The idiots guide to choosing a great whisky.
Scotch whisky is by far the dominant whisky in the world. Irish whisky is fast regaining its popularity. American whisky is mainly referred to as bourbon. Other countries also produce whisky, but these three countries dominate.
First and foremost, let’s clear up what is whisky or whiskey. Before it can be called whisk(e)y: It must be made only with natural raw materials, It must be distilled and matured in the country of origin e.g. Scotland, Ireland or America; It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks in Scotland and Ireland and two years in America. The more premium the whisky the longer it is aged. Generally all whisky older than 10 years will show the age of the whisky on the label. Generally a low priced whisky will contain 3 year old whisky; a medium priced whisky will contain whisky from between 5 an 7 years. You get the drift – you generally get what you pay for. In whisky, unlike brandy – every drop in the bottle is as old as or older than the age stated on the label. Only 30% of standard brandy is at the age stated on the label.
There are two types of casks used in Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey; namely ex Bourbon barrels from the US or Sherry casks from Spain. The bourbon barrel produces a much lighter whiskey and contribute a vanilla flavour while the sherry cask produces a much darker whisk(e)y and contributes a toffee caramel flavour. So when you pour your whisky and look at the colour, you can already begin to suggest that if it is lighter it will have a vanilla nose and sound glam. If it is darker you can already suggest a nose of toffee caramel. American whiskey is aged in new oak barrels.
Why are some bottles clear and others green? When whisky is in a clear bottle the whisky producer will add neutral caramel to window dress the product for consistent look on shelf, when in a green bottle this is not needed.
What are the key things to note from a whisky label? First and foremost check the country of origin. Note that some whiskies are distilled and matured in the country of origin but bottled in South Africa. Then you want to know what you are paying for? The majority of whisky is blended Scotch whisky which means it is a blend of various single malt whiskies together with grain whisky. The more malt whisky in a bottle the more premium the whisky and the more expensive. The cheaper whiskies contain modest amounts of malt whisky. A Pure Malt whisky is a blend of single malt whiskies and a Single malt whisky is a single distillate from a single distillery. If you want to spoil yourself it must be a single malt whisky and if you want the best single malt Scotch whisky it has to be from Speyside in Scotland. Speyside contain more than half of the distilleries in Scotland for good reason.
Now for some dispelling of an old urban legend – the ‘A’ or ‘B’ number on the label. These are generally followed by a number e.g. 'B'372 or 'A'159. The 'A' stands for locally produced, the 'B' stands for imported and the number following is the dedicated number of the importer. You will find this number repeated on many product e.g. Chivas Regal will have the same number as Beefeater Gin and you will know then that this is from the same supplier and because it starts with a 'B' it is fully imported.