The most famous type of whisky is Scotch, of which there are two types – malts and blended. Both must be distilled and aged in Scotland for a minimum of three years in oak casks, a stringent quality standard that only Irish whiskey matches. Malt whisky gets its name from the malted barley that has been soaked, allowed to germinate slightly, and then dried in a kiln. In the case of Scottish malt whisky this is sometimes exposed to peat smoke, particularly in the Western Isles whiskies. It is peat that creates the distinctively smoky ‘Scotch’ flavour that dominates some malts such as Lagavulin; less peated malts produce creamier, fruitier, nuttier, even floral styles. Malts are the base for blended Scotch whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker, and here the Master Blender’s art rules supreme, carefully selecting blends from some of the most prized casks throughout Scotland. J&B Rare and Bells are also examples of fine blended whiskies.
But there are many other whiskies too. Irish whiskeys (with the ‘e’) must be distilled and aged in Ireland. Peat is rarely used, and the typical Irish whiskey is lighter, sweeter and less smoky than the typical Scottish whisky. Then there are American whiskeys (sometimes with the ‘e’, sometimes without), which come in a range of different styles. Bourbon whiskeys must be made in the US, from a grain mixture dominated by corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels. It is this that gives bourbons their characteristic toffee/caramel sweetness. Grain whisky tends to be distilled in a column still rather than the pot still frequently used for malted whisky. It creates a lighter style that balances out the malts in many blends. Column stills distill spirit constantly, rather than the batch method of pot stills. In effect, they behave like a series of pot stills, attached one after the other to deliver heated and then cooled liquid throughout the process. A combination of these methods is used in blended whiskies; malts tend to come from pot stills only. Finally, a version of Bourbon that must be produced in Tennessee in the US is the aptly named Tennessee whisky.
Many whisky lovers enjoy their favourite brand straight up, on the rocks, or with a splash of water or soda, but classic whisky cocktails include the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, Hot Toddy, Rob Roy and Rusty Nail.