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A Beginners Guide to Whiskey

Whether you’re a new bartender looking to answer potential patron questions or a connoisseur wanting to know more about your favourite alcoholic beverage, you may be interested in learning a few whiskey facts.

Whiskey is a fascinating drink with a rich history. Read on to find out more about whiskey in our guide to whiskey for beginners.

A brief history of whiskey

While now enjoyed as an alcoholic beverage, whiskey had its origins as a medicine. Some claim many moons ago whiskey was used as an external antibiotic for wounds. Between around 1100 AD and 1300 AD, the skill of distillation travelled to Scotland and Ireland via monks. As these countries didn’t have steady access to grapes, the monks began fermenting grains instead. By around 1500, whisky distilling in Scotland was common, and this was only made more so when King Henry VIII dissolved monasteries. When this happened, many monks turned to distillation as their new profession, increasing the amount of adoption.

As the world became more globalised, whiskey began making its way to other shores, including America. The American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783 saw distillers using whiskey as a form of currency. After the war concluded, a tax commonly referred to as the Whiskey Tax’ was introduced to much dismay, before being repealed by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Johnnie Walker began production of his famous whiskey in 1820, and blended whiskey was first produced in 1850.

Whiskey made it through the American Prohibition era of 1920 to 1933, and bourbon whiskey was named America’s official distilled spirit in 1964.

Today, many different types of whiskey (and whisky) are enjoyed throughout the world.

Whiskey v whisky

You may have seen both spellings used over the years and be wondering what the difference is between the two. The truth is, they’re the same drink, simply spelled differently to represent creation within different locations. For example, when made in Ireland and the United States it’s spelled “whiskey”, while when it’s made in Canada, Japan, or Scotland it’s spelled “whisky”. This is a great tidbit of information to know when choosing drinks as you can easily select them based on the country they were produced in.

Types of whiskey

There are a few different ingredients that make different types of whiskey, but the main categories are bourbon, rye, and scotch. Along with these specific categories, there are also styles of whiskey such as single malt, blended, Tennessee, Irish, Japanese, and moonshine, just to name a few! Below are a few different types of whiskey, each with their own distinct taste and history.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made from corn and must be aged in charred oak barrels. It has a smooth, sweet taste and is often used in cocktails.

Rye whiskey is made from rye and has a spicier flavour than bourbon. This type of whiskey is often produced in the USA. It’s popular in cocktails such as the Manhattan.

Scotch whisky is made from malted barley or grains. It must be distilled in Scotland and aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years. Whiskey blends are made from two basic types of Scotch whiskey – single malt Scotch and single grain Scotch. Scotch whiskey generally has a smoky, peaty taste and is often enjoyed neat or on the rocks.

Single malt whiskey

As the name suggests, single malt whiskey must be distilled at a single distillery, with a single malted grain. Single malt whiskey is produced in many different places, including Ireland and Japan.

Blended whiskey

Blended whiskey is created by mixing two or more types of whiskey together. This process generally combines whiskeys that are created using different grain types.

Tennessee whiskey

Tennessee whiskey is made in – you guessed it – Tennessee, USA. One of the most popular brands of Tennessee whiskey is Jack Daniel’s. Tennessee whiskey is charcoal filtered, providing it with a subtle burnt wood flavour.

Irish whisky

Irish whisky is that which is distilled in Ireland. It’s generally a blended whisky made using unmalted barley. This type of whisky is aged for a minimum of three years before being bottled, and it’s typically very light and smooth in flavour.

Japanese whisky

Made in Japan, this whisky is similar to whisky produced in Scotland. The first Japanese distillery opened in 1924, and since then many famous brands have appeared, including Nikka and Suntory.

Moonshine

Moonshine is a type of clear, un-aged whiskey that has a rich history within the United States. During the time of Prohibition, this alcohol was distilled at night (under the light of the moon). It’s made using grain and is distilled using a process that’s illegal in some countries.

Knowing a bit more about the different types of whiskey means that next time you order a drink or purchase a bottle, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision.

How is whiskey made?

Regardless of the type of whiskey produced or grain used, the creation process remains relatively the same. Whiskey is made using a mash of grains, with the production steps being similar to those used when producing beer. The first stage involves soaking the grains in water and yeast which begins the process of fermentation. This concoction is then distilled, which means it’s run through either a pot or continuous column still, heating it into a concentrated vapour. The vapour becomes a clear, high-proof liquid distillate.

Generally, this liquid is then aged in a barrel for a number of years to add flavour and bring a darker tone to the alcohol. Once this is completed, the whiskey is then mixed with other styles or barrels of whiskey before being diluted for bottling.

Those still curious about the steps of whiskey production might like to head to a distillery to learn more. Many distilleries offer tours that provide insight into the process, as well as some tastings at the end!

Whiskey flavours

Whiskey can come in many varied and distinct flavours. The main contributors to these flavours are the type of grain used, as well as the process of ageing. For example, corn provides a sweeter taste, rye a spicier, peppery one, and barley a more robust flavour. The climate in which the barrel is aged can also have an impact on the final taste.

Another important factor in the creation of flavourful whiskey is the barrel. The wood used to create the barrel will have an influence on the taste, with charred barrels often providing a smoky essence. European oak barrels tend to produce spicier flavours in whiskey, whereas barrels made from American white oak generally give the liquid a vanilla flavour.

Whether you like your whiskey smooth or full of flavour, there’s sure to be a drink out there to suit your taste. When it comes to whiskey, there’s a lot to learn. With so many delicious options available, it’s well worth taking the time to explore different types of whiskey to discover the flavours you enjoy the most.

What is the smoothest whiskey?

When it comes to the smoothest whiskey/whisky, there are a few options to choose from. Smooth whiskies tend to be easier to drink, making them a good choice for those new to whiskey.

Some choices for smooth whiskey/whisky include:

  • Jameson Irish Whiskey
  • Kavalan Classical Single Malt Whisky
  • Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Agitator Bourbon Kentucky Straight Whiskey
  • Glen Moray Elgin Classic
  • McAllister Reserve Scotch Whisky
  • Pure Scot Blended Scotch Whisky

If you’re after a smooth whiskey to drink, you can also let the staff at your local bar or alcohol store know. Knowledgeable staff should be able to recommend a good option.

How should you drink whiskey?

While some purists will say the only way to enjoy whiskey is straight, in order to appreciate all the flavours, there are lots of ways to drink it. Whiskey can be enjoyed in many different ways, including neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail.

Neat means that the whiskey is served without any ice or mixers, allowing you to appreciate the drink’s flavour profile as intended. On the rocks refers to whiskey served over ice, which can help to mellow out the drink and make it more refreshing and palatable.

There are also many cocktails that use whiskey as a key ingredient, such as the classic Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Hot Toddy, and Whiskey Sour. If you’re not sure where to start, you might like to ask your bartender for a recommendation. Many bartenders are experienced in creating a wide range of whiskey-based cocktails, and can help you find one that suits your tastes.

There are many different types of whiskey to enjoy, and many different ways to enjoy them. If you want to learn more about the types of whiskies you personally enjoy, you may want to consider attending a tasting event. These can be held at distilleries or licensed venues.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about this fascinating drink in our guide to whiskey for beginners! Want to serve or sell whiskey in a commercial setting? Express Online Training provides online RSA courses for those looking to become a bartender or liquor store staff member.

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