We’ve already shared five things you didn’t know about vodka, now continue your alcoholic education by learning more about whisky…

Whisky tends to polarise people – you’d either sell your own grandpa for a decent single malt or you hate it – I’ve never known anyone to be ambivalent about whisky. I definitely didn’t used to be a fan, until attending a whisky tasting in 2010 and learning more about the spirit (whichever version you prefer: whisky, whiskey or bourbon).

Now I have a far greater appreciation for the drink, although I am nervous about cultivating a real taste for it (the good stuff can cost upwards of R400 a bottle!). Yesterday I attended a whisky tasting hosted by Bunnahabhain, a distillery from the Islay region of Scotland, and learned some more facts to add to my growing knowledge of the spirit:

First things first 

Whisky is Scotch, whiskey is Irish and bourbon is American. 

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Whisky should only ever contain barley, yeast and water. It’s one of the most organic, purest drinks you can imbibe. All the flavours present in whisky (the fruitiness, caramel and other flavours you pick up in its scent) are a result of the cask in which it matured. Ready now? Off we go…

1. Whisky is one of the healthiest drinks you can drink

A university in Australia recently found that taking a shot of Jack Daniels daily could provide the same antioxidant benefits as our recommended intake of Vitamin C. Huh? Apparently when whisky is stored in oak barrels to mature, it absorbs compounds that protect the healthy cells in our body.

What’s more, another substance present in whisky, ellagic acid, is believed to help fight cancer by absorbing ‘rogue’ cells, according to the findings of a conference in Glasgow, Scotland in 2005.

2. Most whiskies are ‘chillfiltered’

Explains Bunnahabhain, “Chillfiltration allows the whisky to be bottled at 43% alcohol by volume preventing the whisky, when in the bottle or when served, from becoming slightly hazy when chilled. Several whisky experts believe chillfiltration removes some of the flavour and body from the whisky, while with un-chillfiltering it retains the maximum depth of flavour.” 

I was privileged to get to taste three of Bunnahabhain’s new “unchillfiltered” whiskies, which I would highly recommend for both connoissuers and newbies. By filtering the whiskey without dropping its temperature to 0°C, all the flavours and aromas present in the whisky after maturation are retained. 

3. If you’re new to whisky, stick to ‘unpeated’ ones

Many distilleries use peat to heat the barley and hence stop it from germinating. Peat gives whisky a very strong, smoky scent and flavour, which can be a bit overwhelming for whisky rookies. The good news is that all the Bunnahabhain single malts I tasted are a result of a process that uses indirect heat applied to the barley, so they are ‘unpeated’, making them a lot more palatable to the uninitiated.

4. It’s all about the barrel

Given what I said earlier, about all the flavour and scent of whisky being derived from its time spent in a barrel, the barrel itself is pretty important to the whole process – so important, in fact, that some distilleries, like Bunnahabhain, buy their own casks at sherry distilleries in other countries, so that once the sherry has spent enough time in the cask, they can remove it and send the cask off to Scotland for storing whisky. Neat, huh?

5. Whisky on the rocks is a major faux pas

We hear it in movies and on TV all the time, but asking for your whisky “on the rocks” means you might be missing out on a lot of flavour. The best way to drink whisky is neat, with just a splash of water in it to drop the alcohol volume down, making it easier for the nose, palate and taste buds to discern the flavours. They call it “releasing the serpent”. 

If your whisky is a bit too smoky for your taste though, adding an ice block or two will draw the flavour back in to make it more subtle. 

Ready to get your whisky on? Bear this advice in mind, from the master distiller at Bunnahabhain: “That whisky has been sitting in a cask for years – show it some respect! Keep it in your mouth for at least one second per year it matured before swallowing.” I did – and it’s so warm and tingly it’s like a hug for your mouth. Definitely worth the wait!

For more information on Bunnahabhain’s unchillfiltered range visit www.bunnahabhain.com or www.distell.co.za.

For more tips and facts about whisky tasting, click here.

Image: © Aaron Amat – Fotolia.com