Navigating the world of alcohol can be very confusing. Here’s a beginner’s guide to bourbon, Scotch and more
Whisky, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash (barley, corn, rye or wheat) is typically aged in charred oak casks, giving it its distinctive brown colour. But unlike beer there is a lot of seriousness attached to this alcohol. So much so that it is often intimidating to wade into the waters of whisky. The age-old image of the spirit being drunk by old men hasn’t helped matters. “The sheer number whiskies in a liquor store or a duty free is highly impressive and also overwhelming at the first glance. But learning more about the category and understanding your own palate can help in guiding you to pick the correct whiskey for yourself. What really differentiates one whisky from another is where in the world it comes from, the distillation process and the grains used,” says Angad Singh Gandhi, Glenfiddich India Brand Ambassador.
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Here are a few things to help you get started and better understand the nuances of this spirit.
By the Way, is it Whiskey or Whisky?
That depends where it’s made. Yes, whisk(e)y can be spelled both with an “e” and without, which does confuse even the most seasoned drinkers. The Irish and Americans spell whiskey with an “e” while their Scottish counterparts leave out the “e”. Canada, India and Japan, the three other major whisky producers, also follow the Scottish spelling. Most of the rest of the world has followed suit.
Types of Whisky
The world of whisky is filled with a variety of styles—Scotch, bourbon, Japanese, Irish, Tennessee, Canadian, rye whiskey and so on. When choosing the spirit, remember that price will often, though not always, reflect quality. The less expensive to mid-range whiskies are good for regular drinking and probably your best choice for whisky cocktails. The high-end ones are typically reserved for sipping straight or with a splash of water. “Scotch is the most popular because of its range in taste profile which people really love and the fact that it has been around for hundreds of years. For most people when they think whisky they think Scotland,” says sommelier Nikhil Agawarl, CEO at All Things Nice.
What is Scotch?
Scotch is a style of whisky made in Scotland with either malt or grain. “Whisky making in Scotland is a very serious endeavour. Distillers age the spirit in oak barrels for at least three years for it to be called Scotch and include an age statement on each bottle that reflects the youngest aged whisky used. If you’re in England and ask for a whisky, you’ll get Scotch,” explains Gandhi.
And just like the producers of Champagne must make their sparkling wine in the Champagne region of France before they can label it as such, likewise distillers who want to call their product Scotch must produce their whisky in Scotland.
Scotch, like other whiskies, is not something that’s consumed for only intoxication. Scotch drinkers savour its potency, rich history and tradition. This is a whisky to sip neat and makes an excellent after-dinner drink.
What is Bourbon?
You have probably heard it before: all bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon. If you’re a whisky (and especially bourbon) drinker, you need to know what that means. “For a whisky to call itself bourbon, its mash (the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled) must contain at least 51 per cent corn. Additionally bourbon must be aged only in charred new oak barrels whereas Scotch whisky producers have more freedom to choose different kinds of casks. Many makers add flavouring or caramel colouring to their whiskies. But bourbon producers cannot use caramel to colour their spirits. They can’t call their whiskey “bourbon,” explains Agawarl. The only thing that can be added to bourbon is water.
Bourbon is the featured spirit in many whisky cocktails. It’s the star ingredient in the classic Old Fashioned and the refreshing Mint Julep. Bourbon’s sweeter profile makes a mean Whiskey Sour.
Can Bourbon be Made Outside of America?
No. The federal standards governing the identity of bourbon dictate that it is a ‘distinctive product of the United States’ and that ‘the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States’.
According to Swati Sharma, Co-Founder, The Dram Club, sweetness is what marks bourbon from the other varieties of whisky. Since bourbons are made of copious amount of corn they have a delightful sweetness with pronounced notes of vanilla that can’t be found in most barley and rye-based whiskies, she clarifies. They also tend to be a bit smoky due to the charred oak. “But it takes years of practice of nosing and tasting even for experts to tell the difference between the vast styles of whiskies. The best way to keep getting better at it is to try a mix of both Bourbon and Scotch/other styles and make notes of the difference you can perceive in the nose and on the palate.”
Gandhi sums it up best when he says, “The best whisky is the one enjoyed with friends and family over lots of banter and fun. Sláinte!”