Lifestyle & opinion

How to buy whisky

Whisky is one of the world's best-known spirits, and Scotch whisky the most famous. Walk into any bar in any country and ask for a 'Scotch', and the bartender will immediately know what you mean.

A guide to buying Whisky

What is whisky?

Scotland produces three types of whiskies: malts, grains and blends.

Malt whisky is produced from 100% malted barley.

Grain whisky is made from a variety of cereals, which may or may not include a proportion of malted barley.

Blended whisky is a combination of malt and grain whisky.

Scotch whisky is produced by grinding the cereal to a coarse flour, then steeping it in hot water. The leftover liquid, called wort, is then cooled, yeast added and the result is a strong ale, which is then distilled.

All spirit has to age for at least three years in oak casks in Scotland before it can be called Scotch whisky, and can only be sold at a minimum 40% alcohol by volume (abv). Whiskies can be stored in Sherry wood, that is oak casks in which Sherry has matured, which can impart their flavour to the spirit. After maturation and bottling, the now empty cask can be coopered and reused, but second and third fills will give a less pronounced oak effect.

Whisky and ice

Types of Malts

Islay Malt
Islay is an island off the west coast of Scotland. Traditionally pungent, smoky, medicinal and intense, Islay malts take their characteristics from the peat used to dry the barley, and their proximity to the sea. Try The Society's Exhibition Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky 8 Years Old.

Highland Malts
From the northern half of the country, these malts are elegant and well flavoured. Speysides, from the banks of the river Spey, are the sweetest of all Highland malts. They tend to have more complex, fruity tones and a richness and delicacy. Try The Society's Exhibition Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky 12 Years Old.

Lowland Malts
These are drier than their Highland counterparts. They are usually lighter and slightly more spirity. Campbeltown malts produce salty, spicy, quite full-flavoured whiskies.

All Irish whiskey (spelt differently, too) is triple distilled, making it lighter and fresher than its Scottish counterpart.

How to drink it
It's up to you, but many blenders insist that the best way to smell and taste whisky is when it is 'cut' from 40% abv with one-third water, preferably a soft water with a low mineral content. This makes the aroma more pronounced and reduces any harsh, spirity overtones. Slainté (that's 'good health' in Gaelic in case you were wondering)!

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Sarah Knowles MW

Society Buyer

Sarah Knowles MW

Sarah joined The Society in March 2014 and has taken over responsibility for Champagne, North America and Italy, as well as overseeing our portfolio of sparkling wines and spirits. Sarah passed her Masters of Wine qualification in 2015 and won a prize for submitting the best research paper.

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