Whiskey: It’s named after the Gaelic phrase for “water of life.” It basically powers the UK economy. It’s what makes Tom Waits, well, Tom Waits. But all you really need to know is how to drink it.
For the most part, we’re all familiar with the standard roster of whiskey cocktails: an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan, a good ‘ol Whiskey Sour. There are, of course, plenty of more niche options (think: the Boulevardier), but it would seem that true *connoisseurs* are often purists: whiskey of choice, served neat or on the rocks.
Sure, self-proclaimed “Whiskey People” can have an air of pretension about them, but here’s the thing: You need not join their ranks in order to lean a little further into the whiskey-verse. Whether you’re in the market to impress your bartender, or to please your palate, there are only a few key facts you need to know to dive in.
“Keep an open mind and try to forget about all the old tropes you may have heard,” advises Angel Teta, National Whiskey Guardian for Kentucky-based bourbon brand Angel’s Envy. “Whiskey has advanced leaps and bounds over the last hundred years, and I truly believe there’s something out there for everyone.”
The expansive world of whiskey can undoubtedly be daunting, especially if you’re new to the category. So we spoke with Teta to uncover the secrets to ordering whiskey like a pro. In that spirit (get it?), here’s our quick and dirty guide to (sounding like) you know your whiskey:
1. Read up on your regions
Much like with wine, a whiskey’s country of origin plays a pivotal role in its flavor. The heavy hitters are Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada, and, more recently, Japan and India, and each of these regions boasts a unique flavor profile, terminology, and serving style. Here’s the breakdown:
- Scotland: It’s likely the first country you think of when you think “Whisky People” (note the absence of the “e”). Scottish whisky is called “Scotch,” a protected status granted only to whisky that’s distilled and matured in Scotland for at least three years in oak casks. With 141 Scotch distilleries in operation, Scotch flavors range dramatically, but peaty (a smoky flavor caused by the peat fires used to dry malted barley) offerings are the most notorious. Pro tip: Many Scotch whisky drinkers refer to any liquid unit as a “dram,” no matter how generous the pour.
- Ireland: Both the Irish and the Scots claim to have invented whiskey, but no one’s been able to prove it outright. Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled, traditionally resulting in a lighter and smoother drink that can often taste a little fruity.
- America: There are six major types of American whiskey, all of which are made from different fermented cereal grains: rye, rye malt, malt, wheat, bourbon, and corn. Bourbons are made in Kentucky, and are typically aged two to four years (as opposed to the 10+ years customary for their European counterparts), which gives them their trademark sweetness and smoothness. Unsure of where to start? We suggest you look to Angel’s Envy, a Louisville-based craft distiller producing a range of award-winning whiskeys suitable to any taste (though its masterpiece is undoubtedly the Kentucky Straight bourbon). The liquid is aged four to six years in white oak barrels, then transported to French oak casks imported from Portugal’s Douro region, and this unique double-finish process leaves notes of vanilla, ripe fruit, maple syrup, toast and bitter chocolate. “As those flavors linger on the palate, our bourbon leaves a lasting impression that appeals to both established whiskey fans and those new to the category,” says Teta.
- Canada: Often called “rye” even when it…doesn’t have rye in it, Canadian whisky (again, no “e”) is an eclectic spirit. Often, these varieties involve blending a lighter, triple-distilled grain spirit with a richer “flavoring” spirit. Purists might gag, but drinkers aren’t complaining.
2. Choose your serving style
It’s the “Coke or Pepsi” of the bartending world: Should whiskey be sipped on the rocks (on ice) or neat (without ice)?
This seemingly basic question can lead to some impassioned arguments. Neat drinkers maintain that adding ices numbs your taste buds and dilutes the precious spirit, while those who like it on the rocks cite chemistry 101: “Water breaks up the hydrogen bond in the whiskey, so more aromas will release,” explains Teta.
3. Chat with your bartender
“Folks behind the bar love to chat about spirits, and they want to share the knowledge they’ve worked hard on acquiring,” says Teta.
That said, do your best to read the room. Ordering a Vieux Carré cocktail in a dive bar will elicit some weird looks, as will requesting a Pepsi chaser during a distillery tasting in the Scottish highlands. Look around to see what’s popular, or better yet, ask your bartender what they recommend before committing to a full dram.
4. Spice things up with a cocktail
If drinking whiskey straight makes you feel like a burnt-out private detective, opt for a cocktail. Whiskey is the foundation for countless classics, so you’re not hurting for choice.
“Personally, I am a huge fan of a Manhattan with a twist of lemon” says Teta. “And Angel’s Envy is a great fit for this classic cocktail because it’s finished in fortified wine barrels, which allows the whiskey to marry perfectly with the Vermouth.”
Like your drinks on the sweeter side? Go for younger whiskey varieties like bourbon or Canadian rye mixed with citrus (the Whisky Sour, the Whisky Smash) or with simple syrup (the Old Fashioned). Want something mysterious and smoky? Choose an aged Scottish or Irish variety in a cocktail that puts its peaty heart front and center (the Penicillin, a Hot Toddy). If bitter and herbal profiles strike your fancy, order the classic Manhattan. And if you simply can’t shake your espresso martini habit, try switching things up with an Irish coffee (made with coffee and Irish whiskey, natch).
Editor’s note: Whether stocking your own home bar, or gifting for the holidays, Angel’s Envy’s premium, award-winning straight Kentucky Bourbon is aged four to six years in new white oak barrels, then finished in secondary French oak Port casks, lending the whiskey a subtle, fruity sweetness that is rich and complex enough to be enjoyed neat or in your favorite cocktail. Best of all, it’s now available across Canada.