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The Robert Graham 1874 beginner’s guide to whisky

23 August 2023

The Robert Graham 1874 Beginner's Guide to Whisky

Our quick guide for beginners covers the basics of whisky, including the different types and regions. With this knowledge, you'll feel confident exploring the vast world of whisky and finding your perfect dram.

Firstly, the official definition of whisky:

whisky (noun /ˈwɪ

A spirit distilled from grains, usually barley, corn, rye or wheat. Most legal definitions require a minimum time spent in wooden casks (3 years in the UK) and a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume.

To begin, let's distinguish between whisky and whiskey. The main guideline is that whisky is spelt if the spirit is from Scotland, Japan, or Canada. It's whiskey whether it's made in the United States or Ireland.

Scotch whisky is distinguished by the fact that it is produced in Scotland and matured for at least three years in oak barrels. The bulk of Whisky is now matured in used bourbon barrels, with sherry and other used casks also contributing. Whisky is normally distilled twice, and the spirit is classified into numerous categories.

  • Single Malt: Single malt Scotch whisky refers to whisky that is made solely from malted barley, and is produced at a single distillery.
  • Single Grain: Single grain whisky is made at a single distillery, but incorporates additional grains in the mash bill beyond malted barley. Single grain whisky is a rare commodity on its own since most is used in blends.
  • Blended Malt: Blended malt whisky is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Grain: A blend of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries. As with single grain whisky, this too is a very small category for Scotch.
  • Blended Scotch: A blend of one or more single malts with one or more single grains. The vast majority of Scotch sold around the world is blended.

Scotch Regions

There are five official Scotch regions, and a sixth which deserves a separate mention.

  1. Campbeltown: Once home to dozens of distilleries, Campbeltown now has only three distilleries still operating and is the smallest whisky producing region in Scotland.
  2. Highlands: The largest geographical region, the Highlands are well represented with brands such as The Macallan, Oban, Old Pulteney, and Glenmorangie.
  3. Islay: Home to big, smoky, peaty, salty whiskies, such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig. In total, the small island has eight distilleries, also including Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Kilchoman and Lagavulin.
  4. Lowlands: Meets the border of the Highlands; the line follows the old county borders running from the Clyde estuary in the west to the River Tay in the east. Anything south of this to the border with England is classified as the 'Lowlands' in whisky terms.
  5. Speyside: Speyside has the largest collection of distilleries of any Scotch region, about half of the country's total. That includes many of its most iconic brands as well, such as The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour and Balvenie
  6. Islands: The unofficial sixth region is the Islands, which represents all of the islands except for Islay. That includes distilleries such as Highland Park, Talisker and Arran.

Whiskey from Ireland

Irish whiskey, like Scotch, must be made in Ireland and must be at least three years old. However, differences occur from there. Most Irish whiskey, for example, is triple distilled. Another technical distinction between Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky is that distillers in Ireland can use enzymes to convert starches to sugars prior to fermentation.

Although Ireland's categories are less strict than those of Scotland, a distiller must add the term "blended" to any product that contains two or more separately distilled whiskeys. Blended Irish whisky accounts for the vast majority of the market.

Single pot still whiskey is a type of Irish whiskey created in a single distillery using a pot still and a combination of malted and unmalted barley.

American Whiskey

  • Bourbon: Bourbon is an American whiskey which contains a minimum of 51 percent corn, and is aged in charred, new oak barrels. The mandate that bourbon rest in only new oak barrels is a key reason why used bourbon barrels end up aging Scottish whisky, amongst other products.
  • Rye: American rye whiskey must be made with a minimum of 51 percent rye. Like bourbon, it has to be aged in charred, new oak barrels. Similarly, wheat whiskey must have a minimum of 51 percent wheat.
  • Tennessee Whiskey: An offshoot of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is actually its own category. Laws require that it has to be produced in Tennessee, and meet the requirements of a bourbon. Prior to aging though, it undergoes an extra charcoal filtering process known as the "Lincoln County Process." Jack Daniel's dominates the category.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky is commonly labeled as "rye whisky," even though it doesn't meet the American definition of having a minimum of 51 percent rye. It actually, legally speaking, Canadian "rye whisky" may not have any rye at all.

Instead, the spirit is based on the tradition of Canadian whisky, known for its rye flavoring and profile. Most Canadian whisky today actually incorporates a much higher percentage of corn than rye. This is achieved by blending, using a small percentage of rye, or rye heavy whiskey to flavor a blend made from bourbon-style whiskies and other grain whiskies.

Also, a straight Canadian rye whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in 700-liter wooden barrels.

Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky has gained popularity of late, but it's far from new. When Masataka Taketsuru returned to Japan from Scotland in the early 1920s, having studied distilling, he, in essence, became responsible for the birth of Japanese whisky, including the Yamazaki and Nikka brands directly. Beyond these two, other notable brands include Hibiki and Hakushu.

Japanese whisky is largely made in the fashion of Scottish Whisky, and there are Japanese single malts as well as Japanese blended whiskies.

We hope you find this guide useful, we appreciate that Whisky can be an intimidating tipple, however here at Robert Graham 1874 we can help you on your journey. Curating the bottles to suit your preference and showcasing the best drams to satisfy your tastebuds.

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