Stuff You Should Know about Whisky: What the hell is whisky, anyway?

I can practically hear Iain now: "If you're gonna be drinkin' it, you better know what it is!" (Imagine the comically enchanting Scottish accent in your head.)

Maybe it's best not to know what you're drinking sometimes...I mean, how much do you want to think about what milk actually is? But when it comes to whisky, you do want to know! When you're handed a mysterious liquid that you can set on fire*, you might have a wee question or two.

              Drink me... Damn right, Alice!

              Drink me... Damn right, Alice!

Unless you're an adventurous sort. In which case, hit me up. We should definitely drink together...

Anyway, whisky is mostly just two things: some kind of grain and water. Seriously, that's it. There's yeast too. It mixes with the water and grain to start the fermenting process, but ignore that. The yeast is part of whisky like the parsley garnish is part of a steak dinner. Technically, sure, parsley, you're in there, but please get out of steak and baked potato's light.

Scotch is the term for Scotch Whisky, which basically is just whisky made in Scotland and it's mostly made from barley. Bourbon is another kind of whisky, mostly made from corn. And there are others and there are blends and they all create a rainbow of whisky flavors. Kinda like the range of Chex cereal varieties

Whisky also needs one more ingredient, he said suddenly becoming non-literal about this whole thing: 


Whisky has to sit in barrels. The barrels are different, kinda like Chex cereal. Actually, not like Chex cereal at all. I don't know what made me think Chex was going to be some kind of perfect metaphor for everything.

It's more like if you've ever had a metal canteen full of water and by the end of the day, your water tastes like canteen. Except in this case, in a good way. The different woods that the barrels are made of and, you're going to like this, what USED TO BE in the barrel makes the flavor different.

That and how much time it spends in the barrel. 

So what's whisky?


*Some grain or grains 

*Yeast (happy, yeast?)

*Time in a barrel

And that it's, pretty much. The whole Flavor Rainbow of Whisky comes from those!

We'll continue the Stuff You Should Know about Whisky series in posts to come! You're good for now.


*This article covers "why you should set drinks on fire." I appreciate the spirit of this, though I also think that the question pretty much answers itself. Fire good.



Let's Get this Whisky Party Started...

Whisky is art you can drink! Like art, people have different tastes and opinions, and there's no objective "right and wrong" (although there is such a thing as quality). Also like art, whisky is meant to be enjoyed, appreciated and savored.

Whisky is one of life's true pleasures. You can pound it to get drunk (if you're a Florida State frat boy. No offense, bros.), but that's not really what it's for. It's more than that. Many people don't like whisky, or think they don't and that's ok. Like most great things, it takes a minute to get it.

Photo by twstipp/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by twstipp/iStock / Getty Images

But the point is, whisky's not for some elite group, or just guys named Hamish, wearing kilts and smoking a cigar. In my experience, it can be for anybody (of legal age, obviously) who's interested.

Whisky tastes like the land and the water and the air of the places where the barley was grown, the wood of the barrels where the whisky aged. Whisky starts as an idea in a distiller's head and eventually becomes a complex taste of nature and craft, what the old Celts called "the water of life."

My job is to help you love it as much as I do! Your tastes will vary, and I'm more than OK with that. Once, I had the good fortune to spend some time in the Lagavulin distillery, on a tour led by Iain McArthur. We were tasting some really incredible old whiskies, and one of my co-tourists, taking a sip of one of the drams said, "Am I getting a note of coffee in the end?"

Iain, a true whisky saint, looked at the well-meaning Englishman and said, "How do I know? You're the one feckin' drinkin' it, laddie!"

That was the moment of true enlightenment for me. People get particular about the whisky they drink (just as they do wine, beer, coffee and the rest) and that's ok. But the main thing is simply this:

You're the one feckin' drinkin' it, laddie. Or lassie. 

We're here to have fun, drink some whisky, occasionally disagree, and probably say a few things we'll regret tomorrow.

Sound like a party? It does to me. Let's go, my children.