The water of life. The origin of the word whisky gives you a taste of the admiration it commands. But what exactly is whisky? And how might it differ from the likes of scotch, bourbon and rye, if at all? Let’s take a look at the story behind this feted beverage.
''Sipped on its own, the following tastes will likely domino – alcohol, wood, smoke, grain, peat, earth, toffee, nut, tobacco and vanilla. The straight whisky experience can be a challenge for young players, so pairing with water or ice is recommended at the beginning.''
Whisky. It’s a broad term, covering all manner of brown liquids from across the globe. But differences aside, these bottled works of art all share a few things in common.
They’re all distilled alcoholic beverages, able to get everyone from a fresh-faced 18-year-old to a weathered old sailor more than a little tipsy. They’re all born of fermented grain mash (grain mixed with water and heated), be it of barley, rye, wheat or maize. And they’re all typically aged in wooden barrels, which stack yet another layer of complexity on top of an already multifaceted palate experience.
So, with this liquid so varied in origin, style, taste and even spelling, what should you know when looking for your perfect whisky partner? Grab a tumbler and one of those fancy spherical chunks of ice - it’s time to dissect what is perhaps the most celebrated and distinguished spirit on the planet.
Whisky vs Whiskey
First things first. How do you spell it - whisky or whiskey? No need to stress, there are no wrong answers in this little test - both are correct. The spelling is a largely regional phenomenon.
As a general rule, “whiskey” is used by producers in Ireland and the US, while “whisky” is used by everyone else, including Scotland, Japan, Canada and Australia. This rule is far from hard and fast, as seen on the whisky labelling of popular American brands such as Maker’s Mark, George Dickel and Old Forester.
Whisky, scotch, rye or bourbon?
The next piece of labelling confusion often stems from the many synonyms and similar drinks that fall in or near the whisky sphere. Are scotch, rye and bourbon different from whisky? Or are they simply variations on a theme?
- Whisky: As stated above, whisky is a rather broad term that covers any distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash.
- Scotch: Scotch is whisky from the home of the drink, Scotland. Scotch is most commonly made from malted barley, although this isn’t a must.
- Bourbon: A decidedly more specific affair, bourbon is an American whiskey (predominantly made in Kentucky) that must use at least 51% corn in its grain mash, must be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol) or less, must be barrelled in newly charred oak at 125 proof (62.5%) or less, and cannot contain any additives.
- Rye: In the US, rye refers to whisky made with a mash of at least 51% rye, although Canada uses the term a little more flagrantly, even slapping it on whiskies without any rye in the mash. The lesson? Don’t trust Canadian whisky makers, I guess...
The Australian whisky story
Australia was at first tentative to create its own whiskies, so used was the nation’s palate to the imported products of Scotland and elsewhere. But in recent decades things have changed in a big way.
Surprisingly to some, Tasmania is the hub of the Australian whisky trade, being home to around a quarter of all Australian distillers. Having only entered the whisky distilling market in 1992 with the opening of the Lark distillery, it now boasts over 30 different labels, with plans in the works for many more.
Whisky on the lips
The taste of whisky varies greatly depending on how and where it’s made. There are two main types of whisky – single malt and blended. Single malt is made at one distillery with malted barley, and aims to encapsulate the distinct qualities of the producer. Blended, on the other hand, sees multiple single malt and grain whiskies blended together, with the unique taste coming from how the different flavours interact with each other.
With so many variables, defining the taste of whisky is difficult. Sipped on its own, the following tastes will likely domino – alcohol, wood, smoke, grain, peat, earth, toffee, nut, tobacco and vanilla. The straight whisky experience can be a challenge for young players, so pairing with water or ice is recommended at the beginning.
The best tipples
With such a broad range of liquids wedged beneath the whisky umbrella, even the most committed connoisseur couldn’t hope to sample the full gamut of tastes. So where should a whisky apprentice focus his or her efforts?
Scotland is the obvious choice. The blends of Chivas Regal and the single malts of Ardbeg are excellent starting points, showcasing the incredible craftsmanship that has made scotch whisky famous the world over. The Mars Shinshu distillery highlights how the Japanese have made the ancient art their own, this Mars Iwai Tradition Whisky being a perfect example.
Of the local selection, Tasmania’s Nant distillery produces some gorgeous single malt whiskies, including examples aged in port and sherry casks, and a truly stunning 63% bourbon. Margaret River’s The Grove distillery offers a unique take on single malt, with a sweet, spicy and aromatic whisky the perfect choice for new entrants to the whisky fold.
- In 2014 a Tasmanian whisky won the World Whiskies Award for the best single malt whisky - the first time that it had ever been presented to a distillery outside of Scotland or Japan.
- The oldest surviving bottle of whisky in the world is a Glenavon scotch from the 1850s, which recently sold at auction for approximately $26,500.
- The Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland was licenced in 1608, making it the world’s oldest.
- After whisky was discovered on Ernest Shackleton’s boat 102 years after the Antarctic explorer became stranded in the ice, the recipe was recreated by a Scottish distillery.