You’re there again, wheeling your Samsonite case through security at Heathrow Terminal 5. The hotel concierge advised a travel time that has got you to the gate with a good few hours to spare, so what does one do? Look for gifts, for bargains, for deals in the dutyfree shops?
What happens if you’re in the market for some whisky? The range available—not just at airports but in shops—and concessions across the globe, are growing ever faster as the popularity of the drink continues to grow worldwide. But with Scotland playing host to 102 operating distilleries, the majority of which bottle their own single malts at a variety of ages, where does one start? And that’s before we’ve even considered blended whiskies, Irish whisky, Japanese...the list is almost endless.
Hopefully, this guide will help debunk some myths and will act as your guru when spending your hardearned cash on an exciting bottle of whisky.
Blended or single malt The first aspect to ascertain about whisky is whether it is a blend or a single malt. In the world of whisky, there is always discussion about which of the two is better, and neither party is wrong.
Blended whisky is made of single malt whiskies, often mixed together with grain whisky. Grain whisky is made in the same way as a single malt, but using a different base cereal, such as corn, as the main ingredient. Single malts must use only malted barley.
The art of blending whisky stretches back hundreds of years, when the quality of single malt whisky was, to say the least, inconsistent. Blending was a way of creating some consistency in the whisky being offered for sale at shops such as the one owned by blended whisky pioneers Johnnie Walker and Sons—among the first people to experiment with blending whisky and offering their clientele consistency in flavour and quality.
Over the past 100 years, specifically in the past 30 years or so, distilleries have honed their production process, allowing them greater understanding of how to maintain consistency and flavour.
This, coupled with maturation in higher-quality oak barrels, has led to single malts being able to rival their blended brothers for quality and consistency.
If you choose a blended whisky, a general rule of thumb is that more expensive the blend, the lower the proportion of grain whisky in the mix. Too much grain whisky can cause a blend to be thin and taste slightly more spirit-like. Wellblended whiskies, such as Royal Salute or Johnnie Walker Blue Label, are a thing of total beauty; wellcrafted and constructed, you’re on safer ground with medium- to high-priced blends. Lower-end blends, well, just be careful. There are some crackers out there, but also some not-so-good blends. My advice is find an expression you like and experiment within the range. If, for example, you like the delicate smoke hints of Johnnie Walker Black Label, you are not going to be disappointed by the 18-year-old Gold or the “very old” Blue Labels.
Single malt is a different game altogether. There are many more variables to choose from and the first I shall discuss is age.
Some whiskies, both blended and single malts, will carry an age statement, such as “18 years old” on the label. What does this mean?
Well, this is the youngest whisky in the bottle. An 18-year-old single malt may contain whisky upwards of that age in the bottle.
But is older whisky better? The answer here is, no. Just like a sports team, the older players will have more experience, more guile, more understanding of their environment.
But that doesn’t make them better than the younger players on the field.
What you can usually be assured of with an older whisky is that it has taken a greater degree of influence from the style of oak cask in which it has been matured. As whisky “sleeps” in a warehouse, some of the liquid is lost through evaporation (at a rate of around 2% per year). This loss is romantically known as “the Angel’s share” and serves to increase the wood to liquid ratio, meaning that older whisky will have a greater degree of flavour from the barrel.
It also explains why older whisky is more expensive, simply because there is less of it available.
The cask style is hugely important to the flavour of the product inside.
If a whisky has been matured for the full term (its whole life) in an ex-European oak sherry cask, then it would have picked up a lot of flavour and colour from the sherry (rich, red fruit notes).
On the other hand, if the whisky has been matured in an ex-American bourbon oak barrel, it is going to have tones of light vanilla and honey.
A lot of whisky companies are now “double maturing” or even “triple maturing” their spirit. Take for example, the Balvenie 12-year old DoubleWood. This whisky is matured first in ex-American oak bourbon barrels for around 11 years and six months. It is then transferred to an ex-European oak sherry cask for around six months, giving the whisky a balance of vanilla and honey, yet with a kick of delicate red fruits from the sherry barrel. Other whiskies, such as the Macallan 18 years old Sherry Oak, will have spent their entire 18 years (or more) in an ex-sherry cask, drawing out deep spices and rich, red fruit flavours into the spirit.
If you like rich and spicy flavours, sherry-matured whisky is the way to go. If you like something a little more delicate, with ginger and vanilla flavours, head for whisky with a lighter colour that has been matured mainly in ex-American oak casks.
REGION AND STYLE
It used to be the case earlier that you could pick a single malt Scotch whisky style by the region in which it was produced, but this is no longer the case, save for the Islay region.
On the Isle of Islay, as on the Isle of Skye, and, to some extent, the Islands of Orkney, the whisky that is produced carries a smoky, earthy flavour given to it by the use of peat smoke in the manufacturing process. This flavour is distinct and not everyone likes it. If you find it convivial on your palate, then look for whiskies from the Scottish islands. If not, then steer well clear!
Once you have settled on a whisky you like, try experimenting up and down its range. For example, if the Glenlivet 12 years old is a regular in your cabinet, why not treat yourself to a bottle of the 21 years old. It’s thicker, darker and carries a greater influence of sherry which, coupled with the additional age, gives a more luxuriant experience in the glass altogether.
The real key to discovering which whiskies you like or don’t (and it is okay to not like certain ones) is to try as many as possible, in a responsible manner. One of the best ways to do this is to find friends who also share a passion for whisky and share your bottles with them, as they share theirs with you. This way, you can expand your palate, discuss your choices with your friends and form your own opinion.
At the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is your own.
Find out what aspects of a whisky you like and look for those in a bottle. Don’t let anyone else tell you what is good or bad—you should be the ultimate judge!