Guides,  Whiskey

Intro to Whiskey

In this intro to whiskey, we’re going to walk you through each amazing whiskey producing region in the world, giving you the insights to help you figure out what you may like to drink.

Anyone who has been to the whiskey aisle at your local liquor store knows that it can be rather intimidating. Rows upon rows of bottles and boxes with strange names you cannot pronounce, some have age statements telling you how old they are, others say things like ‘blended,’ or single grain, or double oak matured.

On top of that, they can’t even agree on how to spell whiskey (USA, Ireland) / whisky (Scotland, Canada, Japan).

Plus, certain varieties like scotch, tend to have a steeper price point, at least compared to vodka, or most wine, so there’s extra pressure to buy a great tasting variety, right off the hop. 

Fear not, for we will walk you through all you need to know about selecting a whiskey you will like, including:

How to Taste Whiskey

Let’s start at the start. As you embark on your quest to find your favourite dram, know that there is no ‘good or bad whiskey,’ there’s only those that are the right match for your palette. 

There is also no wrong way to drink whiskey. If you want to drink it out of a pink plastic cup and gulp it down, or if you add water or ice to your dram because that’s how you like it, then good for you. We won’t look down our noses at anyone for not having a Glencairn glass to sip from or for what they may (or may not) add.

If you are enjoying your whiskey then you are doing it right.  

That being said, you could be missing some of the subtleties that whiskey has to offer. And because of that, when it comes to tasting, there is a general method to the madness, and it can help you to pull out different notes/understand what kinds of flavours are right for you. 

Here’s how to go about drinking and enjoying a whiskey you come across:


Pour


Pouring whiskey

We prefer to use a Glencairn glass, but whatever you have will be just fine. Some people like to let their whiskey ‘breathe,’ like wine, in the glass. A minute in the glass for every year in the cask is a good rule to follow. For example, an 18 year old scotch would be left to sit for 18 minutes before drinking. This can help smooth out some more abrasive whiskies, but is certainly not required.


Nose


Dog sniffing fresh air

Take a sniff, swirl it around in your glass, take another sniff (each nostril can give you a slightly different smell, so try plugging one and go back in one at a time).


Sip


whiskey in a glass

Take a sip, let it swirl around in your mouth for a moment to absorb and cover your tongue and mouth, and swallow. 


Sit


woman sitting and thinking

Sit with this for a moment and feel the finish, as it often changes what flavours you taste. Different flavours often present themselves late in the finish.

Now go back and nose again. You will likely pick up different notes now that you have tasted it and have some on your tongue.


Repeat!


Common Whiskey Flavours and Tasting Notes

Whiskey is incredibly nuanced, and many are surprised to discover just how complex and rich the flavour profile of any given dram can be. Some of the more common flavours you may come across as you make tasting notes are:

  • Brine
  • Heather
  • Honey
  • Baking spices
  • Peat/Smoke
  • Fruit: Apple, Pear, etc
  • Dried or stewed fruit (raisins, apricots) 
  • Citrus
  • Vanilla 
  • Etc…

You may also find more obscure flavours listed in some reviews, like ‘bicycle innertube,’ which is one of the most interesting notes we’ve ever come across.

Discovering these tasting notes, and exploring the various combinations that distillers create can be one of the most fun adventures that you can have in becoming a Whiskey Geek. 

How Flavours Are Added into Whiskey

How flavours are created in whiskey is complex, but one of the main factors for flavour happens inside the barrel. 

This interaction occurs at the molecular level and is affected by several factors, including what specific strain of oak is used to create the barrel, which is known as coopering. 

There are over 500 different strains of oak trees that exist and they can each add different flavour to the whiskey that is being aged inside. The most common that is used is the American White Oak (quercus alba) as it is abundant, fast growing (ready in 60-80 years), grows straight, and is relatively cheap (around $500 USD for a first fill cask). American oak contains high levels of vanillin, which adds sweet flavours such as vanilla as well as baked breads. 

At the opposite end of the oak spectrum is Japanese Mizunara Oak (quercus mongolica), which is not plentiful, slow growing (needs at least 200 years prior to being used), does not grow straight, is prone to leaking, and is expensive (around $6000 – $7000 USD per cask). Whiskey aged in Mizunara casks will bring out flavours like sandalwood, coconut, banana, Japanese incense and spices.

If a refill cask is being used (meaning it previously was used to age something else), then the barrel’s past life as a home for wine or other spirits (sherry, rum, etc.) can make a huge difference to the flavour profile as the whiskey will pull aspects of the previous occupant out of the wood. 

The Different Whiskey Regions of the World

Any country in the world can make whiskey, and more and more enter the market each year.

Each country has its own unique flavour profile that can be attributed to the unique climate and terroir (the soil, altitude, humidity, water etc.) where the whiskey is made. 

Each country may also use different grain (barley, corn, rye, wheat) which is then malted (or not in the case of Irish whiskey), different yeast strains and sources, different water sources, different filtration processes, and will age the whiskey for different amounts of time in different types of oak barrels. 

This all leads to a wonderfully diverse world of whiskey with a plethora of flavours to discover and explore. 

Below we’ll give you a few flavour footnotes on what you need to know when you’re comparing whether you’d like to try Rye, Scotch or whiskey from the most popular whiskey producing countries as it stands in 2021. This is by no means exclusive and we are sure to miss some absolute gems that exist. But this list will cover what you are most likely to find in your local liquor shop.

SCOTLAND

Scotland countryside with castle
Photo by Connor Mollison on Unsplash

The homeland of whisky, Scotland is the only place where whisky can legally be called scotch.  We will be going into much more detail on this below (read on or skip now to Understanding Scotch).

IRELAND

Ireland coastline
Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

Also perhaps the homeland of whiskey?

As our family is of Scottish descent, we are giving Scotland the benefit of the doubt here, but will allow for the “chance” that maybe it was the Irish.

Irish whiskey is often described as being light and fruity, with the aging in oak barrels adding oak and caramel notes. Also, Irish whiskey is made from both malted and unmalted (or green) barley, whereas scotch is made with malted barley.

Why did Ireland start doing this in the 1800s? Because the United Kingdom imposed a tax on malted barley, so to turn more of a profit, Irish distilleries switched and began using less malted barley (and therefore paying less tax) and introduced unmalted barley. Luckily for them, this added a unique flavour profile that can still be tasted today. This is what gives Irish whiskey it’s unique taste.

Key Distilleries

  • Jamesons – Vanilla and notes of spicy oak and a smooth sweet sherry finish.
  • Teeling – Red fruit (strawberries) with cinnamon and white pepper.
  • Tullamore – Some spicy lemon with melted butter and charred oak.

CANADA

Photo by Tom Gainor on Unsplash

Routinely referred to as Rye or Rye whisky. This is because early on in Canadian whisky production, farmers found that rye could survive the cold winters. Advancements in farming and availability of different grains made this less of a problem, however this historical hangover persists. Typical flavour profiles of Canadian whisky include notes of cinnamon, toast, and toffee. There is something specifically “Canadian” about our (yes, I said our) whiskey and seasoned consumers of whisky will likely be able to identify a Canadian whisky after the first sip. 

Key Distilleries

  • Forty Creek – Sweet with oaky notes and some nutiness mixed in. 
  • Macaloney (Mac Na Braiche) – Smooth creamy with tropical fruits, wood spice and heathered honey with an oaky finish.
  • Glen Breton – Some subtle honey and fruit notes (apple) along with cereals and malt. 

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

American farmland whiskey region

There are several varieties of American whiskey (see below) and their specifications are actually outlined in American federal law. In general, the flavour profile of American whiskies are not dissimilar from Canadian whiskies, and you can expect to find notes of oak, vanilla, toffee, and cinnamon. 

The different styles of American whiskey include:

  • Bourbon – The mash must contain between 51 – 80% corn mash and aged in charred fresh white oak barrels.
  • Corn –  The mash must contain at least 80% corn and be aged in uncharred oak barrels. There is no length of time required, so this is generally very short. Straight corn whiskey is a variant of this and must be aged for at least two years to obtain this title.
  • Rye – The mash must contain at least 51% rye and be aged in fresh charred oak barrels. 
  • Tennessee – The mash must contain at least 51% corn and aged in fresh charred oak barrels and must be made in Tennessee. 
  • Wheat – The mash must contain at least 51% wheat and aged in fresh charred white oak barrels. 
  • Moonshine – This can be made from any type of grain and is not aged in barrels, but rather bottled immediately after distillation. 

Key Distilleries

  • Heaven Hill: Sweet and spicy, with notes of oak and cedar developing into brown sugar.
  • Makers Mark: Spice from the malted rye come through with butterscotch and vanilla.
  • Knob Creek: Candy floss and dark chocolate mix with some spice, nut oil, and notes from the charred oak barrels. 

JAPAN

japan whiskey region

Japanese whiskies are made to closely mirror those made in Scotland, and the first distilleries locations were chosen for the cool climate and their general vicinity to the sea and abundance of fresh water. 

While we mentioned Mizunara oak casks earlier, most Japanese whiskies are not aged exclusively in Mizunara oak native to Japan, but instead in the cheaper and more widely available American white oak.

That being said, there are some very good Japanese whiskies that are exclusively aged in Mizunara oak casks, with the price tag that comes with using $6000 barrels to age your whiskey. 

There is no distinct flavour profile associated with Japanese whisky, and they can range from smooth and sweet to heavily peated and brash. Once again, the fun is in exploring.

Key Distilleries

  • Suntory Yamazaki – Floral and fruity with underlying oak from the cask. 
  • Nikka  – Creamy caramel with vanilla and oak before a spicy smoky finish.
  • Hakushu – Fruity with an oakiness and then peat smoke notes on the finish. 

Understanding Scotch

Now onto whisky from Scotland, which is the only whisky that is allowed to be called scotch. Like with American whiskey, there are a bunch of specific thresholds that need to be met to be able to call something scotch in Scotland and these are laid out in detail in legislation. 

The main points are that the whisky must:

  • be distilled at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley
  • be distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% 
  • be matured only in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres;
  • be matured only in Scotland;
  • be matured for a period of not less than three years;
  • be matured only in an excise warehouse or a permitted place;
  • retain the colour, aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation;
  • that has a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%.
  • Have no substance added except:
    • water
    • plain caramel colouring
    • water and plain caramel colouring

Not only do all of the above need to be met for a whisky to be called a scotch, scotch itself is further divided up by geographical regions, each one having its own unique flavour profile. Once you know what these regional flavour profiles are, it can be much easier to find a scotch that you’ll like.  

So, let’s dive into what you are likely to find when you go out looking for a bottle.  They may be organized by region, like with wine, or they may just be placed on the shelf based on which distillery has the best marketing strategy.  

The 5 Main Scotch Regions

  1. Highlands
  2. Lowlands
  3. Speyside
  4. Islay
  5. Campbeltown 

We will go over each in detail below, note a few of the distilleries in each region, and give a general flavour profile of the main offerings from each.

Map of the Scotish Highland whiskey region

The Highlands

The largest of the regions, the Highlands cover much of the Scottish mainland north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.  

Highland Scotch Flavour Profile

Highland scotches offer the widest range of flavours, from salty varieties which were aged in coastal warehouses,  to honied drams with no hints of peat or ocean brine.

Key Distilleries

  • Glenmorangie – Sweet and nutty with notes of vanilla.
  • Oban – Sweet with notes of citrus and smoke, leading to cereal and oak.
  • Deanston – Smooth honey and heather with a hint of dark chocolate.
  • Dalmore – Sweet and rich with chocolate and sherry and spiced oak.
Whiskey Region Map Scottish Lowlands
Map: visitscotland.com © MapTiler, Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 | Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 © Cartiqo © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors

The Lowlands

Occupying the southern mainland of Scotland, Lowland scotches tend to be lighter and more gentle than the other regions.

Lowland Scotch Flavour Profile

Known for their notes of grass, cream, ginger, cinnamon, toast, and toffee, the Lowlands produce perhaps the most approachable scotch if you are either just beginning your journey, or are trying to convert someone else into a scotch-lover.

Key Distilleries

  • Auchentoshan – Oaky cereal sweetness, tropical fruits, vanilla custard.
  • Glenkinchie – Fruity (green apples) with honey and and oaky finish.
  • Annandale – Tropical fruits (pineapple) baked apples, peanuts, nutmeg.
Whiskey Region Map Speyside Scotland
Map: visitscotland.com © MapTiler, Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 | Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 © Cartiqo © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors

Speyside

Running along the River Spey, Speyside has more than half of all of Scotland’s distilleries.  

Speyside Scotch Flavour Profile

Speyside whiskies are often fruity (commonly apples and pears) with nuts and vanilla. There is very little peat / smoke in Speyside whiskies.

Key Distilleries

  • Glenfiddich – Sherry oak, marzipan, cinnamon and ginger.
  • The Glenlivet – Vanilla and butter with citrus fruits (apricot, pineapple), and oak spice on finish.
  • The Balvenie – sweet nutty notes with cinnamon and more sweetness from the Oloroso sherry casks.
  • Cardhu – Tropical fruits (mango and pineapple), honey, raisins, and vanilla. 
  • The Macallan – Dried fruits (raisins / prunes), sherry notes and sweet toffee with some oak spice.
Whiskey Region Map Islay Scotland
Map: visitscotland.com © MapTiler, Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 | Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 © Cartiqo © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors

Islay

The favourite region of The Whisk(e)y Geeks, the Isle of Islay is home to nine active distilleries even though it is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) long. 

Islay Scotch Flavour Profile

Islay whiskies are known for their fiery peat and smoke flavours. 

My wife says they taste like you have just licked a piece of charcoal from a campfire, which is just about the perfect description.

Key Distilleries 

  • Lagavulin – Sweet smoke followed by sweet dried fruit and sherry notes, with a strong finish of even more smoke with pepper and sea salt.
  • Bunnahabhain – Soft fruit and nuts lead into the sherry sweetness and raisins with a slightly salty finish.
  • Bowmore – Sweet heather smoke mixed with honey and lemon, before returning with smoke on the finish.
  • Ardbeg – Vanilla and citrus are quickly overtaken by smoke, before turning into a salted caramel and even more smoke.
  • Bruichladdich – Sweet oak and ripe green fruits (apples) and brown sugar and sweet malt.
  • Laphroaig – Peat smoke and iodine dominate while layers of sweetness from pear and mango float underneath. 
  • Caol Islay – Toffee and vanilla mix with pear while the smoke wafts with brine and ash. 
  • Ardnahoe – Sweet (honey and icing sugar) mingled with peat smoke and charcoal.
  • Kilchoman – Citrus mixed with peat along with green fruits (apples and pears) with some spice and more wood smoke.

Note: Since we love Islay, they are all ‘key distilleries’ in our eyes.

Whiskey Region Map Campbelltown Scotland
Map: visitscotland.com © MapTiler, Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 | Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019 © Cartiqo © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors

Campbelltown

While there are only three operating distilleries in Campbelltown, they turn out quite a few great whiskies.  I must admit that Whisk(e)y Geek #2 has fallen hard for Campbelltown drams over the past little while.  

Campbeltown Scotch Flavour Profile

Campbeltown whiskies offer a more robust and fuller dram than their Lowland neighbours, with notes of both sweet and salt. You will find fruits, vanilla, and toffee notes all mingled with a sea saltiness. It is a truly unique flavour profile, and like Islay, you know when you are drinking a Campbelltown whisky.

Key Distilleries

  • Springbank – Sweet and creamy with some marzipan and finishing with light smoke and toasted barley. 
  • Glen Scotia – Sweet and fruity with vanilla and nutmeg along with baked apples and raisins and hints of sherry. 
  • Glengyle – Citrus (oranges) with butterscotch and vanilla and hints of honey.

Note: Again, ‘key; here means all three of them!

Bonus: The Island Scotch Distilleries

So, after listing all the others we realized that a few of our favourite distilleries were not covered above….so what the hell, let’s cover this slightly more enigmatic Island region. 

Island Scotch Flavour Profile

The coast of Scotland is peppered with islands in every direction, and true to the Scottish tradition of building a distillery on any plot of land where people may reside, the islands are rich with distilleries.

There are eight active distilleries on Scottish Isles, ranging from the Isle of Arran in the southern part of Scotland all the way to the Isle of Orkney in the far north.

The various Island distilleries share aspects with both Islay whiskies and Highland whiskies, and it just depends on what expression they are going for and how they use peat to influence the whisky. Because they are all located on actual islands, as long as they age their whiskey is on site, you will get a slight salinity from the sea that seeps through the barrels and into the scotch. The 

Other than that, you can get some great heather and smoky notes from Highland Park, the northernmost scotch distillery in the world on the Isle of Orkney, or a more iodine and peppery dram from Talisker, located on the Isle of Skye.

The other Island distilleries are located on the Isle of Arran, Lewis, Raasay, Jura, and Mull. The best advice we have is enjoy the quest of searching for and discovering which Island distillery makes what you like.  And what a wonderful quest it has been for us!

Key Distilleries

  • Highland Park – Heather honey and peat smoke mingle with oranges and winter spices (cinnemon, nutmeg, cloves). 
  • Talisker – Dried fruits with smoke leading to a peppery spicy finish. 
  • Jura – Cereal with vanilla balanced against raisins and a hint of smoke that builds towards a nutmeg and cloves and mild peat smoke on the finish.

Whiskey Can Be Accessible

Hopefully, this run down has helped you on your way to becoming a fellow Whisk(e)y Geek. If nothing else, hopefully it’s helped you decide what bottle you may want to pick up based on the flavour profile that most jumped out to you.  

However, if you’re ever looking for more in-depth information on the different varieties out there, as well as some fun pairing suggestions that bring the world of scotch and comics together, you’ve found the right companions for your journey. Read on, listen in to the podcast, or drop us a line at thewhiskeygeeks (@) gmail.com.

P.S. If you feel like you now have a strong handle on whiskey, but are feeling intimidated by the aisle (or online catalogue) at your local comic shop, then jump over to our Intro to Comics. It will answer some basic questions about the larger world of comics and is intended to help you find your next great read. After all, Scotch and stories were made for each other.