Thursday, 23 October 2008

Whisky or Whiskey in a nutshell

by Mark Backhouse

written for Status Qua magazines next quarterly issue

Whisky has become a passion of mine. I did not mean for this to happen considering that I was a teetotaler into my early thirties. Alcohol tasted really bad, but I was determined to have a ‘drink’ I might enjoy occasionally. A great friend of mine suggested easing into whisky. He poured a single Jameson Irish Whiskey, added Ginger Ale, a slice of lemon and two cubes of ice. I had tried the same mix with a Scotch whisky previously but the triple distilled whiskey without the smoke just worked and I was hooked. This was my drink of choice for many years before I started to experiment with other possibilities.

It is therefore thanks to Jameson Whiskey that I have also become a Scotch whisky master, and that I have today, a fastidious penchant for great single malt whiskies. I am mostly partial to whiskies from the Speyside region in Scotland as many of these are hardly smoked.

I state two facts so far assuming know-how by you, this includes Scotch whisky regions and the term ‘smoked’; allow me to reveal the hidden meanings behind the smoking screen:
The Regions explained: There are 6 Scotch whisky regions in Scotland, namely: Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Islay, Campbelltown and The Island regions. Speyside is the champagne region for Scotch whisky. This statement seems bold but some facts that support this are: half of all Scotch whisky distilleries are in Speyside; that the world’s top 5 selling single malt whiskies all originate from Speyside; that most of the leading premium whiskies of the world’s central heart malts distilleries are in Speyside. Of the over 85 distilleries in Scotland, 49 distilleries are in Speyside. Enough said.

The most famous and leading Single Malts in the world that you may want to try are the two Speyside greats; Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. Then again the largest single malt drinking nation in the world - France chooses another Speyside great - Aberlour as their number one. Other exceptional Speyside single malt whiskies to try include: Balvenie, Longmorn, Macallan and Strathisla.

The other regions produce some exceptional whiskies. The Highlands have 20 active distilleries and the classic malts are probably Glenmorangie and Old Pulteney. The Lowlands is home to 7 active distilleries and here the classic is the only triple distilled Scotch malt whisky named Auchentoshan. Islay is home to 8 active distilleries and famous for smokey whiskies; the smokiest single malt from Islay is Ardbeg. Campbelltown is home to 2 distilleries and the most recognized single malt whisky is Springbank. The Island region is home to 6 active distilleries. Two great single malts from the Islands are Highland Park and Scapa.

Now for the second point – ‘smoked’ explained: Simply put, the raw material used in making whisky is barley and in the process of making whisky we need to dry the barley. It is at this drying stage that we add ‘peat’ (putrefied organic matter). This addition of ‘peat’ and the amount of ‘peat’ determines how smokey the whisky is in the final product we purchase at our local liquor store. In Ireland we use hot air to dry the barley and therefore Irish whisky is never disguised by a smokey taste. The Speyside region is distinguished for its distinct lack or minimal smoke flavours. The Islay region is the direct opposite, offering some challenging whiskies where the smoke in them is older ashtray followed by seaside notes of moist salty air and musty seaweed. Some are great examples and the best in my opinion is Laphroaig10 year old.

I am satisfied to have explained some basics about whisky, but the key is the actual drinking of whisky. Some typical sentences I had heard before I came to know whisky are: “Sacrilege!” usually followed by a smirk or a look of disgust – the kind that is meant to belittle you. “How can you mix it with water?” or “don’t dare add that soda to your whisky.” The best statement most often used is “they perfected it for many years and you destroy it by adding water!” I became very irritated by these whisky aficionados and even with whisky itself because in my mind snobs and old farts drank whisky. It turns out that these protagonists were simply misguided by years of urban legend and hand-me-down stories.

The art to drinking whisky is how you choose to drink it – just drink it that’s all. You will find the way you most prefer in your own time. I enjoy Jameson the same way I started drinking whiskey. I love Aberlour single malt with a splash of water and one block of ice added after. I spend the entire evening nosing the brilliant aromas with sips in between. I will only drink a whisky neat if it is more than 18 years old and only if a fine example of the expression. These are my choices – find yours.

To the non whisky drinkers, I challenge you to drink the healthiest alcohol beverage around. Whiskey measures zero on the CI table (clucose index table) even a diabetic sufferer may drink whiskey. If you are a brandy drinker you simply haven’t found your whisky yet. If you are an occasional drinker or cocktail drinker – mix it your way. Remember whisky was born as “the water of life”.

For those who have been paying attention and are irritated by my sometimes spelling “whisky” and other times “whiskey” I will explain. Scotch whisky is spelt with the ‘y’ at the end. Irish and American whiskey is with the ‘ey’ at the end. The most significant difference is in the plural where the entire world spells it ‘whiskies’ and only Ireland spell it ‘whiskeys’. There is one simple reason for this – the Irish were the first to make whiskey and this is Irish whiskeys claim of distinction.It is amusing how things change and one way or another seem to stay the same, I have a generous serving of the premium ‘Jameson Gold’ poured into a snifter ‘tulip’ shaped glass perched at the end of my desk waiting for me. Cheers! See you in the next quarter serving!


  1. "If you are a brandy drinker you simply haven’t found your whisky yet."

    I like it :-)

    I'm glad to have discovered a whiskey blog from South Africa. I've heard it's a very important market for Irish whiskey but I don't know much more than that.

    Would I be right in saying that whiskey in South Africa must be at least 43% ABV? Is there a reason for that particular value? Have you tried, say, Jameson 40% and 43% side-by-side and noticed a difference?

    I have subscribed to your blog now. I'm always looking for new insights into the topic to mention on my own Irish whiskey weblog.

    1. 43%ABV is a historical law that today is convenient to protect against illegal products. We do not allow 40%ABV in RSA. I have tasted 40%ABV and 43% side by side and the difference is slight. It's is not as dramatic as cask strength may be.
      I have been a regular on your blog. I write occasionally and when provoked.


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