Welcome to the wondrous world of whisky! Poor yourself a dram and prepare to drink up all the boozy facts about single malt whisky.
Now that you’re a bit older, and your taste buds have changed and grown up a bit, you’ve decided you like whisky. Good choice!
Perhaps you’ve realised that Southern Comfort and Coke is far too sickly sweet. Maybe Archers and lemonade just isn’t cutting it anymore (because you’re not 14). You’ve probably also realised that you should like whisky; that it’s now okay to drink with the older generation and start to appreciate a drink which has previously induced a gag reflex and that you should be able to tell the difference between a Bell’s and a Glenlivet.
The following collection of somewhat randomly compiled facts are taken from various sources. Many of them can be credited to Richard of Cadenheads Whisky Tasting Rooms. Others to the late Iain Banks and his book Raw Spirit. Others are collected from a growing band of friends and family with whom I’ve enjoyed more than the occasional dram.
And when you’re done here, check out our 29 useful wine facts to make you a better grown-up.
Whisky or whiskey?
1) Whisky, spelt without an ‘e’ is scotch, from Scotland. Whiskey is from anywhere else including Ireland, Japan, Canada and the US. Whiskey is also apparently made in Denmark, Wales, Finland and even India. I’m going to stick to talking about scotch today.
Single malt, blends and Bell’s
2) Single malt refers to the barley that the spirit is made from. Barley grows well in the damp and (relatively) warm climate of Scotland. Blended malt whiskies are a mix of different blends from different areas of Scotland. Blended scotch is stuff like Bell’s and Famous Gross. It’s full of cheap whisky and nasty chemicals.
Origins of whisky
3) The creation of whisky was a happy accident. It is basically very strong beer.
4) Brewers noticed that the clear liquid condensing on windows and walls during the brewing process smelled nice and tasted good. This was 70% alcohol. People started to boil beer, condensing it down and deliberately to make this spirit and get more drunk than ever.
5) What the early distillers didn’t realise is there was a bad element in the spirit (methanol) which is raw antifreeze. Drinking this turned people blind. It’s where the expression ‘blind drunk’ originated.
6) The other side effect was brain damage causing madness. Etymology fans: the phrase ‘window lickers’ refers to people tasting the condensed spirit as it formed on windows. Good facts huh?
7) People would store this spirit in used casks of sherry, port or other imported booze. Over time, people realised that storing the spirit in these containers markedly improved its flavour. A nation already swimming in booze (the water was too rancid to drink) had found a way to get even more drunk.
The making of Whisky
8) The method of creating whisky still stands today: make beer, boil it, condense the steam down into spirit, put the spirit in a barrel and leave it.
9) Pure whisky is clear before it’s barrelled. The golden colour is obtained from the cask (resins in the oak wood and crucially what was in the barrel previously – rum, sherry, port, bourbon or sometimes wine).
Roll out the barrel
10) Most whisky is made in bourbon barrels but also casks that used to contain sherry, wine and rum (does anyone have £140 I could borrow so I can get hold of a bottle of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva 21 year made in a Cuban rum cask? Anyone? Seriously.) Distilleries generally do not get to pick and choose barrels.
11) Bourbon barrels originate across the Atlantic and are shipped to Scotland. Much like the origin of whisky itself, this arrangement has come about by happenstance. After prohibition was lifted in 1935 it was made illegal to reuse bourbon barrels. This federal law was introduced thanks to the powerful Coopers Union who were looking to safeguard their futures – a victory for organised labour. The used barrels, being cheap and readily available were eagerly snapped up by voracious Scottish distillers.
12) Barrels can be used up to four times in whisky making.
13) It’s common for whisky produced at seaside distilleries to have a slight taste of TCP. During winter storms, seaweed is often washed over barrels which are stored sometimes for several years outside to acclimatise. As the seaweed rots, iodine leaches through the cask and affects the taste of the whisky. I always knew whisky was medicine.
14) Whisky barrels lose over a quarter of their contents to evaporation during manufacture. This is known as the angel’s share. What’s left is called the devil’s’ choice.
15) One batch of whisky could fill 40-45 barrels which are all subtly different depending on the type and thickness of the wood the barrel is made of. Bottles from one barrel will be the same. The distillery blender or bottler will mix together different barrels to create something as consistent as possible over time.
16) Barrels are not rotated or moved when the whisky is laid down. All barrels in a warehouse are laying in one direction: East to West. The moon’s gravitation pull moves the liquid around the barrel, setting a current going in the barrel which mixes the liquid.
17) Most whiskies are diluted to achieve a standard strength. Cask strength is taken as it comes from the barrel and tends to be significantly higher in alcohol content.
18) Whiskies from different batches or versions are called ‘expressions’.
Areas of scotch production
19) There are four main areas of whisky production in Scotland: Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands and Islay. (The Islands and Campbeltown often get their own category, but not today).
Speyside produces some of the sweetest and lightest single malts. Famous brands include The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant and The Macallan.
Highlands is a huge area with a variety of styles. Generally they tend to be big-bodied whiskies, often peated and smoky. Home to distilleries like Glenmorangie, Oban and Dalwhinnie.
Lowlands produces gentle, light whiskies, often citrusy, dry and not peaty. Could provide a good entry level dram for the novice. Try Auchentoshan or Hazelburn.
Islay is famous for its peaty single malt whiskies, which range from moderately smoky to an intense peaty flavour. Whisky from distilleries like Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin (Ron Swanson’s favourite) and Laphroaig are sometimes referred to as extreme whisky because of their intense peatiness.
Note: Islay is often mispronounced. It does not rhyme with ‘outlay’. It’s more like ‘aisle-a’. So there.
Legal and tax
Everyone loves facts about tax right? Come back! It’s important stuff I promise!
20) The spirit has to stay in the barrel for a minimum of three years before it can legally be called whisky. Distillers are required to take off the top element (ethanol) to avoid creating a customer-base of blind, crazy people. It is also a requirement to use a second hand barrel.
21) It was illegal to make spirit from beer until 1823 when the government legalised it and introduced a tax. This was a measure designed to pay off the Napoleonic wars debt. The rate was set at 43% with the idea it would be repealed as soon as the debt was payed. The tax is still in place today but at 46% plus 20% VAT. That’s 66% on a bottle of whisky. I guess there has to be a way of paying for Trident. Amiright?
22) Unopened: whisky is stored upright. In contrast to wine, however, whisky in unopened bottles doesn’t become better or worse during storage. Whisky only matures in the cask when it has contact to the wood.
23) Opened: opened whisky has a shelf life of between six months and two years. I’ve had bad experiences where a small amount of whisky left in a bottle can become heavily oxidised and ruined. Drink up!
How to drink
24) Dram: an arbitrary measure of whisky “that is pleasing to both guest and host”.
25) It’s really not cool to add soda, Coke, lemonade etc to a single malt. They are very expensive drinks which are made to be enjoyed straight from the bottle or with a few drops of water. If you want a whisky to drink with a mixer, reach for the Bells, then leave.
26) Ice dulls the flavour of whisky. It reduces the temperature of the whisky too much, inhibiting the flavour and freezing its aroma. If you must, adding one cube is moderately acceptable I guess.
27) Adding water means that flavours stays longer and spreads across the palette. Only a small amount of water is needed though. Try tasting the whisky without and then add a few drops at a time to dilute to your liking.
28) Purists will tell you that you should match the water to the area of Scotland the whisky originates and not to use sulphur-containing volcanic spring water like Evian or Volvic. It’s certainly important not to use heavily chlorinated tap water. Keeping a bottle of Highland Spring in the house is a good, realistic compromise.
All of this may seem really over the top and ridiculously pernickety but I’d argue if you’re spending the amount of money required to acquire a decent single malt then it is most definitely worth doing things right. Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste. Cask strengths may need more watering down, adding water can develop flavours. I guess it’s all about experimentation. It’s a really fun experiment.
Find your perfect nightcap in our whiskey section, including Hancock’s President’s Single Barrel Bourbon.