We shared a wee dram with Brand Manager for Whisky at Southtrade International Andrew Milne, who told us everything you need to know about this delicious golden drop.
What makes whisky, well, whisky? According to Milne, it varies country to country slightly, but essentially it’s a spirit made from fermented grains (typically malted barley, rye, corn or wheat) that’s been distilled, then aged in oak casks for a minimum of two to three years, but often much longer. It’s then bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. “There are many caveats here, but essentially that’s the general rule,” Milne says. “Basically, make a beer without hops, chuck it in a kettle and capture the steam. That’s your whisky.”
“Make a beer without hops, chuck it in a kettle and capture the steam. That’s your whisky.”Brand Manager for Whisky at Southtrade International Andrew Milne
Whisky is made around the world, however the most famous whisky makers would be Scotland, Ireland and North America. These countries have official bodies that strictly govern whisky production. “Some say Ireland created whisky, and Scotland perfected it… but you have to be careful who you say that to!” Milne says.
“Scotland has a skill and tradition to its whisky production that’s been passed down over many years. The skill set and knowledge of these distillers is incredible, as most have worked their way through the distillery from an early age and know every aspect of production. That knowledge inevitably makes great whisky.
“There’s some incredible innovation across the world, but I feel that Scotland is very much the whisky knowledge pool that all other countries learn from.”
How Whisky’s Made: From Malt to Bottle
It’s the starch from barley that’s converted into alcohol. The barley is soaked for days in a malting house. When it shoots, it’s dried in a kiln. It’s now called malt and is ground down in a mill.
The ground-down malt, known as “grist”, is added to water to get rid of the sugar. The combo of water and malt is called mash. When the sugar is removed, what’s left is called “wort”.
The wort is put into large wooden or stainless steel tanks and yeast is added so fermentation can begin. This takes two days or longer, depending on the characteristics the distiller wants to highlight.
In Scotland, the remaining liquid, the “wash”, is distilled twice (In Ireland, it is done three times). Taller stills produce a lighter spirit, while shorter, fatter stills give a fuller, richer spirit.
The spirit is now put into oak casks for a minimum of three years, enabling its distinctive flavours to develop. Inside, the spirit combines with the natural compounds of the wood.
When a distillery makes the decision that the casks have matured to an appropriate age, the whisky is diluted (40% is the legal minimum) and then bottled for consumption.
Whisky around the world… and at home
The world of whisky is ever expanding, with many countries you wouldn’t
usually associate with whisky now getting some serious attention. “India has been showing some incredible quality in their single malt whisky from distilleries such as Paul John and Amrut,” Milne says.
You’d be amazed just where whisky is being made these days. Scandinavia
is making some really good-quality whisky and an Israeli distillery also recently released a whisky. “India, Taiwan and Japan are definitely some of the most developed in terms of experience,” Milne says.
Japan has recently taken the whisky world by storm and – given the limited supply – prices have now shot up to reflect that. But what about Australia? Well, we recently won a few world awards for our whiskies, so we’re certainly not a country to sniff (snifter?) at.
“It used to be believed that all Australian whisky was made in Tasmania,” Milne says. “But we have distilleries in almost every state now, and the overall quality is superb.
“There’s plenty of variety out there. Starward Whisky in Melbourne is a particular favourite of mine and great value for those just getting into whisky. But there’s so much to explore in just Australia alone. You can also expect to see more and more from all across the world in the coming years.”
Where does the word “whisky/whiskey” actually come from?
It all stems from the Latin word aqua vitae – meaning “water of life”
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Forget the G & T – whisky and tonic
is a great drink. “Especially
with a lighter style like Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water,” Milne says.
“I’m also a big fan of the classics – so things like a Manhattan (whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters), Boulevardier (whisky, sweet vermouth and Campari) or Sazerac (rye whisky, absinthe, bitters and sugar).
But you can also use whisky to replace other spirits to create a great cocktail. Starward Two-Fold Pina Coladas are life-changing.”
Super-expensive whiskies: Are they
really worth the extra dosh?
“Does an Omega tell the time better than a Casio?” Milne asks. “Super-expensive whiskies are generally highly priced due to rarity and age. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth the price, it just means that to most, they’re either unaffordable or not worth the perceived value.
The quality of these whiskies is usually really high, but for most of us it’s unlikely to become your everyday drop.”
Beginner’s buying guide
“I’d recommend starting with a grain-led whisky or bourbon as these tend to be softer, with less of a ‘burn’ factor that people might find off-putting,” Milne explains. “Something soft, sweet and fruity like Buffalo Trace Bourbon is a
good option. More locally, Starward Two-Fold is a great introduction to whisky. They mix grain and malted barley and mature in red wine casks, giving you a soft, fruity whisky that’s great neat or with a mixer like tonic water.”
Storing your whisky
“Always store your whisky upright and away from direct sunlight, as these are the easiest ways to damage your whisky,” Milne advises. Storing your whisky lying down will lead to the cork disintegrating , allowing oxygen to leak into the bottle and affecting the taste. “Ideally, you want a consistent climate where you don’t have strong temperature fluctuations, but only if you’re storing for extended periods of time, such as two years or more.”
Ice – yes or no?
I prefer to listen to Ice Cube rather than put them in my drink. But it’s up to you. My only advice is, try it in many ways until you find one you enjoy. Dave Broom has a great book about this called Whisky: The Manual. He suggests trying it in a cocktail, with green tea, with cola, with water, with ice. The main thing is you enjoy it.
Water or no water?
Try it without water first. If it tastes too strong, add a few drops at a time. Water is great for opening up new flavours – the water releases oils in the whisky, which enhances different flavours and softens those harsher alcohol notes as well.
Type of glass?
I use a tulip-shaped glass if I’m evaluating whisky, and a glass similar to a wine glass for casual drinking. A big rocks glass looks great, but you can lose a lot of the aroma, so ideally you want something that tapers at the end so that it concentrates the aroma towards your nose.