A Beginner's Guide to Whisky: How to Buy and Taste Whisky Like an ExpertScotland is world-famous for its whisky production. The prestigious spirit is well and truly part of the country’s lifeblood, but it can also be a complex enigma that many connoisseurs still seek the answers to today.
Here at The House of Bruar, we’re proud to be the home of Scottish country fashion, food, and drink – and whisky is no exception. Our Whisky Shop stocks over 180 of the best Scotch whisky brands and is an oasis of indulgence where whisky sommeliers and novices alike can share their passion for the water of life.
That’s why we’re sharing our complete guide to whisky to help introduce you to the right blend, explain the nuances of tasting, and answer any common queries along the way.
We also spoke with Martin Homola – our in-house whisky expert and Whisky Shop Manager who holds a coveted Single Malt Whisky Diploma from Edinburgh Whisky Academy – who shared his specialist advice and recommendations to help demystify the world of whisky.
ContentsEssentially, whisky is a type of distilled spirit. It’s made from a range of malted grains like barley, corn, rye, or wheat and is traditionally aged for several years in wooden casks.
The method of distillation, grain of choice, and length of ageing result in many different types of whisky. For example, single malt, Bourbon, and blended are a few common variations you may have heard of.
The difference between the two spellings is a nod towards where the spirit was produced.
Whisky produced in the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, Canada, and India will usually be spelt without the ‘e’. If the spirit is distilled in the United States or Ireland, it is commonly spelt with the ‘e’.
While whisky is produced all over the globe, there are a handful of areas renowned for their distilleries. These are known as whisky ‘regions’. Whisky is often categorised by these regions as a way of differentiating between flavour profiles because each region will have its own distinct methods of production.
Some of the most prestigious regions are:
America – The American whiskey region is particularly famed for its Bourbon, distilled from corn for at least two years, and Tennessee whiskey, which must legally undergo a unique filtration process that sees the liquid dripped through sugar maple charcoal.
Japan – The Japanese whisky industry is relatively young compared to its western counterparts, however, it’s a burgeoning region that’s quickly establishing its name due to its notably fragrant and delicate flavour. There are slight differences in the production process, like using barrels made of the prestigious and extremely rare Mizunara oak, which gives Japanese whisky unique nuances that are not found elsewhere.
Ireland – Ireland is long believed to be the birthplace of whiskey. The oldest recorded mention of the spirit was found here, dating back to 1405. It’s also the site of the world’s oldest licensed whisky distillery. Irish whiskey differs from Scottish whisky as it is usually triple-distilled to create a lighter taste.
Scotland – The home of Scotch, and broadly used synonymously with whisky, Scotland is arguably the best-known whisky region in the world. While Scotch is produced in various subregions throughout the country, the spirit is typically known for its distinctive smoky aroma.
A whisky’s region status is traditionally fiercely protected, with strict rules that dictate that whisky must be distilled in that country to be granted as from that region.
Despite some of these key countries having their own subregions, Scotland’s are most prominent and established in their own right.
Martin talks us through them: “There are five main whisky regions in Scotland: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. However, some sources will split the Highlands region into two – Highlands and Islands.”
These regions have rich histories of whisky distillation, but this has shifted in recent years as distilleries adjust to meet consumer demand.
“Each region used to have its own distinctive flavour,” explains Martin. “Five to ten years ago, we could easily identify each whisky region by taste. Speyside produced smooth whisky that was light and easy to drink, Islay was known for a more heavily peated, smoky, and robust flavour, whereas Highlands whisky was somewhere between the two in terms of taste and character.”
“However, this is not the case today. A global increase in demand for Scottish single malts has pushed most of the distilleries to produce each and every whisky profile to satisfy its customers,” reveals Martin. “This is a fast-moving trend that not everyone is aware of.”
Due to this, the Scotch industry is seeing a loss of these defined subregions specialising in their distinct whisky profiles for which they’re famed. “We cannot say anymore that, for example, all whiskies from Islay are peaty and smoky, as now we can find much lighter versions in most Islay distillery portfolios. This applies for each region and most of its distilleries.”
However, there are some exceptions that Martin tells us about. “Glenfarclas and Macallan distilleries stick with their long-running heritage of creating unpeated, sherry-matured whisky – known as sherry bombs.”
Peated, or peat, is a term you may often hear in the Scotch whisky industry. Historically, peat-fueled hearths and distilleries in Scotland. Peat fires released smoky compounds that lent a distinct and intense profile to whisky.
Knowing the whisky regions is the first step in understanding the complex layers of this illustrious alcohol. Next comes the styles or types.
One of the most popular styles that you will see on a whisky bottle is ‘single’, whether it be a single malt or single grain. The ‘single’ means that the spirit was produced in only one distillery.
Types of Scottish whisky
Like its subregions, Scotch also has many variations and types – but a particular stipulation applies to them all to class as a Scottish whisky. “They must be a minimum of 40% in alcohol by volume,” explains Martin. He talks us through the five Scotch types:
Single malt whisky
“Single malt whisky is made in one distillery using only water, yeast, and 100% malted barley, but sometimes tasteless caramel can be added for colouring. It is matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years in Scotland.”
Blended malt whisky
“Blended malt is a fusion of single malt whisky from more than one distillery. Maturation tends to be three or more years.”
Single grain whisky
“Single grain whisky is made in one distillery using water and malted barley together with whole grains or any other type of malted or unmalted cereals. It is matured for over three years in Scotland.”
Blended grain whisky
“Blended grain is a mixture of single grain whisky from more than one distillery, matured for a minimum of three years in Scotland.”
“Blended whisky is made in more than one distillery. It’s a mixture of single malt and grain whisky. It’s matured for three or more years in Scotland.”
Other types of whisky
Scottish whisky may have some of the more popular types, however, there are many more styles worldwide, such as:
“Bourbon must be made in the US using a minimum of 51% corn and only water can be added. It must be matured for at least two years in new charred barrels,” explains Martin.
While Bourbon gets its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky, it can be produced in any American state. After it has aged, the charred oak barrels cannot be used for another batch of Bourbon, but they are sometimes used in the production of other types of whiskey and spirits – like tequila and rum – afterwards.
“Rye is the same as Bourbon, except it is made from a minimum of 51% rye.”
Rye whiskey is also commonly known as ‘Canadian whisky’ as, at one point in history, most of Canada’s whisky production was distilled from the rye grain. The grain lends an unmistakable spice and slight bitterness.
Single pot still whiskey
“Single pot still whiskey is made in Ireland from malted and unmalted barley, which is distilled in pot stills. It is matured for at least three years,” Martin tells us.
These traditional pot stills, or closed kilns, are pivotal for keeping the temperature of the spirit low. This preserves the whiskey’s delicate honey-like flavour. Once it has been distilled, single pot whiskey is often aged in ex-Bourbon barrels.
Once you’ve established the whisky region and how it was made, it is time to learn the main whisky flavour profiles achieved as a result.
Many different profiles can be made by using traditional and contemporary ingredients, but a few of the most popular flavours are:
Light – characterised by fresh fruit and soft spices
Rich – more robust spices, dried fruits, and decadent dessert-like flavours
Smoky (or peaty) – with a peppery bite and cigar leaves
Fruity – clean, fresh fruit notes
Floral – fresh, grassy, and herbal
Typically, a whisky will have a dominant profile but also share characteristics of others too.
The process of whisky production is an art form, resulting in an abundance of nuances that many ardent devotees dedicate years to truly understanding.
But, you don’t have to be a seasoned expert to appreciate whisky. There are some additional characteristics that any novice can look out for to help gain a deeper understanding of this celebrated tipple.
The colour of a whisky can tell us a lot about its flavour.
“The colour of whisky comes from the cask in which it has been matured in,” explains Martin. “This means that if a whisky is light, pale, or gold in colour, the maturation has likely taken place in a Bourbon, white wine, or any other white spirit barrel, including newly introduced tequila casks. Darker-coloured whisky usually comes from sherry, red wine, port, or dark rum casks.”
It’s widely believed that the deeper and darker the hue, the more mature and intense the spirit will be. However, there are many exceptions to this, and colour can sometimes be deceiving.
“Some people believe that the darker-coloured the whisky, the older and, therefore, better it is. However, this is just a myth and is not true,” states Martin. “It is important to mention that in Scotland, distilleries are allowed to use tasteless caramel as a colouring.”
A whisky's viscosity, or body, simply refers to how thick it is.
Whisky can have a light, medium, or full body; light means that it has a thinner viscosity and flows quickly in the bottle, whereas a full bodied-whisky has a thicker viscosity and tends to cling to the sides of your glass. More viscous spirits will have ‘legs’ that drip slowly when swirled.
When discussing the thickness of a whisky, it doesn’t necessarily relate to how it will taste but more so the sensation it has when drunk.
Many factors cause viscosity, but the most common ones are:
Alcohol by volume percentage (ABV) – This is a standard measure of how much pure ethanol there is in a given amount of alcohol.
“While the ABV does affect whisky viscosity, a higher ABV does not necessarily mean it has a higher viscosity,” Martin explains. “Whisky reaches its viscosity peak at around 40-50% ABV, then declines.”
Level of esters (congener) – Congeners refer to the other compounds found in alcohol, apart from ethanol. Esters are an example of a congener and they form in the whisky production process. Esters are responsible for adding a fruity profile.
“The more esters there are in a whisky, the higher its viscosity,” says Martin.
Type of stills used – “Column stills will create a low viscosity spirit as they remove more esters during fermentation. This creates a purer whisky that’s thinner.”
Pot stills, such as the ones used in Irish single pot still whiskey, usually help to preserve the heavier congeners, giving the whisky a higher viscosity.
Maturation – “During maturation, the ethanol will react with the chemicals in the wooden barrens, creating more esters,” Martin reveals. “Which means that if the whisky is moved or rolled in its cask during maturation, it will increase the level of esters and viscosity.”
Type of barley used – While many Scotch whiskies use pure malted barley, unmalted barley is more commonly known for its use in Irish single pot still whiskey. The unmalted barley can cause the liquid to become more viscous. As with all things whisky-related, properly tasting this tipple requires care.
It may be daunting to a beginner, but our recommendations will help you to appreciate many of the complexities of any whisky.
1. The temperature
It all starts with the temperature of the whisky.
“It is recommended to drink whisky neat, on its own, at room temperature,” Martin explains. “By adding ice or chilling whisky using other methods, some flavours will get locked inside and drinkers won’t be able to experience the full potential of the dram.”
“A few drops of water can be added to bring the whisky to room temperature and open up its flavour profile.” The best way to add water is with a whisky water dropper as it’s specifically designed to add the right amount of liquid.
2. The glass
The water of life deserves to be enjoyed in glassware as revered as the spirit itself, which is why the Scotch Whisky Association endorses the Glencairn Glass as the official glass for drinking whisky.
“The Glencairn Glass is designed to mimic the shape of stills for maximum satisfaction during nosing and drinking,” explains Martin. “The wider bowl at the bottom of this glass allows the drinker to appreciate the whisky’s colour and body, while the tapered mouth captures and concentrates the aromas.”
“Some cherry (copita) glasses are often recommended to use, too, as they are very good for nosing. They will sometimes come with a lid to keep all the important aromas inside until you’re ready to take a sip.”
Nosing means breathing in the whisky to examine its smell. It’s also common when tasting wine.
“After pouring the whisky into the glass, the drinker should first look for the colour and ‘legs’ that form as the liquid runs down the side of the glass. Then, they should smell for aromas.”
Holding the glass too close to your face can cause the ethanol to burn out your nose or cause a ‘prickle’ that prevents you from properly smelling the whisky. Instead, hold your glass just under your nose, swirl it slightly, and breathe in softly.
The scent will change constantly, so take your time to try and capture as many notes as you can. Adding a drop of water can also help to open up the whisky.
“Take a small sip, swirl it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing,” advises Martin.
The different parts of the tongue can pick up different profiles. The front identifies sweet, the sides can locate acidic or saltiness, and the back can taste richer flavour profiles like bitter, spicy, or peaty.
After your first sip, add a water drop to open up the whisky. This may also make it easier to discover more of the whisky’s profiles.
5. The finish
Finally, consider the finish of the whisky. How long can you taste it? Does it linger for a while? Or, how does the flavour change as you swallow it?
“Rich and older whiskies will have longer finish,” says Martin. The finish is often measured by how long the flavour is retained after swallowing, so it’s common to find that you can taste mature whiskies for longer after taking a sip. Lighter or younger variations will have a shorter finish. A dram is a liquid measure for spirits, but it is best known as a measurement for whisky.
While there isn’t an official amount for how much a standard dram is, a dram can be from 25 ml to 35 ml.
“Whisky does not have an expiry date,” Martin confirms. “If it is stored correctly – at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, always upright – it should last for over fifty years.”
Martin also explains that whisky does not necessarily expire after opening it. “Even if a whisky has been opened, it would not go ‘off’. However, it can evaporate and lose some of its tasting profile and colour time. To reduce this, always keep the cork on. An unopened bottle should not change in taste, even when stored for an extended period.”
With many sommeliers collecting rare and exclusive bottles with no intention of drinking them, it can be common for them to remain unopened. There are a few expert measures you can take to keep these collectables at their best.
“If someone is looking to store bottles for a very long time, it is recommended to turn the bottle upside down every three to five years. This is to wet the cork and prevent it from ‘drying off’,” advises Martin. When corks are dry for a long time, they can become brittle and crumble into the whisky. Conversely, if the bottles are kept on their sides in storage, the spirit can also damage the cork, which is why momentarily inverting the bottle prevents these problems.
“For long-term storage of ten or more years, you can seal a bottle's neck and cork area with cling film to avoid evaporation.”
The Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index lists rare whisky as an asset with one of the greatest potential returns – with its value growing by a staggering 478% over the last ten years. Many people are turning to collectable whiskies as long-term investments in a similar way as they may more traditionally have invested in property and artworks.
However, the world of whisky investment can be an enigma to the inexperienced. Knowing how to invest is about connections and contacts, it’s about being in the right place at the right time with the proper awareness about what to buy, where to buy and when to buy and sell.
Determining whether a bottle will become a collectable item is an art form in itself. It’s not necessarily dependent on taste, the distillery’s reputation, or age. A random event can transform the most ordinary bottle into a collectable piece – the collapse of a warehouse roof at Glenfiddich, destroying the majority of casks, turned the surviving bottles into investment gold dust.
Martin explains his main tips for how to begin your whisky investment journey: “Stick with the ‘big’ brands, such as Macallan, Dalmore, Balvenie, Bowmore, or Springbank – over time, well-established distilleries perform extremely well.”
“Look for limited releases, vintages, and bottles which are part of a series. Usually, first releases increase in value the fastest.”
You can also find potential investment opportunities by looking past the brand and name on a bottle. “Look for the bottles with a story behind them, like anniversary bottles, bottles for unique occasions, recently discontinued bottles, or any other story – this will add value to your bottle.”
If you’re ready to put your nosing and tasting to the test, Martin’s shared his best whisky recommendations. To experience flavour profiles from distilleries across the country, Martin has included whiskies from all five regions and expert notes on each.
1. Balvenie 12-Year-Old Doublewood (Speyside)
The Balvenie Distillery started production in 1892 and is dedicated to maintaining its five rare crafts, which include growing their own barley and using original 1929 malting floors.
This 12-year-old version has been matured in American oak bourbon barrels and then finished in Spanish oak sherry casks to create a distinctive character that captures both these wood types.
Notes of: vanilla, honey, fruit
Best for: “This is a great introduction bottle for whisky novices,” recommends Martin.
2. Dalmore 15-Year-Old (Highlands)
Dalmore Distillery has been producing whisky for over 150 years in the Highlands. This bottle of whisky has also been matured in American oak bourbon and Spanish oloroso sherry barrels, but for a longer period of 15 years.
Notes of: orange zest, burning caramel
Best for: “This is a very elegant and smooth dram for any occasion. In particular, its beautiful presentation and elegant bottle make it an excellent gift.”
3. Lagavulin 16-Year-Old (Islay)
The Lagavulin distillery captures the windswept character of the island of Islay and has done so for over 200 years. This malt whisky is an inimitable creation known as the “King of Islay”.
Notes of: peat smoke, sea salt, seaweed
Best for: “This is an absolutely classic Islay malt. It’s very robust and has a smoky character that best suits peat lovers or experienced drinkers.”
4. Highland Park 12-Year-Old (Islands)
Highland Park distillery also imparts a touch of its island environment and Viking heritage into the spirit of its whisky. This bottle boasts a medium body and overall well-rounded malt.
Notes of: sweet peat, honey, a hint of fruit cake
Best for: “I would recommend this for anyone who struggles to choose between peated and unpeated malts.”
5. Auchentoshan Three Wood (Lowlands)
Auchentoshan distillery has a trademarked method of production to produce exceptional whisky. It uses malted optic barley and triple distils all of its malts — the only distillery in Scotland to do so. The result is an incredibly smooth, velvety single malt Scotch.
Notes of: brown sugar, toffee, cinnamon, fruit
Best for: “This one is well-suited for an audience with a lighter palate and beginners.”
6. Glen Scotia 15-Year-Old (Campbeltown)
Glen Scotia is one of the smallest distilleries in the country. They are known to only use Scottish malted barley to retain authentic Glen Scotia maritime character.
Notes of: sea spray, spice, fruit
Best for: “As it comes from a small distillery, this bottle is more difficult to find. It’s one for explorers and avid collectors.
Here at The House of Bruar, we’re proud to house some of the most remarkable and collectable whiskies. Our qualified staff have extensive knowledge of the famous tipple and are always happy to share knowledge with new and experienced whisky lovers alike.
That’s why, along with Martin’s recommendations, we are sharing some of our best-selling whiskies in 2022 so you can see which bottles are most popular amongst our customers.
1. House of Bruar
Our own-label single malt whisky is exclusively made for The House of Bruar by a local distillery and has all the fine character of a traditional Speyside malt. We work with the distillery at each stage of production to ensure that the finished product is of the highest quality; this blend guarantees that every dram is smooth and easy to drink with notes of vanilla and honey — a comforting and our most-popular whisky.
Edradour is local to Pitlochry and is one of the smallest distilleries in the whole country, making their whisky all the more coveted. Their 10 and 12-year-old single malt Scotch and 10-year-old Ballechin are extremely popular at our Whisky Shop, with all their whiskies still made using authentic Victorian methods.
3. Isle of Raasay
While many of the whiskies we stock are from long-established distilleries, the Isle of Raasay is a relatively new distillery that opened in 2016. It is privately owned with a small production, making each bottle instantly collectable. Their lightly peated Hebridean single malt whisky comes in a beautifully presented bottle, making it a popular choice here at The House of Bruar.
GlenAllachie’s 12 and 15-year-old single malt whiskies were released following new ownership of the distillery in 2017. As well as marking a pivotal moment in the producer’s history, this Speyside whisky has an extremely rich character and is one of the best products currently on the market for its price.
The Macallan was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to be legally licensed and it has earned a reputation of being one of the world’s leading makers of single malt whiskies. This 12-year-old double cask is a new flagship whisky for the distillery and is one of our most beloved variations.
Navigating the world of whisky
Whisky is well and truly a celebrated spirit that’s complexities, nuances, and history make it an art form when fully appreciated and properly experienced.
Whether you are entering your own journey into the world of whisky or want to grow your collection, discover our Whisky Shop today.