Whisky can be intimidating. Its bold alcohol content and intense flavours pack a powerful punch, but with the right tools and approach, there’s a great reward awaiting those patient enough to tame this spirited tipple. To aid in this journey, the team at Grain & Glass do their utmost to dispel some of the barriers obstructing the path to enlightenment and equip you with the knowledge to get the most out of your whisky. Today, we’re looking at tackling some of the myths surrounding how whisky should be enjoyed and what constitutes a ‘good’ whisky.

Should You Ever Add Anything to Whisky?

Often in our bar we’ll hear statements like “is it ok to add ice?” or “will you kick me out if I mix this with cola?”, our response is: drink your whisky how you enjoy it most! Sipping whisky neat is an enjoyable experience and we whisky geeks at Grain & Glass will mostly sample whisky this way to evaluate it, often adding water to expose more flavours. However, after a long day at work we may indulge in a tall refreshing Kentucky Mule, using bourbon and ginger beer with some ice, or maybe on a hot day we may sip from a rocks glass and add a few ice cubes, it all depends on mood and what you enjoy most in that moment.

Cocktails also serve as a great means of getting used to drinking whisky, creating a familiarity with the flavours before trying it neat. They are an art in themselves, and at Grain & Glass we’ve crafted a cocktail menu to showcase a variety of flavours, from classic Old Fashioneds to more bespoke offerings.

They key thing to remember it’s you who is drinking it, so don’t let others tell you you’re drinking it wrong!

Is Older Whisky Better?

Age is just one of many variables that will affect the flavour of your whisky. Younger whisky tends to be fruitier, punchier and a bit louder, whereas older whisky is more settled and has had more time to absorb the flavours from the cask. When it comes to really old whisky, the flavours are often reminiscent of furniture and antiques: think warehouse smells, workshops, leather, books, etc.

Whisky that is decades old is often an introspective/meditative experience, you’re drinking history. However, it’s also quite possible that whisky can spend too long in a cask, taking on too much of the wood flavours and aromas and becoming an unpleasant experience, quite similar to leaving a teabag in hot water for weeks.

We’ve tried some amazing well-aged whiskies in our time, just as we’ve tried some outstanding young whiskies, and we’ve certainly tried some poor whiskies of all ages. Again, it just depends on the type of experience you’re looking for. Older whisky is not necessarily better, it’s just a different flavour.

Is Single Malt the Best Whisky?

There are many different categories of whisky around the world, and single malt is just one of them. Largely, the categories are defined by the initial grain that is used for brewing/fermentation (the grain we use to produce food for yeast to in turn produce alcohol). To keep things simple, we’re going to use Scotland as an example and some of the basic principles that define the different categories:

  • Single Malt – 100% malted barley spirit from one distillery
  • Blended Malt – 100% malted barley spirit from two or more distilleries
  • Single Grain – a grain spirit other than malted barley from one distillery
  • Blended Grain – a grain spirit other than malted barley from two or more distilleries
  • Blend – a mix of malted barley spirit and another grain spirit from two or more distilleries

There are other factors that distinguish these categories, but we’re focusing on the grains here.

All of these examples are typically comprised of several casks of whisky being vatted together, so in the looser sense of the word, they’re all ‘blends’ to some degree (we’re not talking about single cask whisky here). The grain used will have a big impact on the texture and flavour of the resulting whisky. Grain whisky tends to have a lighter creamier profile (when the most common options of wheat or corn are used) whilst malt whisky has a chewiness about it.

So, we’ve established single malt is just one style of whisky and a key aspect that defines it, but what’s the answer to the question? Put simply, there can be some poor single malts and some fantastic blends and grains, and vice versa! The quality is down to the processes adopted during production and the calibre of casks used for maturation; there is not an inherent superiority to single malt whisky compared to other established categories.

Is Darker Coloured Whisky Better?

The colour of whisky is a result of two processes:

  • the type of cask used
  • whether the producer has artificially coloured the whisky and to what degree

Yes, that’s right, a lot of producers may artificially colour their whisky! The process is tasteless and odourless in the small quantities that are used, but it is a contentious point for the whisky connoisseur. Some whiskies are clear about their absence of artificial colouring on the labelling, but largely it takes some investigation to establish whether the colour is natural.

Other to that, the colour will be a result of how the wood is treated and what contents the cask previously held. For example, an old wine cask may impart a pinkish tint to the whisky whereas an old sherry cask may give darker and browner colours. Whisky that is incredibly dark may actually be quite overbearing, giving overly dry and bitter tannic notes. Then there are bourbons and rye whiskies, which are always natural colour and use a charred virgin oak cask, imparting a deep brown colour that is entirely from the treatment of the wood rather than any previous occupants of the cask.

On the other end of the spectrum there is pale whisky, and for anyone who has ever tried an Islay whisky, you’ll know that paler does not necessarily mean lighter in flavour! A pale whisky can be spicy, smoky, creamy, sweet and much more, depending on the casks used and style of spirit, though it will be unlikely to have deep tannic bitterness of a highly active cask.

Is darker better? Well, you may be noticing a pattern here: darker is just different. It may sometimes be indicative of the type of flavours you can expect, but it isn’t the full story. Again, this all comes down to what flavours you want to experience.

What Should I Take From This?

There’s a phrase often used in the whisky community: the best whisky is the one in your hand. If you enjoy it, then it’s a good whisky. It doesn’t matter whether you add ice or a mixer, whether it’s dark or pale, whether it’s single malt or a grain whisky; if you enjoy that whisky then ignore those who tell you otherwise.

There are lots of other whisky myths out there, like do the peaty/smoky flavours in some whiskies come from peat in the water (short version – no – it is all from the drying of the barley), that we’ll look to answer in further blogs, but hopefully this guide equips you with some of the tools to have the confidence in enjoying your whisky the right way for you.

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