History declares that Scotland first introduced a method of distilling this warm golden liquid, or as it’s known to whisky enthusiasts: the elixir of life. Made from fermented grain mash, the lucky highlanders found a pleasant way of using up left-over barley.
Whiskey or Whisky?
You may have noticed the two spellings? Unlike the Scottish Uisge baugh (Gaelic word for “water of life) Irish Gaelic writes it as uisce beatha, and it could be this difference that led to the variation in spelling between Scotch whisky (preferred by Canada and most other producing countries) and Irish whiskey (adopted by the Americans). Another reason is that until at least 1870, the quality of Scotch whisky was not consistent, so Irish exporters added a letter e to their own product for clarification. The custom continues today, although technically, it should be whisky.
The types of whisky can become somewhat confusing for the novice but these are the main variants:
- Scotch is a whisky produced in Scotland. Made from malt or grain and matured for at least 3 years in oak barrels.
- Malt whisky, also mainly a Scottish product, is produced from malted barley, distilled twice in pot stills and matured for 3 years or more in used or new oak casks.
- Single pot still whiskey is a speciality of Ireland, containing grain and unmalted barley, but distilled entirely in pot stills.
- Grain whisky can consist of any grain, today more often wheat than corn. Distilled in cheaper column stills (which are larger and don't need cleaning after each batch) for a shorter period, its flavour is less strong. It is common in blended varieties, mostly originating in Scotland or Ireland.
- Blends can be formed of any mix, differing in origin and type according to the distilleries involved. Better-known labels always use the same ratio to ensure an unchanging flavour. Some malt whisky distilleries concentrate on blended products to allow large-scale production. Typically, there is more grain in these, so look for a higher malt content for a superior dram.
- American drinkers plump for the distinctive taste of Bourbon from Kentucky, which consists of at least 51% corn, with the remainder being a mix of rye or wheat or both, barley for fermentation, and distillation in column stills.
- Tennessee whiskey differs from Bourbon because it is also charcoal-filtered before reaching the casks.
- Corn whiskey, another American product, taking advantage of the abundant growth of this grain. 100% corn is stipulated, giving it a mild flavour perfect for blends.
- Canada loves Rye whisky with upwards of 51% rye, matured in oak for a couple of years or so, and it's an essential in Canadian blended whiskies. In the past, it was mainly a product of the U.S., but its spiciness doesn't go down well in modern-day America, so it's not common there nowadays.
When it comes to choosing your tipple, it literally is a matter of taste because of the vast differences in distilleries, casks and maturation. Bourbons and blended whiskies have the biggest sales because they are easier on an inexperienced palate, while connoisseurs clamour for small-batch Bourbons or single-malt Scotch which both sit longer in aromatic casks.
Whilst whisky makes a great gift, it needs some thought. Many London clubs offer tasting sets; an ideal way to introduce a novice to the drink. However, if you're not sure of the experienced recipient's preferences, keep reading!
Whisky connoisseurs tend to “taste” the liquid in 3 ways (very similar to wine):
Nose – the ‘sniff test’ that determines the different aroma/s; this will depend on whether you have it straight or diluted.
The Palette – the ‘roll test’ that allow flavours to sit on the tongue – this determines whether the flavours develop slowly or whether they disappear. You’ll also be able to gauge the texture to feel the smoothness.
Finishing Notes – the lingering flavours that come through at the end will suggest whether the aftertaste is pleasant or not.
Most people tend to have different order preferences to the nose, the palette and the finish but all whisky lovers are able to tell the distinctness between each.
Without further ado, here are some of our favourites to present as gifts
Single malt Scotch whisky
Glencadam 17 Year Old Portwood Finish
Limited-edition – Aged in ex-bourbon casks, before being finished for the last few years in a trio of ex-port hogsheads.
Notes: Sweet with notes of summer fruits, vanilla and toffee
Made in the Highlands, Scotland
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Jim Beam 4 Year Old Bot.1971
Aged for four years in oak, using the same formula since 1795.
Notes: Sweet with notes of cherry, cinnamon, caramel
Made in Kentucky, USA
Blended Irish Whiskey
Jameson Gold Reserve
Blend with a high proportion of pure potstill – “If you don't enjoy this, then you just don't get what Irish whiskey is all about. 94 points” Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2008.
Notes: Nutmeg, honey and fruitcake
Made in Ireland
Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey
Redbreast 12 Year Old
Single pot still Irish whiskey, with a warm, generous texture, rich, sweet flavours and a spicy kick. In the view of many connoisseurs, the finest Irish whiskey available.
Notes: Ginger, liquorice root, honey, toffee
Made in Ireland
Jack Daniel's Sinatra Select
A rare edition celebrating Frank Sinatra’s love of the drink. Bottled at a stronger 45%, and partly matured in ‘Sinatra barrels', which are grooved on the inside to allow more wood and spirit interaction and developing its deeper, intense flavour.
Nose: Soft honey, fresh apples and vanilla
Made in Tennessee
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Delicate and complex unpeated Islay whisky. The limited-edition bottle has been created by independent German bottlers The Whisky Agency.
Notes: Raspberry, lemon and subtle sea air and mineral
Made in Islay, Scotland
Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Glencadam 19 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Finish
Finished in sweet oloroso-sherry casks for richness and complexity.
Notes: fruit cake, nuts, raisins and spice
English Single Malt Whisky
English Whisky Co. Chapter 11
Limited edition – Aged for a little over 3 years and then bottled at full proof.
Notes: toffee apple, peat smoke, sultanas and cloves
Made in Norfolk, England
Best Loved Single Malt Scotch
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Made in Islay, Scotland
Notes: rum, raisin ice cream, toffee and hickory
View it here.
Everyone has their favourite way to enjoy their whisky, whether it's as it comes, on the rocks or diluted. Research by scientists in Sweden now leads them to believe that adding a little water can unlock the flavours and aromas to boost your enjoyment. They confess that they don't drink much whisky, having initially become interested in the chemical possibilities, but are now keen to put their theories to the test.
If you are still unsure, find out whether the recipient enjoys sweet, spicy or earthy aromas and start there.