Whiskey 101: Luxury drinking explained
Graduate from being a casual whiskey appreciator to a discerning connoisseur. Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between Scotch, Bourbon, Single Malt and Blended whiskeys, and why some whiskeys cost the same as a deposit on a small house.
Lesson #1: What is whiskey?
The first thing you need to know about whiskey is that all types of whiskey (scotch, bourbon and rye) are made from fermented grain mash, but three things determine which variety you’re drinking. These are
1) where the whiskey is made,
2) what grains are used in the mash, and
3) how it’s aged.
Impress your friends with this fun fact: in anglicised Gaelic, “Whiskey” translates to “the water of life.”
Lesson #2: What are the differences between Scotch, Bourbon and Irish whiskey?
What gives scotch its distinctive smokey flavour, while Irish whiskey tastes ‘cleaner’? For one, the malted barley that goes into scotch gets roasted over peat fires, while the Irish do it over charcoal or gas. Secondly, scotch is double distilled, whereas Irish whiskey is generally triple distilled.
But when it comes to the basics, we’ve put together a quick guide on the differences between the world’s three most popular whiskey types: Scotch, Bourbon and Irish Whiskey.
- Made in Scotland
- Malted barley is the main ingredient and not corn, wheat or rye
- Aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks
- Made in the USA
- The grain mash used for bourbon must be made up of at least 51% corn
- Aged for a minimum of 2 years in new oak casks
- Made in Ireland
- Like scotch, Irish whiskey is made from mostly malted barley
- Aged for a minimum of 3 years in wooden casks
Lesson #3: So, what is rye whiskey, then?
Short answer, rye whiskey is made from rye, which is a kind of grass found in the wheat family.
Using whiskey from the United States as an example, rye whiskey must be made of a mash from 51% rye (as opposed to bourbon which is made from 51% corn). The result is that these whiskeys are heavier, spicier, and more bittersweet than bourbon.
Lesson #4: Single Malt, say what?
Every kind of whiskey, whether it’s scotch, bourbon, or rye, can be single malt.
Single malt whiskeys come from the same batch at one distillery. In short, a single malt scotch is made from a single batch of 100% malted barley at a single distillery, and the same goes for Irish whiskey. However, bourbon is slightly different.
Instead of single malt, when bourbon is made from the same batch it’s called single barrel. But since bourbon by definition only has to be 51% corn (the rest of the mash can be a mixture of any other grains), single barrel bourbon does not mean it’s 100% corn.
Despite these pedantic definitions, single malt scotch and single barrel bourbon are superior whiskeys. Everything from the type of water used and the soil type in which the grains are grown to the flavours imparted by the wood casks add to the distinctive characteristics in these whiskeys.
Sip on this: In 2013, Makro sold a bottle of 50-year-old Glenfiddich single malt whiskey for R300 000, a price unheard of at the time. Considering it equated to R10 000 per tot, it’s not a bad price to pay for a whiskey that has matured for half a century, and for which there are only 50 bottles released each year.
Lesson #5: Blended Whiskeys
Compared to a limited edition bottle of Chivas’ Royal Salute Tribute to Honour, R300 000 is chump change. At R2 million, this is the most expensive whiskey in the world, proof that blended whiskeys are up there with the finest single malts.
But for now, forget the rarest whiskeys in the world and focus on the most popular: From Jack Daniels to Jameson and Johnnie Walker, these famous brands are blended from multiple single malt or single barrel whiskeys, which, when combined, create a well-rounded, lighter and smoother flavour.
While there are no rules when it comes to blended whiskeys, blending is an art form in its own right (Tribute to Honour is a case in point). You can blend whiskeys from the same grain or from a variety of grains. You can blend whiskeys from multiple distilleries across the world. If it’s done right, a blended whiskey will give you the best of what whiskey has to offer: flavour.
Lesson #6: Whiskey Appreciation
Just because everyone in the movies drinks their whiskey neat doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best way to appreciate the flavour. When you add water to whiskey, the surface tension decreases allowing citrus and fruit flavours to come to the forefront, while adding ice to your whiskey allows the sweeter notes to come through.
Next time you take a sip of whiskey, note the flavours. Look out for sweet, spicy, vanilla, wood, leather, dried fruit, smoke, and earth tones.
Lesson # 7: The Tasting Room
Want to learn to appreciate whiskey? Here’s our list of whiskeys you have to try:
Bourbon: Treat your taste buds to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Collectors Tennessee Whiskey at only R1 999,00.
Irish Whiskey: Jameson has outdone themselves with this offering: a bottle of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve Irish Whiskey is yours for the drinking at R4 199,95.
Blended whiskey: Okay, it’s not the Tribute to Honour (which, by the way, comes encrusted in black and white diamonds) but the Chivas Royal Salute 21 year old Blended Scotch Whiskey will give you some bragging rights at R2 399,00.
Single malt whiskey: For a great introduction to the artistry of single malt whiskey, sip on the distinctive scotch flavours of Aberlour 18 year old Highland Single Malt. This gorgeous bottle will only set you back R1 299,95.
Why not put your money where your mouth is and swirl a glass of Balvenie 50 year old Speyside Single Malt? At only R539 999,00 at Makro online, it’s a steal (or is that daylight robbery?). Let us know when you have a bottle, we’ll gladly help you decide.
The History of Whiskey in South Africa
Andy Watts from the Sedgewick Distellery gave us a historial timeline on the journey whiskey has taken:-
The South African Whisky industry on the other hand is much younger and key milestones are listed below.
- The first record of distillation in South Africa was in 1672 although this was brandy.
- H. Nellmapius built the first distillery on the farm Hetherley, east of Pretoria. This distillery produced gin and whisky. In 1881 he negotiated a concession with the Transvaal Government giving him the sole right to distill alcoholic liquor from corn and other sources. The distillery was named: “De Eerste Fabrieken”. The distillery was opened by President Paul Kruger on June 6th 1883.
- Nellmapius died in 1893 and the concession was taken over by Sammy Marks and his cousin Isaac Lewis.
- In 1897, in an attempt to improve the quality of the product they advertised in European papers for an “experienced distiller”. The advert was seen by a 33 yr old man René Santhagens who was working as a distiller in Cognac. René Santhagens was a great success making whisky from grain.
- There was no time for maturation, as all the mining community wanted was strong liquor.
- The outbreak of the Anglo Boer War in 1899 brought an end to the production of liquor. At the end of the war the British cancelled the concession.
- The Santhagens returned briefly to Europe. On their return he settled in the Cape and started distilling brandy.
- It took until 1952 before the next commercially launched whisky came onto the market under the name Tops. The Tops distillery (named after Mr A W Tops) was situated at Wemmershoek (Paarl) in the Cape and experienced some short lived success.
- However, excise duties over 200% higher than that on brandy, soon pushed the operation into insolvency.
- Mid 60’s Donald Robertson & Noel Buxton built a small relatively modern distillery on the farm Groote Zalze in the Lynedoch district outside Stellenbosch.
- This distillery was called the R & B Distillery
- In 1972 the SFW group (Stellenbosch Farmers Winery) bought this distillery for experimental purposes. This ensured the continued production of whisky in South Africa and the launch of Three Ships in 1977. South Africa’s first commercially successful whisky.
- The small R & B Distillery could not handle the increased production and the operations were moved to the James Sedgwick Distillery in 1990.
- The James Sedgwick Distillery is currently the only fully commercial whisky distillery on the continent of Africa.
There are certain key dates throughout the history of whiskey and below are just a few:
- 1690 – Earliest reference to a distillery – Ferintosh distillery.
- 1707 – Malt tax imposed- age of illicit distilling
- 1823 – Act of Parliament- new tax laws, which encouraged distillation to become legal – 14,000 illicit stills were discovered!
- Once the distillers had been identified then Customs & Excise men were positioned on site
- 1874 – only 6 illicit stills discovered
- 1830 – Invention of the “Patent Still” or “Coffey Still” by Aeneas Coffey an Irish Customs Officer
- 1860 – Excise permitted the blending of whiskies from the different distilleries.
- 1880’s – the phylloxera beetle devastated the vineyards of France. Within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared. The Scots were quick to take advantage and Scotch Whisky replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.
- 1907 – the blending of malt & grain whiskies became legal
- 1915 – Whisky maturation became compulsory
- 1994 – Scotch Whisky 500 years old.