Whiskey novices may find that this whole world of notes, aromas, classifications, origins, and flavours can be a tad overwhelming. You might be finding yourself thinking, “What does that mean? How do I drink that? What should I try first?”
To help beginners like you, we’ve structured this guide to help you thoroughly appreciate and understand this amber-colored drink.
This beginner’s guide will take you through the following:
- Whiskey versus whisky
- History of Whiskey
- What whiskey is made from
- How whiskey is made
- Types of whiskey and what to try
- How to drink whiskey
First, let’s go back to the basics. What is whiskey and where did it come from?
Whiskey versus whisky
Whiskey or whisky is an amber-colored distilled spirit made out of fermented grain. A spirit is an alcoholic beverage in which the alcohol content has been increased by distillation.
The general norm is that if it’s from the United States or Ireland, it’s spelled whiskey. But if it’s from Scotland, Japan or Canada then it’s whisky.
The name stems from the Celtic usquebaugh (Irish uisce beathadh, Scots Gaelic uisge beatha, both versions of the Latin phrase aqua vitae, meaning "water of life").
WHAT IS WHISKEY MADE FROM?
You might have noticed that there are different variations to a whiskey. They are typically distinguished by their origin, grain type, blending technique, or aging procedure, and each will have a particular flavour.
However, whiskey is frequently characterized as warm, spicy, sweet, caramelly, or toasted.
At its core, Whiskey's basic ingredients are cereal grain, yeast, water, and barrels for aging.
The type of grain used varies depending on the whiskey, however, all whiskeys require malted barley to initiate the fermentation process. Only barley is used in Scotch malt. Some whiskeys combine barley with corn, wheat, oats, or rye. Barley and corn are the most commonly used basic ingredients.
HOW IS WHISKY MADE?
- First, the base ingredients are combined. Grains are milled or ground up then boiling water is added to make a mash.
- Synthetic or malted barley enzymes are added to convert grain starches to sugars.
- Fermentation is simulated by adding yeast, a process that usually takes around 3-7 days
- Following fermentation, the liquid is put in a pot or column still, where the single or multi-step distillation process begins. Distillation purifies a liquid by heating it, vaporizing it, and collecting the vapor when it condenses. The resulting liquid is regarded as purer (since it evaporates more impurities) and therefore becomes more alcoholic.
- Excess water is also removed to increase and get the right alcohol content (ABV).
- Finally, the alcohol is aged in barrels (typically oak) for 1 to 30 years before being bottled.
THE ORIGINS OF WHISKEY
Like most alcoholic beverages, whiskey's history is extensive and often incomplete. There are numerous claims as to its origin, but this guide should help you comprehend the essentials and understand its genesis.
1000-1200 AD: Arrival in Scotland
Nobody knows where or when the first grain spirits were created, but they were undoubtedly present in Europe no later than five thousand years ago.
It’s been said that distillation was introduced to Scotland and Ireland by visiting monks over a thousand years ago (1000-1200 AD), giving rise to whisky.
In the absence of European wineries, Scottish and Irish monasteries turned to fermenting grain mash, resulting in the establishment of the first modern whisky distilleries.
1405: First mention in a publication
In 1405, the word “whisky” first appears in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it was written that the head of a clan died after “taking a surfeit (an excessive amount) of aqua vitae (whisky)” at Christmas.
1494: Distilleries are established
By 1494, the distilling of whisky is fully underway, as evident by a record in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 where King James IV of Scotland.
The 1600s: European colonists begin arriving in America
Distilling whiskey was eventually brought to America by European colonists. Scots and Irish emigrated to the United States and Canada, where they established distilleries using their native grains and mashes.
By 1608, the world's oldest permitted whisky distillery, the Old Bushmills Distillery had been granted a license in Northern Ireland.
1725: Production of whiskey is threatened
The manufacture of whisky is put in jeopardy by the 1725 English Malt Tax. Scottish distilleries start making whisky late at night, earning it the eponymous moniker "moonshine."
The 1780s: Whiskey as currency
During the American Revolutionary War, distillers began using whiskey as a means of payment. When the Louisville Distillery Company was established in 1783 in Louisville, Kentucky, it was America's first commercial distillery.
1791: Whiskey Tax
A new excise was imposed to aid in paying off Revolutionary War debt. Because import duties were already high, the new national government placed the first excise tax on distilled spirits produced in the country. The excise became known as the "Whiskey Tax" since whiskey was the most popular distilled spirit at the period.
1791-1794: The Whiskey Rebellion
The rebellion erupted as a result of the ensuing conflict between grain growers and the US government.
1823: Sour mash is developed
Dr. James C. Crow of the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky invented the sour mash method. This changed the way bourbon was created forever, and it's now a legal requirement when it comes to Tennessee whiskey as well.
1840: Bourbon Whiskey
Old Bourbon County produces the first corn whiskey but it’s not until 1840 that it’s officially given the name “bourbon” after distiller Jacob Spears brands his product as “bourbon whiskey.”
1920-1933: Alcohol Ban
In 1911, over 400 million liters of whiskey were manufactured in the United States, a quantity that was not surpassed until after Prohibition.
The Prohibition era forbade all production, sale, and usage of alcohol. This pushes distillers to create whiskey underground, with many of them going out of business and almost driving the industry into extinction.
1964: America’s Native Spirit
In 1951, production hit a new high of around 800 million liters.
Bourbon had become a major hit at this point and was designated as the national distilled liquor or “America’s Native Spirit” by the United States Congress in 1964. They also outlined the exact requirements that must be satisfied in order for a whiskey to be labeled as bourbon.
2004: The American Whiskey Trail
This was established to promote distilleries that are now in operation in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. It’s an educational trip through the history and cultural legacy of distilled spirits in America.
In recent years, whiskey has made a resurgence as a result of the craft beer, food, and wine movements. Every day, more alternatives and new craft distilleries emerge. It can now be ordered online and delivered directly to your home from online liquor stores such as Bottle Haus.
WHAT ARE THE BEST WHISKEYS FOR BEGINNERS?
You’ll first have to recognize that there are different types of whiskeys. This is because there are many types usually distinguished by their place of origin, type of grain, blending, or the aging process. Below, we'll go over the many types of whiskey and the best whiskey for beginners we recommend for each.
- Bourbon Whiskey - Most beginners start with bourbon whiskey. This American whiskey is generally made in Kentucky and has at least 51% corn in its mash bill, giving it a particular sweetness. Because bourbon is often aged in recently charred oak barrels it has a nutty flavor profile with a mellow, caramelized sweetness that is a perfect place to start when trying whiskey for the first time.
One good bourbon to start off with is Wild Turkey 101. It’s crafted using a high-rye mash bill, which gives the bourbon a unique and spicy flavour profile. Wild Turkey 101 has a very low ABV of 50.5 percent and has an aroma of brown sugar and spice that give way to bold notes of caramel, vanilla, characteristics most familiar to bourbon.
- Rye Whiskey - American and Canadian rye whisky are the two most popular varieties. Rye whisky must include at least 51% rye, have no more than 160 proof distillation and be matured in new charred oak barrels until it reaches a minimum of 125 proof to be considered such in the United States.
Meanwhile, Canadian whiskey is distinguished by the fact that it must be matured for a minimum of three years in Canada from a grain mash bill recipe and have a minimum alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40%. It has a wide range of flavour profiles that include a variety of spices and baking spices as well as bread and dry herbs, with a hint of pickle.
If you're feeling a bit adventurous, try Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Whisky. Made up of 95 percent rye as the flavouring whisky along with other whiskies makes this a well-rated blend. The flavour profile is peppery and woody, with hints of caramel. The finish is lengthy and slightly tannic, with just a whiff of orange peel.
- Malt Whisky - Malt whiskies by definition are created from 100% malted barley, and are distilled in a pot still twice or three times. Generally speaking, there are two sorts of malt whiskies: single malt and blended malt. Single malt refers to whisky produced in a single distillery, whereas a blended malt is a blend of whiskies from many distilleries, regardless of whether they use single-grain barely.
Depending on where they are produced, how long they are aged, and how the barley is prepared, Malt Whiskeys come in a wide variety of flavour profiles. However, you'll want to search for flavours ranging from mild to bold, smooth to smoky, and malty to woody.
The Balvenie is a great start in the world of barrel-aged spirits. For those who aren’t full-fledged whiskey drinkers (yet), The Balvenie is a mild sipping scotch that isn’t too sweet. You get a smooth, honeyed flavor with notes of toffee, a hint of fruit, and a warm, lingering aftertaste.
- Grain Whiskey - Made from corn, wheat, rye, and malted or unmalted barley, these are usually distilled in a continuous “Coffey” still. Grain whiskies are lighter, cleaner, milder, sweeter, and floral in comparison to Malt Whiskies.
It can be classified into two types: single grain and blended grain. Single grain whiskies are manufactured in only one distillery, while blended ones are frequently constructed from two or more single grain whiskies.
Single grain whiskeys are typically light and easy to drink, making them a great entry point for those new to whiskey. One that you’ll want to try is Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey, a rose-gold whiskey that has been extensively matured in former Cabernet Sauvignon casks from California. It’s a fairly rich whiskey with an aroma and flavour profile of vanilla cream and a hint of mint. The finish is on the dry side, with a subtle fruity element.
- Single Pot Whiskey - This is an Irish whisky composed of malted and unmalted barley produced in a pot still. In recent years there’s been a growing interest in single pot whisky, with more and more distilleries developing their heritage product.
Its flavour characteristics depend on the bigger proportion of malted or unmalted barley. flavours can range from sweet to spicy, creamy to greasy, biscuity to fruity.
The Redbreast 12-Year-Old Whiskey is a great choice for whiskey loves at any level. It’s accessible, elegant, and very refined. It frequently wins awards for being the best Irish whiskey overall. In 2010, the Whiskey Bible voted Redbreast “Top Irish Whiskey of the Year.”
It gives a lively and zesty aroma along with a superbly balanced and silky smooth taste that leans more dessert-like, with notes of nougat, french toast, and s'mores.
- Blended Whisky - A blended whiskey is created by combining two or more whiskies. Some nations define blended whiskey differently:
- Scotland: Blended Malt, Blended Grain and Blended Scotch Whisky
- Ireland: Blended Irish Whiskey
- Canada: Most whiskies are blended
- USA: A blended whiskey must contain between 20% – 50% straight whiskey
But typically blended whiskey is when a less flavoured but less expensive base whiskey is combined with a higher grade but more expensive flavouring whiskey.
One of the best Scotch blends to start your whisky adventure is the Chivas Regal 12. Because this whiskey is a combination of various whiskies that have all been allowed to mature for at least 12 years before being bottled, it has a little of that stingy alcohol taste.
If you're a first-time drinker, you might opt to dilute the alcohol with a few drops of water. This whiskey offers a wide range of flavours including banana chips, barley malt, spices, and almonds.
- Tennessee Whiskey - Technically this falls under the "bourbon" category because it meets the five requirements to be bourbon. However, its main differences are that it is produced specifically in Tennessee and it goes through something called the "Lincoln County Process," where the whiskey is sugar maple charcoal filtered before being placed in barrels to age.
This category is dominated by the popular Jack Daniel's. Because brown spirits are often an acquired taste, you may care to try versions of Jack Daniel's such as honey to help you get used to the flavor. The honey version is a smoother, sweeter version of the classic bottle, and with a price tag of less than $30 per bottle, it’s an excellent place to start. If you do enjoy it, you’ll find that it goes nicely with other drinks like a whiskey sour or an old-fashioned.
How should you drink Whiskey?
When you’re just starting out, it’ll be good to keep track of what you like and don’t like. Maybe get a bottle or two to distinguish what characteristics you like.
Start with a clean palate. You can do so by taking a sip of chilled water before you taste. Focus on the flavours you're experiencing and ponder on the information that’s on the whiskey bottle. After that, take a sip and consider the finish: how does the whisky feel in your tongue (smooth or prickly), and how long does the flavor linger?
You’ll want to remember a few key characteristics from each whiskey you like to help you in your future purchases. Keep in mind certain descriptors that you experienced such as sweet, smooth, honeyed, oaky. This can also help your bartender determine your preferences.
When it comes to drinking whiskey, you can do whatever you want with it.
POPULAR WAYS TO CONSUME WHISKEY:
- Neat: Drink it straight, just how it was made. Into a glass, directly from the bottle. No additions are necessary.
- With water: A bit of water usually helps to dilute the sting from the alcohol. Best to go for bottled water as it has fewer contaminants that might affect the flavor of the whiskey.
- On the rocks: Basically “with ice." Just keep in mind that the bigger the cube or ice, the slower it melts, thereby diluting the whiskey much slower.
- As a Shot: You can go for a straight shot or a blended shot.
- With Coke: Most people start drinking whiskey with Coke. The coke's acidity and sweetness complement the whiskey well.
- With Gingerale: Another popular choice, the “rye, and ginger”. The ginger ale’s kick complements the spiciness in the rye making it a good combination. Opt for a dash of bitters to make it even better.
- In a Cocktail: As mentioned earlier, whiskeys are great in most cocktails. Popular choices include the Old-Fashion, Mint Julep, and Whiskey Sour.
It’s all entirely up to you! Truth is, the only way to drink it is however you enjoy it. We hope that this list helps you pick the best bourbon out there for you.
While being a beginner in the whiskey industry might be hard, the alternatives above are solid picks. Go for a bottle that's sweet and smooth at first with a price range that's within your budget so you have no regrets.