Whisky: A beginner's guide

WHISKY WONDER: The shelves of Christchurch's Whisky Galore are a veritable smorgasbord of the stuff.
WHISKY WONDER: The shelves of Christchurch's Whisky Galore are a veritable smorgasbord of the stuff.

In the wake of World Whisky Day, gullets across the globe are basking in the afterglow of the ancient firewater.

"No other spirit, or even drink, can come close in terms of its variety of flavours and complexity, especially single malts," says Alastair Campbell of special retailer Whisky Galore in Christchurch.

The world of whisky is awash with terminology and strict laws govern what can go on a label.

JUST A WEE DRAM: Alastair Campbell of Whisky Galore pours out some tasters.
JUST A WEE DRAM: Alastair Campbell of Whisky Galore pours out some tasters.

All whiskies are made using fermented grain mash, water and yeast. They are distilled in either a "column" or "pot" still and aged in oak casks that have been toasted or charred.

The year on a label is how long the whisky was matured in the cask. For blended whiskies, it refers to the youngest whisky in the blend. The older the whisky, the more mellow and complex it tends to be. Unlike wine, whiskies do not mature in the bottle.

Whisky is made all over the world, with common types being Scottish, Irish and American (mainly Kentucky Bourbon). Scotch is made in Scotland, usually from malted barley.

It must be bottled with 40 per cent alcohol content. Distilleries will often dilute their whiskies with water to bring its alcohol content down to this level. A whisky labelled "cask strength" has been diluted to a lesser extent or not at all.

Scotch must be aged for at least three years in casks often previously used to age bourbon or sherry. Heavily charred bourbon casks produce creamy, fruity whiskies with hints of vanilla, while toasted sherry casks produce whiskies tasting of dried fruit, chocolate and spices. Casks can also be used multiple times after their first "fill" and the number of times a cask has been used will affect the character of its contents. 

"Single" malt or grain whiskies originate from a single distillery, whereas blended whiskies (such as Johnnie Walker) are a combination of brews from different distilleries, and may be made from grains other than malted barley.

You will often hear Scotch described as 'smooth' or 'smoky'. Smooth whiskies are easier to swallow and are good for beginners, though many seasoned whisky drinkers aren't interested in smoky varieties.

It's likely your taste preferences will align with a particular region of Scotland, in which different distilleries have become known for producing a certain style of whisky.

If you're a wine drinker, you'll know if you tend to fancy a crisp, fruity white or a rich, full-bodied red. If you're of the fruity persuasion, look for whiskies produced in Speyside - they tend to be soft and approachable. A Glenfiddich (pronounce the 'ch' like 'k') 12-year old is a good place to start - it's the world's number-one selling single malt. Or try a Balblair - their exclusively vintage brews go down well as aperitifs.

If you like a richer beverage, head for the highlands. GlenDronach is delicious after dinner, with characteristics of dried fruit, chocolate, coffee and sweet spices. Another crowd-pleaser is the Glenmorangie 10-year-old. Honey-like in colour and flavour, it's Scotland's best-selling single malt.

An acquired taste, smoky or 'peaty' whiskies get their distinctive flavour from the peat used in the kiln the barley is dried in. The Islay (eye-lah) region on the Scottish west coast is famous for these. Try Laphroaig (la-froyg) or Ardbeg 10-year-olds, or go for a Black Bottle - a blend of Scotches from the region.

When ordering a dram (a measurement best thought of as 'a wee bit'), try to sound confident even if you have no idea how to pronounce the Gaelic words.

With pricier single malts, you'll want to experience its maximum flavor and aroma, so request it neat. You can ask for water on the side, but add it sparingly. Even a few drops can make a whisky more palatable.

A whisky served over ice might be refreshing, but the cold and the melt will make for a muted and diluted experience. If you must have ice, put it with a blend. Alternatively, you can use whisky stones to cool your drink, although some think they're more trouble than they're worth

Campbell says at the end of the day, it's all a matter of taste - there's no right or wrong way to enjoy Scotch. It's a drink that brings people together. What matters most when sharing a bottle with friends is a steady hand and a generous heart.

- Have any whisky tips to add?