As part of my whisky general knowledge I thought I should really put together some kind of styles guide so here it is. There are many ways we could categorise whisky from geographic location to cask type which is why whisky is so diverse. I’ll attempt here to stratify whisky into something basic and generic as a jumping off point for further exploration i.e. a beginner’s guide to whisky styles. The current trend, and numerous other style guides available, is to pigeon-hole whisky into geographic (e.g. Scotch) and production categories (e.g. Single Malt) despite the enormous variance in flavour and style within each. I present here a flavour style guide with a few suggestions for each category to start exploring.
Starter (accessible or introductory) whisky
The perfect introductory of beginners whiskies should be accessible in both price and flavour and the perfect place to start would be with a Blended Scotch Whisky or Blended Irish Whisky. Blended whiskies are produced by mixing together different styles of whiskies from different distilleries to generate a product that is harmonious in flavour and delightful to the palate. Blenders strive for continuity of flavour for there product so origin or age of the components are less important than the final flavour achieved. For something with a little more body then perhaps then Blended Malt Scotch whisky or Single Malts with an Elegant and Floral flavour profile may work here. The pinnacle of this category though much less accessible in price includes premium (or even super-premium) blends and Japanese whisky.
For a sweeter style of whisky then perhaps Bourbon is for you. Produced from a mixture of grains in what is called the mashbill, Bourbon must be produced from predominantly Corn (Maize) as 51% of the mashbill. Corn whisky, Canadian Whisky, Single Grain Scotch and Single Grain Irish whiskies may be produced from up to 100% corn giving these a sweeter profile. It is a legal requirement for Bourbon to be matured in virgin American-oak casks, similarly Single Grain Whisky is predominantly matured in 1st-fill ex-Bourbon casks. These casks bestow a soft and sweet influence with flavours of vanilla and caramel. Some Single Malt Irish and Single Malt Scotch particularly those with lighter spirit flavour profiles such as Lowland or Speyside may also fall into the sweet category if ex-Bourbon cask matured. Finally whisky part-matured (or finished) in Rum casks may also be sweet. Whisky with flavour profiles of Malt and Honey or Fresh Fruit and Vanilla fit into this category.
The presence of spice in whisky has two major sources. Inclusion of rye grains into the mashbill generates a spicier and drier distillate. Pure Rye whisky or high percentage Rye Bourbons are generally spicy. Similarly the inclusion of unmalted barley into the mashbill of Single Pot Still Irish Whisky also produces a cereal spiciness in the distillate. For non spicy distillates e.g. Single Malts then the use of fortified wine casks such as Port, Madeira and occasionally Red Wine or Sherry varietals and also the use of European Oak e.g. in either Spanish (Sherry) or French (Brandy, Cognac, Wine) casks can also imbue some spiciness into the final whisky, depending on the maturation or finishing period – the time during which these casks exert their influence. These whiskies fall into the Rich Fruit and Spice flavour profile and are well represented within Highland single malts.
- Ezra Brooks Straight Rye Whiskey
- Sazerac Rye
- Teeling single pot still
- Wemyss Malts Spice King
- Aberlour 12 Years Old
Woody (rich & distinguished) whisky
When I think of rich and distinguished whiskies I often veer towards well aged and heavily sherry-influenced single malt scotch whiskies. There are renowned distilleries within this category that I’m sure many will already be well aware of. This category is also represented by the premium ranges of most independent bottlers also, including the likes of Gordon & MacPhail, Douglas Laing and Signatory amongst many others. In general anything carrying a 20 year plus age statement really should have some serious wood influence unless the casks are very underactive, colour (if natural) will also be a good indicator here.
Smoky or peated whiskies I consider as a category all of their own due to their polarising nature. There are 4 major geographic locations that peat originates from for Scotch whisky production and each has a distinct influence on the final whisky. The regions include; Orkney, characterised by floral heathery peat smoke represented by Highland Park. The Highlands (including Islands) which gives a drier more ashen peat smoke which can be presented with coastal influence (Talisker, Oban, Old Pulteney, Ledaig) our without coastal influence (Ardmore). Campbeltown (Springbank) used to source peat from Machrahanish resulting in an oily and coastal smoke but more recently this has been replaced with Highland peat sources – it will be interesting to see how this effects the Campbeltown whisky style in future. Finally Islay has its uniquely phenolic and medicinal peat and coastal influences also and is responsible for the production of the most heavily peated whisky.
- Highland Park 12 Year Old
- Talisker 10 Year Old
- Ardmore Legacy
- Springbank 10 year old
- Laphroaig 10 Year old
As a true Whiskyphile I recommend sampling something from as many categories as possible during your whisky journey. Be it at a bar, with friends, sharing drams or even through exploration and tasting sets and whisky miniatures. Try to experience the full range and diversity of whisky. As always there are exceptions to every rule with whisky e.g. unpeated Islay’s, etc. Many extreme whiskies including old or peaty examples warrant a cautious approach and repeated sampling, don’t be too quick to judge or avoid them – in fact actively try things you think you might not like! Your palate will adapt and change during your whisky journey just as your tastes and preferences may also. Sensitivity to peat and phenolics often diminishes with repeated exposure such that what was undrinkable previously seems not so challenging anymore.
Finally enjoy whatever whisky you are drinking and drink responsibly!