Demystifying Whisky

Think you know your Scotch from your Bourbon and your Glenfiddich from your Balvernie? As much as we’d like to think we can handle a couple of rounds of whisky on the rocks, whisky is still a bit of a mystery to most of us. So we sat down with Grisa Soba the Chief Flavour Wizard from Flaviar and asked her a few questions to once and for all demystify whisky.


Cornerstone: First thing’s first, where does whisky originate from?

Grisa: The fundamental question that arises when we talk about different whiskies is which one was first. There is no 100% accurate answer. The distillation process originates
from the Middle East and was brought to Ireland and Scotland no later than at the beginning of 15th century. It’s impossible to say exactly who deserves to be given credit for producing the first whisky… so the easiest way is to give the credit to the Irish if you happen to be speaking to an Irishman, or alternatively to the Scots if you’re speaking to a Scotsman. That should keep everyone happy.

European settlers brought distillation to the New World and in the early 18th century Whiskey making took off in America as well.

Cornerstone: Is there any particular food that’s best paired with whisky?

Grisa: Plenty! Each whisky has a specific flavour profile (aroma and taste) that will pair with some foods better than others, but in the end it’s up to your taste buds to decide, so the most important thing is to experiment as much as you can.

An easy way to start exploring food pairings is with chocolate, cheese and other snacks and then move on to more complex dishes. One idea on how you can approach it is by combining the drink with food that has similar flavour profile or is even made from the same ingredients, such as Bourbon (that is high in corn) with corn tortilla wraps- or smoky whiskies with barbecue, smoked cheese or roast vegetables.

Cornerstone: What does the whisky-making process entail?

Grisa: There are 5 basic steps in the (Scotch) whisky production. First comes malting, where barley is encouraged to germinate and is then dried over fire (and sometimes smoke, which creates a smoky flavour). This is followed by mashing, when malted barley and other grains with some help of germs produce sugar in warm water. When this liquid is dried off, it’s called wort. The third step is when the wort and yeast are put in large tanks and left to ferment. The liquid that they get has around 5% to 10% alcohol and is ready for distillation.

Now this is where you get some variation- in Scotland, they typically distil 2 times, whereas the traditional Irish method is triple distillation. The last step is maturation, which means storing whisky in wooden casks. The type of casks chosen (e.g. ex-bourbon, sherry, port) and the duration of ageing have a huge influence on the final drink. As much as 60% to 70% of the whisky flavour profile comes from the cask. The longer it is aged, the more prevalent the influence of the cask.

Cornerstone: Why are older whiskies deemed to be better?

Grisa: The flavour profile that develops with ageing, combined with extra work and care put in older whiskies through the years, are part of the reason they are more expensive. Then there’s the angel’s share – the losses caused by whisky evaporating through casks during maturation. The angels take around 2% -4% cut each year. It may not sound like a lot, but Irish Distillers, the producer of Jameson, told us they lose 29,000 bottles a day to angels!

Cornerstone: What is the difference between Scotch, Bourbon etc?

Grisa: Whiskies are distilled from grain, the main difference is the type and ratio of grains used. Scotch is made mostly from barley. Bourbon by US law has to be at least 51% corn while Rye Whiskey must be distilled from a mash that’s at least 51% rye.

There are also differences in the types of stills used and ageing methods in different parts of the world – Bourbon, for instance, must be aged in new oak barrels, while Scotch must be aged in used barrels (which is very convenient, as Bourbon barrels can be sold to Scotland and re-used there).

Another difference to note is the spelling: in large, whisky is spelt without the ‘e’ everywhere apart from in Ireland and the U.S where it’s spelt ‘whiskey’.

Cornerstone: Last but not least, what would you say are the top 3 whiskey based cocktails?

Grisa: The recent revival of cocktail culture brings back classics that were almost forgotten for a very, very long time. Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Whisky Sour are all a must and you’ll find them in many different expressions. So hit the bars to find your favourite and note the difference depending on the type of whisky used (many mixologists currently swear to the spiciness of Rye).

There you have it chaps, enough whisky knowledge for the weekend but if it’s left you wanting more then sign up for Flaviar’s School of Spirits and receive 7 short & sweet lessons straight to your inbox-for free.


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