak). Different varieties of whisky use different grains, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, buckwheat and corn.
#2 What does the name mean?
The word “whisky” is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic word for ‘water,’ which is in turn related to the Latin term used for distilled alcohol – aqua vitae, or “water of life”.
#3 What’s the deal with the different spellings?
There are two schools of thought on the whisky vs. whiskey debate. One believes that the spellings are simply the result of regional language differences and personal preference. The other believes that the spelling depends on the style or origin of the spirit described.
#4 What was its original use?
In its early days, whisky was used as medicine for both internal anaesthetic use and as an external antibiotic. The manufacture of distilled spirits was limited to apothecaries and monasteries, which were responsible for medical treatments, until the late 15th century.
#5 And after that?
With a license dating back to 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in the north coast of Ireland is the oldest licenced whisky distillery in the world. At one point, thanks to taxation, it accounted for 30%-50% of Britain’s revenue. It was also used as currency during the American Revolution. Basically, whisky has a crazy history.
With so many different kinds available, becoming a serious whisky drinker in today’s world is an intimidating prospect. Keep these things in mind when choosing your new go-to brand:
Whiskies are primarily from Scotland, Ireland, America and Canada, but our home-grown Australian whiskies have won global whisky awards and medals, including the World Whiskies Awards and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible “Liquid Gold Awards”. Each country’s product has a unique flavour.
#7 Alcohol content.
Look for the percentage or proof on the label. To determine the percentage from a proof, simply divide the number in half. For instance, a 100-proof whisky will be 50% alcohol by volume. As your palate develops, you’ll notice a clear difference between the options.
Whiskeys do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is technically only the time between distillation and bottling. An older bottle may be rare, but it’s not necessarily better than a newer whisky that matured in the cask for a comparable amount of time.
Now it’s time for the fun stuff…
Different Ways You Can Drink Whisky
There’s no single correct way to consume whisky, but each method lends itself to certain types and can greatly affect the flavour profiles of certain whiskies.
This is the only option for whisky purists. Think of it this way: if you’re drinking your whisky with nothing added, you’re drinking it exactly the way its creator intended for it to be consumed. You’re tasting the whisky’s natural flavours, a mix of the cask it was matured in, the distillery’s techniques and its unique blend of ingredients. If you’re drinking it neat, make sure to let your whisky aerate for five to ten minutes first.
On the rocks
Adding ice helps dilute the spirit and makes for easier drinking. This is a good option for stronger whiskies, which have a tendency to overwhelm the palate. Just be warned that many experts say lowering the temperature of the whisky numbs its flavours. Opt for the largest ice cubes possible, which have less surface area and therefore melt more slowly.
Watering down your whisky might sound like a no-no, but it’s a common practice when done in moderation. Adding a tiny touch of water – even just a few drops – eases the alcohol burn while enhancing the whisky’s nuances and hidden flavours. Start small. You can always add more water if needed, but the only remedy for adding too much water is adding more whisky.
Whisky cocktails are not without their fair share of controversy. Plenty of snooty whisky drinkers believe that adding anything other than a cigar to your whisky is blasphemy, but at the end of the day it all comes down to personal taste. It’s best to stick with blended whiskies if you plan on including them in mixed drinks. This approach is perfect for those who are new to the world of whisky and want to be introduced to its flavours slowly.
Whisky 101 Expert Tip
There’s no right or wrong way to drink whisky. Traditionalists will tell you to drink single-malt whiskies neat, but newcomers may find this too aggressive for their palettes. Adding a few drops of water will open up some of the underlying flavours. We’re having free whisky tastings at Dan Murphy’s stores from 15-17 (for World Whisky Day) May so feel free to pop in and have a chat to our spirits experts, and broaden your whisky palette.
Hamish Fyfe, Dan Murphy’s Business Manager – Whisky