Mark Twain famously said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whisky… is barely enough.” The latter part of the besuited humorist’s words may well kindle alcoholism, but there is some truth to it nonetheless. 

Whisky is one of the world’s oldest alcohol distillations, with evidence of its production dating back to the 15th century in Scotland and Ireland. To date, multitudes across the world count themselves ardent fans of the amber liquid. You can find good whiskies in every price category, from the affordable ones stocked in supermarkets to the special vintages privately enjoyed with close friends and loved ones during special occasions.

Various whiskies fermenting in barrels
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Where Does It Start?

It begins with barley. This starchy cereal grain undergoes a germination process called “malting”. After soaking for two to three days, the barley is spread on the floor of a malting house. It is turned regularly (either by hand or via large rotating drums) so as to allow it to maintain a consistent temperature during the malting process. Once the barley begins to shoot, it goes into a kiln for drying. When this is done the barley becomes malt, and gets ground down in a mill.

What follow is the addition of warm water to the ground-down malt. This helps with the extraction of soluble sugars. The type of water used can influence the final taste, which is why most distilleries often set up shop next to a natural body of fresh water. The liquid mixture then goes into a large vessel called the “mash tun”, where stirring takes place for several hours. During this time, the sugars in the malt dissolve and dissipate. The process repeats up to three times, with progressively higher water temperatures to maximise the amount of sugar extracted. The resultant liquid is called “wort”.

Fermentation can now begin. The wort is cooled, then passed into large tanks with a batch of yeast. During fermentation, the yeast converts the sugar molecules into alcohol. Like water, yeast can also have a pronounced effect on the taste of the whisky. Fermentation typically takes around two days to complete, but some distilleries intentionally extend the process to confer specific characteristics to their whiskies.

In the distillery, copper-piped stills remove the sulphur-based compounds from the alcohol that would otherwise render it unsuitable for consumption. The spirit then goes into wooden casks for maturation – typically for years at a time. This is when the spirit combines with the cask wood’s natural compounds to develop its characteristic flavour profile. As wood is porous, the spirit will “breathe in” the air from the surrounding environment, so the storage conditions of the casks can impact the end product as well.

A dram of fine whisky
Photo: Unsplash

Having A Taste

Unlike beer, whisky isn’t something one simply chugs without thought. Enjoying this spirit is all about spending time to unravel its subtleties, and there are frameworks to do so. Connoisseurs rely on sight, smell and taste when whisky tasting. While the ritual may seem a tad hoity-toity at first, it’s instrumental in helping you to identify and appreciate the distinctive aspects of the drink.

First, observe the colour. Whiskies come in various hues, ranging from pale straw to a deep, nut brown. Typically, a darker shade implies a more concentrated flavour. Sniffing (or “nosing”) the glass can also give you a better idea of the whisky’s profile – just don’t bury your nose in the glass. Some favour the “dip-in, dip-out” method, but you can also hover above the opening of the glass and gradually move in. Give a few gentle sniffs and see what aromas you can pick up. Do you discern a caramel smokiness, lighter hints of fruit, or something else entirely?

When it’s time to drink, avoid knocking it back like a regular at a dive bar. Remember: the goal is to evaluate and enjoy the whisky. Try approaching the experience exactly opposite to how you’d drink beer. Take a small sip – just enough for flavours to come through. Give your palate time to adjust to the alcohol before following up with another sip. After swallowing, the flavour should linger, evolve then fade away. 

This aftertaste describes the “finish” of the whisky. Some connoisseurs have developed special techniques to maximise the intensity or lengthen the duration of the finish. “The Kentucky Chew”, made famous by Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe, involves rolling the whisky around the mouth in a chewing motion. According to Noe, this allows the liquid to reach all the surfaces of the tongue, which pick up different flavours. 

A common selection of whiskies
Photo: Unsplash

Making It Your Own

Taste is subjective, especially when it concerns whisky. You may have heard that the only way to drink whisky is to have it neat (i.e. without ice or mixers). That’s an oversimplification perpetuated by the mass media and film stars eager to distil (pun intended) whisky appreciation into a few lines of dialogue. In reality, adding a few drops of water can unlock a whisky’s flavours by reducing its “alcohol bloom” – the perceived “burn” from the alcohol content – which affects the drinker’s sense of taste. Since varying the amount of water added yields different effects, it’s worth experimenting here. Ice, on the other hand, dilutes the spirit while chilling it, so the flavours perceived are altered too. Some whiskies are traditionally enjoyed neat. But nothing is set in stone as far as personal preferences are concerned.

Having a whisky bar at home is surprisingly simple. Unlike wine, you don’t need specialised storage solutions. You may however like to purchase some nice glasses from the likes of Glencairn, a whisky water dropper or even whisky stones to enhance the experience. You can also consider silicone moulds, which make ice balls that melt more slowly in the glass. Then again, all you really need is a bottle of your preferred whisky in one hand and a sturdy glass in the other. 

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