Tomorrow it’s the annual Oslo Whisky Festival, organized by the very enthusiastic Chris Maile. When it came to brown liquor, I used to be a cognac drinker, but after a visit to the festival a few years ago, whisky became an excellent alternative. Since then I’ve been there with good friends every year, except for last year, when I accidentally went to London with Anniken and her family instead. I tend to enjoy the milder whisky brands, without that intense smell, taste and aftertaste of smoke that some of the brands have. But I’m still open to give them a second (or maybe even third) try, though. That’s the great thing about the Oslo Whisky Festival, it gives you the opportunity to try brands that you’d never had to chance sample anywhere else. Japanese whisky, for instance. Interesting stuff.

Even though I enjoy the odd glass, I really don’t know anything about whisky, which is a bit quite embarrassing. To top it off, I’ve only bought a single bottle of it all my life, a The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky, which sits half full in my liquor cabinet. I can hear Kristoffer1 laughing all the way from the other side of the country. So, to actually be a little prepared for tomorrow, I decided to read up on some basic whisky knowledge. Here’s my quick “Whisky for Newbie Nosers” (which is mostly ripped off Wikipedia):

First, let’s start off easy with a video. It’s a few minutes long - and a commercial for Johnnie Walker - but it’s very well done. And it’s got bag pipes. I love bag pipes.

Whisky is an anglicization of a Goidelic name (Irish: uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic: uisge beatha) literally meaning “water of life”. Interesting, since the word aquavit, another great liquor, is derived from Latin aqua vītae, which is also “water of life.” From this I choose to understand that drinking both whisky and aquavit is really good for your health!

Whisky is made from fermented grain mash. Different grains are used for different varieties, including barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and maize (corn). It’s is aged in wooden casks, made generally of charred white oak, except that in the United States corn whiskey need not be aged. The typical unifying characteristics of the different classes and types of whisky are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wood. Indian whisky is an exception, where grain fermentation is not a requirement and the most common basis is fermented molasses.

Malts and grains are combined in various ways:

  • Blended malt is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labeled “pure malt” or just “malt” it is almost certain to be a vatted whisky. This was formerly called a “vatted malt” whisky.
  • Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. However, unless the whisky is described as “single-cask” it will contain whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognizable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Nikka), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
  • Blended whiskies are typically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often along with neutral spirits, caramel and flavoring. A whisky simply described as Scotch, Irish, or Canadian Whiskey is most likely to be a blend. A blend is usually from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavor consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. Jameson Irish Whiskey is an example of an exception, as it comes from only one distillery. A mixture of malts (with no grain) from different distilleries (more usually called a vatted malt) may sometimes be referred to as a “blended malt”, and a mixture of grain whiskies with no malts will sometimes carry the designation “blended grain”.
  • Cask strength (also known as Barrel proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted. Rather than diluting, the distiller is inviting the drinker to dilute to the level of potency most palatable (often no dilution is necessary, such is the quality of single cask whiskies).
  • Single cask (also known as Single barrel) whiskies are usually bottled by specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, amongst others. Each bottle of a single-barrel whisky is from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labeled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of such whiskies may substantially vary from cask to cask within a brand.

Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been in bottle for many years may have a rarity value, but are not “older” and will not necessarily be “better” than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time. Beyond an age of a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel will also not necessarily make a whisky “better”.

Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries – although the strength can vary, and cask strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.

So, there you have it - everything you need to know to avoid looking like a total idiot if you ever start discussing whisky with anyone. I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to a really greasy burger at Beach Club and then three hours of whisky sampling tomorrow.

  1. Dude, if you’re reading this, you should really come next year. We’ve got a spare bed you can use. Bring the missus. ↩︎