Speak to anyone in the whisky industry and they will tell you one thing: there’s change afoot. Whisky is getting a makeover, and is beginning to carry weight with a younger, more affluent consumer, especially women. Now, this is not to say women haven’t always drunk whisky – they have. But women are getting more vocal about their love of a good malt – helped by a strong ‘whisky community’ on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter – which is, in turn, encouraging others to experiment with the drink. If you’re new to whisky, however, it can be a daunting first step.
Advertisements feature bold, daring men, or groups of men sharing a whisky (hardly an encouraging marketing angle), while women are told to stick to vodka. It’s also a complex product, with numerous options to pick from. Both of these factors make ordering a whisky in a bar nerve-wracking. Many bartenders will suggest a ‘feminine’ whisky (read: light and floral) to their female customers, which doesn’t help – it’s patronising and lacking in education about the huge variation in this spirit. And, boy oh boy, are there different types. There are light, fruity ones, bold brash sherried ones, heavy-duty smoky ones and those that combine these into one complex blend.
A common misconception is that all whiskies are smoky. This is wrong. In fact, smoky whiskies have not always been popular. The famous Cutty Sark Blended Whisky was created by Berry Bros. & Rudd partly because customers of the London wine and spirits merchant were looking for a whisky which would not spoil their palates before the fine wines to follow with dinner.
But, if you are interested in a smokier dram, you’ve got lots of choice. While they can come from any region in Scotland, many originate from the southern island Islay, home to eight distilleries.
That smoky flavour is imparted right from the start of the whisky-making process, when the barley used to make it is dried in a kiln over peat smoke, created by burning peat bricks. The peat smoke drifts up and latches onto each barley grain, infusing it with the flavour, which carries through even after 15, 20 or 30 years of maturation in oak casks.
Peat is neat
Each distillery that makes peated whisky will have different levels of smoke in its malts, which is expressed as phenols measured in parts per million (ppm). So a really smoky whisky like Ardbeg uses a malt that has been peated to around 50ppm, while a gentler peated malt, such as Bowmore, will use malt at around 25ppm. In short: not all smoky whiskies are as smoky as each other.
It’s important to try different variations so you can decide what you like; after all, no two palates are the same. When you’re first tasting a whisky, be sure to try it neat just once. Sit with it for a while, allow its aromas to fill the glass and air around you and taste it slowly. After that, feel free to add a drop of water if it’s too strong, or ice if you’re after something cooler.
But whatever your preference, show the whisky some respect. It’s worked harder than any other spirit to reach you, and this craftsmanship is finally winning it wider recognition. So go on, get stuck in and join the whisky revolution.