LIFE & CULTURE

Decoding Single Malt Whisky, Because It’s Not Just For The ‘Boys Club’

Do you know your Islays from your Highlands?
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Image: marie claire

As a woman growing up in Australia, no one ever thought to teach me about whisky. Hard liquor – that’s the domain of men.

The ‘whisky is a man’s beverage’ trope permeates our local culture. I was offered copious fruity cocktails and pre-mixed drinks upon turning 18. I was told I ‘must try’ a Cosmopolitan, but not a single person thought to talk about the different types of whiskies, tequilas and bourbons that may have caught my eye on a mahogany bar shelf.

However, upon travelling over to the UK, where I lived in Edinburgh for six months, I noticed the same is not done there.

Working at a whisky bar on the famed Royal Mile, I had the opportunity to learn about the vast and interesting process that is making and drinking whisky, that there are lots of different types (not just the knock your socks off smoke bombs your uncle throws back) and that lots of women in Scotland, and the UK, seemed to have a much broader knowledge of whisky too.

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The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is a filled with venues that specialise in whisky. Image: Getty

What surprised me even more upon coming home was how my ability to talk about whisky opened new networking opportunities. Whether it’s getting your client the perfect bottle as a Christmas present, or simply as part of a wider networking discussion, having knowledge of whisky has been both a delicious and beneficial part of my life.

So, for the women out there who do want to understand more about whisky and picking the right one up for you, we’ve worked with the team at The Dalmore distillery, to answer all your whisky questions.

From here, it’s about finding a good (hopefully not too expensive) whisky bar to try a few different types and see what you like.

A handy hint? It never hurts to have a half-pint of beer or cider on the side to freshen the palette between drams while you get used to it.

Your Go-To Beginner Guide To Whisky

Is It Whisky Or Whiskey?

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Irish whiskeys like Jameson are spelt with an ‘e’ in the word. Image: Getty

The first element to get right about whisky is the spelling. You might be unsure whether to search for ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’ and the reason there are two spellings is that they differ depending on location.

Whiskies made in Scotland, Canada or Japan go by the ‘whisky’ spelling. While whiskeys made in the United States and Ireland go by ‘whiskey’.

While there is the misconception that the spelling has to do with how the alcohol is made, that isn’t the case. It is called ‘whiskey’ in the United States where they often only distil the liquor twice, and it is also called ‘whiskey’ in Ireland where it is more typical to be distilled three times.

How Do Irish Whiskey And Scotch Whisky Differ?

While the Irish and the Scottish both make delicious whiskies, the main difference is the ingredients, production methods and regional or location characteristics.

Mark Bruce, The Dalmore Whisky Specialist tells marie claire, “Irish whiskey is often triple distilled, can include various grains and typically has a smoother profile. Scotch whisky, whether a single malt or blended whisky is produced in many different styles, can be influenced by peat (smoke) and is regionally influenced for the most part.

“The various distinctions are what makes the difference between the two so exciting. There’s a whisky or two out there for everybody.”

What Is The Difference Between A Single Malt And Blended Whisky?

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A dram of single malt whisky. Image: Getty

If you’ve ever thrown back a shot of blended whisky (think Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse, Jameson) and decided whisky isn’t for you, it might be because you don’t have a preference for blended whisky. There is a huge difference between the two, and while neither is better or worse, it’s important to try both before binning the spirit altogether.

“Blends combine various types of whiskies, including single malt and grain whiskies coming from many different distilleries in Scotland. Blended whiskies aim for consistency in style and flavour which are crafted by a master blender,” explains Bruce.

“[Meanwhile] single malt whisky is made from 100% malted barley at a single distillery, emphasizing the unique characteristics of that distillery’s production. It is distilled in pot stills and typically offers a more distinct flavour profile to that of a blended whisky.”

How Is Whisky Made?

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The copper stills. Image: Getty

Speaking with the team at The Dalmore, who specialise in Scotch single malt whisky, they explain that it is made using a process of malting barley, mashing it to extract the sugars and fermenting the liquid extracted from the mashing process (the wort) to produce alcohol.

Then the liquid at the end of fermentation (the wash) is distilled in copper pot stills to concentrate the alcohol. A key element in the flavour profile of a single malt whisky is when it then is placed in casks to develop the flavours. You’ll get a very different flavour depending if it is placed in an American oak or European oak cask, for example.

The spirit is left in the cask to mature and develop flavours, before it’s bottled after a certain number of years (such as 10, 12, 15, 18, 21, 25 and up). The time varies between whisky labels.

“The distinct regional characteristics of Scotch whisky, such as smoke or sweetness, are influenced but not limited to factors such as using barley varieties, peat, water, fermentation, distillation regime and the cask maturation programme,” Bruce explains.

How Old Does Whisky Need To Be To Be Sold?

While older whiskies are typically prized amongst afficionados, they don’t have to be too old to be sold.

“Scotch whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum period of three years before it can legally be sold as Scotch whisky. The aging requirement is set by law and ensure that the whisky has had sufficient time to develop certain characteristics,” Bruce explains.

It’s common for beginners to start around a 12-year-old whisky, which is usually not as pricey but has still developed a lot of flavour from its time in contact with the barrel.

How Important Are Whisky Barrels To The Final Spirit?

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Whisky barrels in the 1950s. Image: Getty

When you’re beginning to get into whisky, spend some time researching which barrels your dram was held in.

“‘The cask is king’, a common saying throughout the industry, refers to the paramount importance oak casks have on the final characteristics of whisky,” Bruce says.

“Key factors as to why casks are considered to be crucial include flavour influence, maturation process and colour development. The different types of casks include those that have previously held bourbon, sherry, wine, rum and beer to name a few.”

How To Find The Right Type Of Scotch Whisky For You?

Now that you know a little bit about scotch whisky, it’s time to find the right kind of style for you.

“Scotland is divided into several whisky-making producing regions, each with its own unique characteristics influenced by climate, geography, production methods and people,” says Bruce.

Here, he runs us through some of the key regions, and the notes you might notice in those whiskies.

Islay

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Image: Lagavulin

Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland.

“Islay is known most commonly for big and bold flavours heavily influenced by peat and smoke. There’s a notable maritime influence across many of the whiskies produced on the island and flavours of seaweed, iodine and medicinal flavours are commonly found in the whiskies.”

Some types of Islay whisky include: Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Laphroaig 10 Year Old, Caol Ila 12 Year Old, Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Whisky.

Speyside

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Image: The Balvenie

Speyside is positioned between Inverness and Aberdeen and is home to some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries.

“Speyside is commonly known for its rich, fruit and often nutty profile. These whiskies are generally very approachable and well balanced, a great place to begin your journey of Scotch if it’s unfamiliar,” explains Bruce.

Some types of Speyside whisky include: Balvenie 12 Year Old Double Wood, Aberlour 12 Year Old, Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak, Dalwhinnie 15.

We also love the Glenlivet 18 Year Old, which is made in American Oak and ex-sherry casks for a whisky that embodies rich toffee fruit flavours with a slight edge of winter spice.

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Highland

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Image: Dalmore

Highland whiskies come from the centre of Scotland all the way up to the north. The typical line between the lowlands and the highlands runs above Dundee, Perth and Glasgow. For its wide-ranging landscape, highland whiskies can also be some of the most diverse.

“Highland whiskies can be peaty, floral, heathery, light to full bodied or sweet depending on the location and distillery it comes from,” Bruce explains. “It’s my opinion that the highland distilleries have been shaped more by the people over many hundreds of years as opposed to regional specific characteristics.”

Some types of Highland whiskies include: The Dalmore 12 Year Old, Glen Goyne 12 Year Old, Glenmorangie 10 Year Old, Glendronach 18 Year Old Sherry Cask, Oban 14 Year Old, Deanston 12 Year Old

Lowland

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Image: Glenkinchie

Lowland whiskies come from the southern region of Scotland, underneath that demarcation line between it and the highlands.

“The Lowlands of Scotland can be known for whisky that is light in body, floral with grassy notes. They’re very approachable and should not be overlooked when considering your choice of whisky,” explains Bruce.

Some types of Lowland whiskies include: Glenkinchie 12 Year Old, Auchentoshan 12 Year Old and Bladnoch 14 Year Old.

Campbeltown

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Image: Glen Scotia

The Campbeltown area is a small but famous region that sits on a little ‘leg’ of land off the mainland, south of Oban and adjacent to Jura.

“It’s a historically significant whisky-producing region with an incredibly rich history and heritage. Although it has experienced a decline in the number of distilleries over the years, Campbeltown’s few distilleries are known for their maritime influence, use of peat and smoke as well as a wonderful complexity,” explains Bruce.

Some types of Campbeltown whiskies include: Glen Scotia 12 Year Old The Mermaid and Springbank 10 Year Old

Islands

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Image: Talisker

Islands whiskies hail from a series of Scotland’s islands, including Jura, the Isle Of Arran, Isle of Mull, Isle of Skye and Isle of Lewis to name a few.

“The style varies greatly with peat and smoke, heavy to light in body and varying degrees of sweetness,” explains Bruce.

Some types of Islands whiskies include: Talisker 10 Year Old, Jura 12 Year Old and Highland Park 12 Year Old

Which Whisky Should I Try First?

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There’s so many to choose from. Image: Getty

When I moved to Scotland, working in a whisky bar, I needed to be introduced to a variety of different styles to learn what to recommend to people when they came in to try it. I’ve bolded my favourites in the above list as a handy guide, but everyone will like something different in their whisky.

In saying that, I would always recommend The Dalmore as a great place to start. In fact, it was the first bottle of whisky I bought to bring home for friends and family to try in Australia for that reason.

The distillery is steeped in history, going back over 180 years. They use hand-selected casks from the world’s finest wineries and bodegas, which create a layered, flavourful and smooth whisky that is interesting enough but approachable for beginners.

Bruce, who lives and breathes The Dalmore says, “The idiosyncratic collection of stills at the distillery creates a unique new make spirit – robust and fruity, particularly well-suited for longer and more complex maturation. This allows our whisky makers to ensure each cask of our spirit reaches its full potential.”

How To Drink Your Whisky? Should You Use Ice?

The final element to know is how to drink your whisky, and it is really up to you.

Most Scotch drinkers will beg you to not mix your single malts with anything, instead enjoying them straight. They’re beautifully crafted, painstakingly created spirits, so you’ll miss the subtleties and notes when mixing them with sodas.

There is some deliberation about whether having scotch on the rocks is the best way to try them. Some swear that it dulls the complex flavours of the whisky, instead preferring to use a dropper to add water to the dram if the alcohol content feels too high to enjoy comfortably.

Others will swear that a whisky on the rocks is the only way to go. I’d recommend trying both ways and deciding what feels right for you.

If you can’t resist a mixed cocktail, Bruce recommends mixing your favourite drop into an old fashioned.

And there you have it, the ultimate guide to becoming a beginner whisky drinker! There’s still so much to learn, but this knowledge should have you able to converse, try and understand the whisky you’re drinking a little bit more.

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