This weekend will be Burns night – for the uninitiated, it’s a celebration of the Scottish poet Robbie Burns which involves digging into cock-a-leekie soup, haggis and good whisky. Here at Hot Pink Apron, we take our food-related holidays very seriously, so this is your chance to get serious about whisky.
Every now and again someone says something to me that gives me incandescent lady-rage — normally when they are suggesting I can’t do something I enjoy because I have lady-bits. A while back someone mentioned how her fiancé had been whisky tasting and tried a new type of Islay whisky. Quite the little whisky aficionado, I chipped in to say that Islay is way too peaty for my taste – for me it’s all about the soft tones of a well-aged Balvenie or the Auchentoshan Three Wood.
I could understand her surprise because my love of good Scotch doesn’t crop up in conversation much, but the comment that followed prompted the lady-rage like no other: ‘You like whisky? But isn’t that a man’s thing?’. My response to this kind of thing was, and always will be, ‘Well, my tits have never got in the way before!’. I grew up with a Mum and a Nan both partial to a sip of firewater, but I have found that a well-defined taste for strong alcohol is just not deemed ladylike (sorry Mum). So for those of you who have always thought whisky was a man’s game (or to those gents who just want to get involved), consider this your Whisky 101.
What is whisky?
Whisky is a grain-based spirit. Malted barley or other types of grain are fermented, and this liquid is then distilled. At this point it is colourless and harsh, and won’t be ‘whisky’ for another 3 years. The spirit is laid down in barrels (usually oak) which have been previously used to store another strong flavoured drink, for example rum or sherry.
It is during this time in the barrels that grain alcohol progresses to whisky and gains colour and flavour. The longer in the barrel, the deeper and richer it gets, and the choice of barrel makes a big difference to the end flavour. Whisky matured in bourbon barrels is a popular choice, since bourbon is only ever put into new casks. When you see an age stated on a whisky bottle it refers to the time spent in the barrel – it doesn’t ‘age’ any more once bottled.
Some whiskies (usually, but not always Scottish) are also ‘peated’ – that is, the malt is dried out over a smoking peat fire giving the resulting whisky a smoky, earthy flavour. Bowmore, Laphroaig and Lagavulin are all good examples of smoky, peated whisky. These whiskies all come from the island of Islay (pronounced eye-lah), known for its peated whisky.
Single cask, single malt, blended, cask strength – what does it all mean?
A single malt whisky is created from a single type of malt at a single distillery. These whiskies are often considered superior to blends, (we’ll come back to this later). Within the distillery, different casks will be mixed together to create a uniformity of flavour (so that one 12 year old bottle of Bowmore will taste much like another) but they will all be the same type. If you want to be a real specialist about it, single cask whiskies are a single malt which hasn’t been mixed.
Blended whiskies are a mixture of malted whiskies from different distilleries and usually contains a quantity of grain spirit. They may be blended together for a particular flavour – for example, the Smokehead blend mixes together a number of different heavily peated whiskies for a very earthy, smoky flavour. Blends have something of a bad reputation as cheaper blends mix back in some of the grain spirit – it makes for a rough, harsh tasting whisky. Try to get blends that place the emphasis on the high proportion mixture of good quality malted whiskies.
Cask strength whisky is the kind that will put hairs on your chest. Straight out of the cask, whisky can be between 60-80% alcohol by volume (abv) and is normally watered down to around 40% (ish) for a smoother flavour. You can sometimes get cask strength stuff though, and it is a good tasting experience to try a cask strength whisky, and then taste it again with a few drops of water added. It’s usually far smoother, and actually a little sweeter. The good news is that within a few measures, you will be so drunk they all taste good, so you only need to manage to look discerning for a drink or two.
Whisky or whiskey?
Depending on where you come from this could just be a peculiarity of spelling, but normally whisky is Scottish, whiskey is Irish. That’s all really.
“I can’t taste the difference between one whisky and another.”
If you haven’t really tried many whiskies or you’ve only ever had blends before, I’m not surprised. All whiskies will taste whisky-like, funnily enough. It takes a while to recognise what the differences are and what kinds you like. If you want to start distinguishing between them, try a couple of pairings that should be very different – for example, Bowmore and Laphraoig will be very heavy and smoky, while Aberlour and Balvenie will be lighter and smoother, and less smoky. Do you prefer your whisky more or less smoky? You could then compare whiskies from different types of casks, or of different ages.
Alternatively you might get rip-roaring drunk and decide you still hate the lot – but at least it won’t be just because you are a woman.
If you’re looking for a Burns-night themed meal to line the stomach before your planned whisky tasting venture, do go try our brilliant scotch egg recipe. Your heart and your stomach are bound to enjoy their celebration of the Highlands.Add to favorites