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A Beginner’s Guide To Whisky

Portrait of handsome bearded brunette man in white shirt and waistcoat standing, holding glass of whiskey


If you’re new to drinking this complex spirit, there’s much to learn!

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Drinking whisky can be a lot like your first kiss. Either you love it or detest it and feel the burn (pun intended). It’s a spirit that many get into for the long haul—as whisky is nuanced and multifarious. It’s often considered to be a ‘grown up’ drink or for those with a taste for all things refined and exquisite. Sipping a glass of bourbon or scotch with your old man is considered to be a rite of passage of sorts into manhood/womanhood. At least some of us were welcomed to adulthood with a customary glass of whiskey by our fathers! Or maybe, you had your first Old Fashioned at a bar with friends. No matter what your first experience with the drink, one thing is certain—that if you give it time—you’ll grow to appreciate and savour a glass of whisky. 

Besides, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a novice or a veteran member of the whisky fan club—there’s always something new to discover and learn. Let’s start with the basics….

What is Whisky?

Portrait of handsome bearded brunette man in white shirt and waistcoat standing, holding glass of whiskey

Simply put, whisky’s an amber-hued distilled spirit made from fermented grains. The most common grains that go into making it are—barley, rye, wheat or corn. A distiller mashes the grains, which releases natural sugars. This is then fermented into alcohol. The alcohol is further distilled to create a potent spirit. A key ingredient in the fermentation process is TIME—the fermented and distilled spirit is aged in wooden casks or barrels (usually oak) before bottling. 

Scotch whiskey bottle, glass and old wooden barrel

This is a crucial step in the process, as it gives whisky its distinct flavour. While each whisky type varies in flavour—it’s usually described as warm, spicy, sweet, caramelly or toasty. Yum! It’s sometimes spelt as ‘whiskey’ (mostly across US and Ireland), but both whiskey and whisky are the same spirit/spirit type!

The Types of Whiskies

Various alcohol bottles in a bar

There are many types of whiskies—based on their place of origin, types of grains used, and their blending or ageing processes. A single-malt whisky comes from a single distillery and only contains one type of malted grain. Whereas, a blended whisky is a mixture of different whiskies, mostly produced by different distilleries. Here are a few popular whisky types to get acquainted with….



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You can have single malts in America, Japan or Ireland, but for it to be Scotch—it MUST be distilled, aged and bottled in Scotland! Scottish law mandates that scotch be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. While single malts are usually made using malted barley, blended Scotches are made from a mash of grains. Scotch receives its smoky character from peat, a dense moss that is lit on fire to dry out the malted barley used in distillation—which gives it a lovely flavour. It’s an exciting time for being a Scotch newbie—as distillers are now experimenting with anything from heavily-peated smoke bombs to sherry-cask whiskies!

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: Blended malts in cocktails and the single malts neat or on the rocks!



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All Bourbon is whiskey, but NOT all whiskey is Bourbon, much like Scotch. Bourbon can only be Bourbon, if it’s made in the States! An American-born whiskey known for its sweet notes—courtesy of its mash (the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled)—which contains at least 51 per cent corn! Kentucky is said to be the epicentre of Bourbon production—and some of the most lauded bottles come from there. The state has extremely cold winters and very hot summers—which plays a huge role in accelerating ageing and adding the most intense and vibrant flavours to the Bourbon. Plus, this spirit can be only aged in charred, new oak barrels. Once inside the barrel, the whiskey expands during the warmer months—pushing through the layer of char into the pores of the wood and contracts during the colder months—bringing with it natural colour and the signature rich caramelised flavours and spices—that make it a truly unique and fantastic whiskey! 

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: On its own or in Bourbon cocktails! It’s a star ingredient in many whiskey-based cocktails—such as Whiskey Sour, Mint Julep and Old Fashioned. 



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We think it’s fair to say that Rye Whiskey and Bourbon are related. However, the former’s star grain is, no points for guessing; rye! The mash bill at least needs to have 51 per cent of rye in it! Like its distant cousin Bourbon, Rye Whiskey must also be aged in newly charred oak barrels, if produced in the US! Both, however, differ in taste. Rye Whiskey is lighter-bodied than most, and has spicy undertones while Bourbon is sweeter.

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: Manhattan or an Old Fashioned tastes the best when made with Rye Whiskey. You can have it neat or on the rocks too!  



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Japanese Whisky has been produced for nearly a century.  It was, however, a recognition in 2015 that turned the spotlight on it—when the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 took home the title of World’s Best Whiskey! The Japanese version is very similar to Scotch. Not surprising really, considering that Japan learned all about whisky-making from the Scots. In the early 20th century, Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist who’d studied whisky production in Scotland, to open the Yamazaki distillery. In 1934, Taketsuru opened his own distillery, Yoichi, now part of Nikka. They blend in-house—meaning they work with multiple types of stills, diverse fermentation methods, and a greater range of casks for ageing to create different products! 

What makes this dram a standout is one of its key ingredients—pure spring water. Japanese distilleries are built near viable water sources, like high-elevation mountain reserves and low-elevation natural springs—and this gives it a soft and refined taste unlike its heavy-handed counterparts. No wonder then, that bottles have become increasingly rare, and expensive, as distilleries have claimed to struggle to meet the demand due to the category’s rapid growth! 

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: The Japanese way! Add a little soda water for lower-end whiskies or a splash of soft mineral water for higher-end bottles. The quality of the water is of utmost importance here! 



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A post shared by Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey (@knappoguewhiskey) describes Irish Whiskey as this: ‘Unburdened by the nerdery that surrounds Bourbon, without the regional knowledge requirements of Scotch and generally more affordable than both categories, Irish Whiskey is an easy-drinking spirit perfect for both whiskey beginners and experts alike’. A spirit must be produced from malt, cereal grain, and barley and distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland to qualify as Irish Whiskey. It also must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years. The more muted, malt character of this spirit is said to shine through when it is aged in unconventional sherry or rum casks.

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: Some are suited for cocktails and others can be sipped solo. 



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Canadian Whisky must be produced and aged in Canada, have a minimum of 40 percent ABV, and be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels no larger than 700 litres. Canadian Whisky can also contain caramel and other flavourings or additives—and up to 9.09 per cent of other spirit or wine! Due to this very reason, most Canadian whiskies are blended multi-grain liquors containing a large percentage of corn spirits, and are typically lighter, smoother and sweeter than other whisky styles.

THE BEST WAY TO DRINK IT: Neat or with ginger ale or soda!



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Over the last decade, made-in-India whiskeys have also garnered quite the following. These pair up well with our robust and complex cuisine. 


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Whisky snobs know their dram well, but don’t let that intimidate you. With an alcohol content of nearly 40 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume)—whisky is bold and has a harsh burn. So, it’s vital to start with something sweet and smooth, and keep continuing to explore till your palette is refined; and you find your favourite one! Remember to always drink responsibly. Cheers! 


Disclaimer: Drinking and driving is a punishable offence. Always drink responsibly, and only if you’re 21 and above, and in some states if you’re 25 and above!


[All Image Credits: Shutterstock]