A guide to drinking (and enjoying) whisky

Whisky has become the drink du jour with dedicated bars popping up here, there, and everywhere. Here’s how to taste, sip, and enjoy the honey-coloured spirit like a pro.

No longer reserved for Don Draper and the suited, cigar-smoking gentlemen of the world—whisky has become the drink of choice for foodies everywhere.

Whisky is a wonderful winter tipple with complex flavours that can be paired perfectly with cheese, chocolate, charcuterie, and more. Styles and distilling traditions differ from country to country, and the taste of a glass on the rocks or neat can be anything from smokey, sweet, floral, woody, earthy, or all of the above. 

To help you navigate the wonderful world of whisky, we spoke to bar manager and bourbon aficionado at NOLA in Sydney, Glen Wheeler for a quick rundown of what's what when it comes to whisky. 

What is whisky and what's it made of?

Whisky is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain mash. It can be produced from a wide variety of grains including corn, rye, wheat, barley (un-malted and malted), oat and millet.

All bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Explain?

Whisky is a category of spirit. Bourbon is a particular style of whisky that is subject to a strict set of rules regarding ingredients, alcoholic strength (A.B.V), ageing, and labelling.

What does the age on a whisky bottle mean?

The Age Statement on a bottle refers to the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend or bottle. For example, if a 15-year-old whisky is blended with an 18-year-old, then the age statement would read 15-year-old.

Unlike wine, whisky doesn't continue to age in a bottle—so a 10-year-old won't become a 30-year-old whisky 20 years after you've bought it. 

What’s the difference between single malt and blended whiskies? Is one better than the other?

Single malt refers to whisky or a blend of whiskies produced in pot stills at a single distillery. Blended whisky, blended malt, or vatted malt refers to a blend of single malt whiskies from multiple distilleries. People often associate single malt whisky with higher quality but in actual fact, they are simply a different style of whisky.

Single malts are designed to exemplify a single distillery's style and will vary slightly from year to year while a blended whiskey is designed to be a consistent product.

Why are some whiskies spelt with an 'e' and some not?

The spelling will change depending on where the whisky has been made. The general rule is that American whisky is spelt with an 'e' (whiskey). Scottish, Canadian, Japanese, and Australian whiskies are spelt without the 'e' (whisky). 

What is peat and why is it significant in whisky?

Found in the bogs, mires, and moors of Scotland, peat is partially decayed vegetation and organic matter that's been compressed in the ground for thousands of years. It burns similarly to coal and is used in the drying process in the production of whisky.

To stop the germination of barley or damp malt, peat is burned underneath the grains for a set period of time. It gives whisky a distinct smokey flavour, and the peatiest whiskies (like Lagavulin or Laphroaig, for example), the grains will have been dried over burning peat for a longer time.  

What's the best way to taste whisky? 

Tasting whisky is different to tasting wine. Don't immediately throw your nose into the glass to smell and inhale the whisky—a nip will be much boozier than a glass of vino, so you'll be smacked with the alcohol instead of slowly absorbing the whisky's flavour profile. 

Swirl first, and sniff the scent at the top of the glass. Take note of the colour and the viscosity. Try a small sip and taste the whisky, savouring the flavour and textures in your mouth before swallowing. 

What’s the best way to drink it—neat or with ice?

In my opinion, the best way to taste whiskey is by drinking it neat. This way the drinker has the opportunity to taste the unadulterated product. The next step would be to add a drop or two of chilled filtered water to open it up. At the end of the day, whiskey should be drunk however you like.

Which foods pair well with whisky?

Whisky is a fantastic option for pairing with food. The various flavour profiles can pair beautifully with any course.

Light, fragrant whiskies will pair well with sushi, smoked salmon, and soft, creamy cheeses. Medium bodied whiskies will go fantastically with smoked meats, bacon, and paté. The heavier, richer and peaty whiskies are best matched with dark chocolate, anchovies, or blue cheese. 

There are lots of new, smaller distilleries popping up all around the world. Do you have any favourites?

A few of my favourite distilleries at the moment are Buffalo Trace, Stein, Heaven Hill, Seven Stills, Breuckelen Distilling, Von Brunt, Lost Spirits, and Green Briar Distillery. 

NOLA has the largest collection of American whiskies in the country (more than 600). If you're not partaking in Dry July, head to NOLA for Rye July, where you'll be able to learn about (and taste) NOLA's selection of rye whiskies. 

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