(This article is sponsored by Hopscotch.)
When we think of your typical whisky drinker, we tend to imagine a character from Mad Men–the sort of guy who wears a smoking jacket in the manner it was intended, as he lounges in his large, leather armchair—dram in hand. His importance, along with the dense aroma of his cigar, lingers in the air around him.
We can thank the likes of Winston Churchill and James Bond who have helped build whisky’s reputation as the gentleman’s drink. But it turns out that the enjoyment of a “wee dram” extends far beyond the stereotype. In fact, both Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher were partial to a tipple of scotch.
Also, it’s 2017.
So whether you’re Jon Hamm or you just feel like going HAM into something new, there’s a whisky for everyone. And ahead of Vancouver’s Hopscotch, the city’s ultimate festival of libations, later this month, we’ve rounded up a few tips to get you into the spirit—pun intended.
At its base, whisky is an alcoholic drink made from a fermented grain mash that is then aged in wooden casks, giving it its distinctive taste. Beyond geography, look out for variation in colour and flavour setting different whiskies apart.
With Scotch, you can expect a strong, earthy smokiness due to the peat which is added during the malting process. You might also notice that there are two different types of Scotch: single malt and blended. A single malt comes from a single distillery, although the whisky may have been aged in different casks. A blended whisky is made from a blend of single malts. Simply put, single malts tend to be more expensive and are meant to be enjoyed without a mixer, while blended Scotch is often used in cocktails.
Irish whiskey (spelled with the “e”) is triple-distilled which gives it its smooth, velvety finish and makes it a perfect whisky for sipping. While it follows much the same process as a Scotch, it must be aged for three years to be legally categorized as whisky. But you won’t find the strong peaty flavour you’d get in its Scottish cousin.
Still, if you’re a newcomer to whisky, then a bourbon might be a good place to start. The Kentucky creation is the sweetest of all the whiskies due to the high corn content in the mash. It’s then aged in charred oak casks lending it a caramelized smoky palate and darker colour.
But if you’re less sugar and more spice, then you might also consider a rye, often referred to as Canadian whisky. The rye in the mash gives it its dry, grainy and peppery flavour. It is typically lighter in taste and colour than its American counterpart, and also milder than a Scotch or Irish whisky.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time for the fun part. To truly taste a whisky, you need to start with your nose, which is why the glassware is so important. A proper Glencairn whisky glass has a heavy, rounded, bowl-like bottom which allows you to swirl the whisky around. The tapered edges then help direct the aromas into your nose.
You can add water to your whisky to help lower strength of the alcohol and allow the flavours to come through. Experts would recommend adding a drop at a time until it suits your preference.
And while connoisseurs might enjoy their whisky neat, there are also lots of cocktails, which, when done well, can help enhance the flavours of the whisky. Take for example, an Old Fashioned which is bourbon-based. A cube of sugar helps emphasize the whisky’s sweetness; the bitters brings out the smokiness; and the orange peel accentuates the fruitiness.
With so many different types of whisky and ways to drink it, it’s no surprise that its popularity has grown exponentially in recent years. And for a drink that was once appraised by its age statement, this has posed quite a challenge for whisky producers. After all, no one could have anticipated the increased demand 20 years ago. But out of challenge comes creativity, which in the case of whisky, is No Age Statement Whisky (NAS). This allows distilleries to blend single malts of different ages without being bound by a specific year. Whisky must still be aged for at least three years, but NAS has inspired experimentation in different types of wood barrels to create new and distinct flavours, while still maintaining the quality aficionados expect from a vintage.