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A beginner’s guide to whisky

November 13, 2017

Mia Kunis with a glass of whisky on the rocks.

Mia Kunis enjoys learning about whisky. (whiskeyriff.com)

The un-definitive whisky primer: a few things that may or may not be handy to know when you reach for a bottle

By Dick Snyder

Now that it’s bloody cold outside, our hearts and minds turn to whisky—in all its glorious incarnations. If you’re new to this world, count your blessings. You have a long, rewarding road ahead of you as you navigate the huge variety of bottles available to you. Here’s a very short primer to get you into the spirit. (Ha! See what I did there?) It’s by no means scholarly or complete, so apologies to all you whisky experts out there… Please email complaints and corrections to iknowmoreaboutwhiskythanyoudo@idontcare.ca.

One more thing. The whiskies noted below are all sippers. You can enjoy them neat, with a little water or on ice. As you like. Don’t get too precious about it. Enjoy your life. (And if that means adding ginger ale, coke or soda, go for it!)

Canadian whisky

Slang: Rye
Typical flavours: Caramel, maple syrup, pepper, spice, dried grass, flannel

Patriotism aside, Canadian whisky is super hot right now and no longer derided as second-class spirit. When Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye ($35.45) was named World Whisky of the Year 2016 the world went crazy and it sold out across Canada (just in time to disappoint Christmas gift shoppers everywhere). Indeed, as Davin de Kergommeaux explains in his excellent Canadian Whisky: “Canadian whisky is not Scotch and it is not bourbon. It is rye, and has been for nearly two centuries.” (The updated second edition of his book was released this fall and it’s great reading and gifting for your whisky-loving buddies.) Rye grain is used as a flavouring element in the recipe for Canadian whisky, usually in quite small quantities compared to other fermentable cereal grains like wheat, corn and barley. That’s because rye has huge flavour, which can come off as hot and bitter at full volume. Distilling a 100% rye whisky properly requires considerable skill. Yet rye is the flavour we know and love, and more 100% rye whiskies are hitting the market. Even the Americans are getting in on the act—rye has always been key to bourbon—with some 100% ryes. To which we say: Back off, get your own whisky.

Try: J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye Canadian Whisky, 536870, $31.95

Scottish whisky

Slang: Scotch
Typical flavours: Tropical fruit, dry cereal, oatmeal, toast, honey, iodine and smoke (when peated)

The whisky against which all are judged, not always fairly. Scotch comes from Scotland, reaching back possibly as far as the 1300s when distillation was performed for medicinal reasons (yeah, right). Zip ahead a few centuries to our modern hip times, and most people forget that Scotch started out as a blended whisky. Single malts—all the rage these days—are a new trend that has contributed to the insufferability of whisky dilettantes around the world. Purists and snobs will argue, but a top quality blended Scotch whisky is pretty much the be all and end all. Anyway, barley leads the way in the land of Scotch, and it must be malted (sprouted) before distillation. Some Scotch whiskies are also peated: the sprouting grains are smoked under smouldering peat to stop the malting process and introduce smoky notes (think: burnt earth and iodine). Suffice it to say, the range of styles of Scotch is vast and fascinating. Just jump in and enjoy the ride—you’ll never figure it all out but you’ll have a great time with the effort.

Try: Grant’s Family Reserve Scotch Whisky, 31112, $28.20

Irish whiskey

Slang: Gimme another or I’ll smash you in the head with my sheleighleigh (RIP John Belushi)
Flavour profile: Delicate, citrus, cereal, hay, honeysuckle
Irish whiskey—yes, they add the “e” just to be difficult, you know, being Irish and all—is a must for any erudite liquor cabinet. Whisky is Gaelic for “water of life” and the Bushmills distillery is known as the oldest licensed distillery in the world (credit to Mark Bylok’s nicely written book The Whisky Cabinet for these facts). Either way, when I go out with my Irish friends, you gotta know that it’s all about Bushmills or Tullamore Dew (my personal favourite). Keep an eye out also for Writer’s Tears, Redbreast and Green Spot. Good lord, for the names alone!
Try: Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, 71746, $35.20

American whiskey

Slang: Bourbon (though it’s not all bourbon)
Flavour profile: Sweet, toffee, spice, smoke/burnt, vanilla, coconut
Yes, the yanks like to add the “e” too… anyway. Bourbon is confusing, so bear with me. Not all American whisky is bourbon, though all bourbon is American. Bourbon is always made with new oak barrels, which are heavily charred, influencing flavours with powerful cedar, spice and vanilla notes. These are high-alcohol spirits too. To properly be labeled as bourbon, the recipe must contain a minimum of 51% corn. The rest can be wheat, barley or rye (the latter most common as a flavour booster). Few distilleries use all four grains. There are many other rules too—too many to get into here. But here’s something you might not know: Jack Daniel’s, the world’s best-selling American whisky, is in fact bourbon, even though it is not labeled as such. Rather, the bottle states that it is “Tennesse Whiskey,” which was only given a legal definition in 2012—basically, that it’s made in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal. (Which is kind of funny, since charcoal filtering is the preferred way to cover up faults.) The current vogue for small-batch “artisanal” distillers has hit America hard, and there are hundreds of operations scatted throughout the U.S., though Kentucky and Tennessee remain the states for “big whisky.” Perhaps they should build a wall.
Try: Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, 54866, $39.95