Whisky 101

A primer course in this historic tipple.

The resurgence of small-batch distilleries and specialty whisky-based cocktails has led to whisky experiencing a huge surge in popularity amongst Canadians.

According to recent market data collected by Statistics Canada Irish whisky was the fastest growing category out of all spirits sold in Canada last year, with an increase in both value and volume sold[i]. With the large variety of whisky now being sold, it can be intimidating for novice whisky drinkers to know where to begin their exploration. Whether it's being enjoyed neat or in a cocktail, delving into the world of whisky is a fascinating way to develop your palate and have fun in the process.

Whisky rules

For a spirit to be called whisky, it needs to fall into one of three categories. Malt whisky, which is generally considered to be the best whisky, is mainly exported from Scotland and must contain at least 51% malted barley. Grain whisky can be made of any other grain except for malted barley and is primarily made in Scotland and Ireland. Blended whisky contains malted barley and is supplemented with other neutral-tasting grains. These three umbrella whisky categories contain countless variations based on the purity of ingredients, the region in which it’s made, as well as how long the whisky is aged and the kind of still or cask it’s aged in. The spelling of whisky is generally a regional influence, whiskeys made in America and sometimes Canada are spelled with an "e" while whisky made elsewhere drops the extra letter.

A brief history of whisky

The story of whisky's rise to fame is firmly entrenched in Scottish history. In 1494 "whisky" first appeared as a written word even though large amounts were already being produced for distribution. When King Henry VIII abolished the Catholic Church in the 16th century many monasteries were converted to distilleries, giving monks the ability to refine and perfect the whisky-making process. During the 19th century, American farmers participated in the Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against newly introduced taxes on surplus grain used to make whiskey. Two incidences in the 19th century had a huge impact on the popularity and availability of whisky to the general public; Scott Andrew Usher perfected a technique for making blended whisky that made it easy for whisky to be mass produced for public consumption and an outbreak of the vine louse Phylloxera destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards which led to poor wine production and a greater focus on spirit production. Whisky has since gone on to become a global phenomenon, with many countries producing their own version of the popular spirit.

Tasting notes from around the world​

Irish whisky is set apart from other whiskies by its unique distillation process, unlike Scottish whisky which is distilled twice Irish whisky is distilled 3 times to produce a taste that is undeniably easy to sip. In order for Irish whisky to be officially designated whisky, it must be aged for three years before it can be sold.

Scotch whisky is whisky that has been distilled and aged in Scotland. Made primarily of malted barley that has been blended with a neutral grain, Scotch is richly flavoured with a distinctive bite in relation to its peers.

Rye whisky, or Canadian whisky, is so much more than Don Draper’s drink of choice. Distilled from at least 51% rye and often mixed with corn, rye is smooth and a great place for a beginner whisky enthusiast to begin. Enjoy neat, on the rocks or in a quintessentially Canadian rye and ginger.

Bourbon whiskey is defined by one simple rule, it must be aged in charred oak containers and additives are strictly forbidden from being added during this process. Bourbon must be made with at least 51 per cent corn with, wheat, rye, or malted barley being used to make up the remaining 49 per cent and is almost always made in Kentucky. Bourbon is sweeter and smoother than other whisky types and is an essential ingredient when making classic Mint Juleps.

Japanese whisky is the latest whisky to become popular amongst aficionados and is quickly becoming the darling of the spirit world. Japanese whisky isn’t a specific type of whisky in terms of its ingredients but is marked by its velvety taste and sophisticated palate.