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How to Drink Whisky might depend on whose whisky it is

How to drink whisky? Any way you like, though single malts deserve respect. A measure of whisky is called a dram or a nip in Scotland.

How to Drink Whisky

There is no right or wrong answer to the question how to drink whisky - apart from 'responsibly'. It's not as if the whisky police are going to rush in and catch you red-handed putting orange juice in it. (Bleaah.) But please note these remarks are intended for those who intend to drink malt whisky.

If you want to drink whiskey (sic), then feel free to mix it with anything you like. I couldn't possibly comment.

At Edinburgh's Scotch Whisky Experience

At Edinburgh's Scotch Whisky Experience

...and other agonising protocols. In Scotland, you may encounter good-natured discussion on how to drink whisky: that is, with or without water, or with various mixers. Naturally, there is no absolutely correct way – though many within the trade would suggest that the addition of a little water helps bring out the complex flavour. (They call it ‘opening it out’.) Some enthusiasts prefer their whisky neat. (I note – pictured here – there appears to be some water on offer with a line of drams at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. Unless someone’s opted for a very large vodka.)

What about ginger or soda?

The addition of ginger as a mixer either as aerated water or ginger wine is still with us, though not altogether approved of in some conservative whisky drinking circles. In the UK, at least, whisky and soda has a clubby, cravat-wearing air about it. I actually like a blended whisky that way, except for the cravat bit.

Here's a whisky tip...

A good tip on how to drink whisky is, if your host in Scotland offers you a glass of whisky, (a dram) check, if you can, whether or not he or she is offering you an ‘everyday’ blend or a more expensive single malt. If a malt, recognisable by a single distillery name, eg Glenfiddich, Highland Park, Lagavulin etc, then your host may show slight annoyance or amusement if you drink it with anything other than water! (By the way, I also like mine with sparkling water. Whisky and bubbles. Mmm.)

Caol Ila means 'the Sound of Islay' in Gaelic - Sound as in Kyle (from the Gaelic) or straight, and straight as in stretch of sea. What do you mean does that make it a straight whisky? It's the largest distillery on the island of Islay.

Caol Ila means 'the Sound of Islay' in Gaelic - Sound as in Kyle (from the Gaelic) or straight, and straight as in stretch of sea. What do you mean does that make it a straight whisky? It's the largest distillery on the island of Islay.

An eastern malt, this one is named after a landmark hill on Speyside.

An eastern malt, this one is named after a landmark hill on Speyside.

…just in case you're an enthusiastic novice in the whole palaver of drinking whisky:

Scotch - what other people call whisky, generic. (For some reason, few Scots use the term.)

Dram - strictly speaking, a measure of whisky, but commonly used in Scotland to indicate a glass of whisky of any size. Uncommon as a verb but used as such on the Glengoyne website, for instance, where 'we will dram you with 10 year old' must mean 'we'll start you off with a 10 year old'…..(and hope you'll develop a taste for something even older and more expensive?)

Nip - a slightly down-market dram; as a measure of whisky possibly smaller than a dram as well. From listening in to adults at our Hogmanay celebrations in my childhood, being offered a nip had something slightly sinful or daring about it. These damned Scottish Presbyterians.....they never did get the hang of enjoying themselves with a glass in their hand.

A wee hauf - another label for a small glass of whisky but you'll probably never hear this expression - not in the exclusive bars you would frequent anyway - so don't worry about it. A 'hauf' is, of course, a half, pronouced 'hoff' because of our Scottish accent. And, come to think of it, a wee hauf is very small indeed. Perhaps it's homeopathic whisky.

A whisky Mac - an ordinary (please) whisky with a splash of Crabbies Green Ginger Wine. Or the other way around. (Just the thing after a bracing winter walk.)

Whiskey - often, a misprint for whisky - so that 'Scotch whiskey' is a contradiction in terms and 'Scotch whiskey expert' a dead giveaway for an ignorant bluffer. (Hey, steady.) In certain contexts, I suspect it is spelt deliberately this way to annoy the Scots. (What? Me? Over-sensitive?) Anyway, more on the whisky / whiskey thing under whisky basic facts below.

Read my blog post on the remake of the famous film Whisky Galore.

Visiting whisky distilleries is a popular part of the Scottish visitor experience and they are great places to learn about the mystique of Scotland's national drink. As explained below, at malt whisky distilleries, visitors are given the opportunity to learn about the industry. Tours, audio-visual presentations and sampling the product are the essential ingredients. Many visitor centres at distilleries have a shop and a café or restaurant. Sometimes the admission price to the tour is refundable against the purchase of a bottle of malt whisky.

Though the basic format involves a dram at the end, some whisky distilleries offer sophisticated tutored tastings not only of malt whisky of different ages, but also give an opportunity to learn about the different whisky regions of Scotland and the blending process. You certainly get an insight into how to drink whisky.

Some of the scotch whisky regions. Memorize these labels to bluff your way through any tasting.

Some of the scotch whisky regions. Memorize these labels to bluff your way through any tasting.

At Glengoyne, for example, their range of tours and tastings includes a Master Blended Session that allows you to assemble a blended whisky according to your own individual taste and you take away 100 cc of properly labelled whisky at the end of the session. (And you'll get a few drams out of that.) Glengoyne is also easily accessible from Glasgow, and is close to Loch Lomond.

Glenkinchie stills

Glenkinchie stills

Glenkinchie is the nearest or most convenient malt whisky distillery to visit if based in Edinburgh. (At least, if you have a car.) Tucked away in the rich East Lothian countryside it is a classic Lowland malt that follows the usual visit format. Friendly and knowledgeable guides are a feature here - and the whisky, to my taste, at least, seems light and mellow - nothing difficult here!

Over in Speyside (the valley of the River Spey in the north of Scotland), you can follow the Malt Whisky Trail. The signposts here read like a whisky gantry in places, and one of the most popular distilleries for touring visitors is Glenfiddich - it's a slick tour taking in the whole process all the way through to bottling - unusual that this is done on-site. There are plenty of other distilleries offering the whisky experience, including nearby Glenfarclas below the long slopes of Ben Rinnes, Aberlour in the little town of the same name, or Glenlivet, tucked away in the glen with its rocky river and birchwoods - it's all grandly picturesque around the River Spey and its tributaries...And the 'Quaich Bar' of the Craigellachie Hotel has around 700 whiskies on shelves lining the walls, so you should find something to suit there. You'll find most of the Speyside hotels know their whiskies! 

Edradour - the smallest distillery in Scotland

Edradour - the smallest distillery in Scotland

Not all distilleries are owned by multi-nationals. Just a few are owned by inspired individuals with a real passion for the distilling culture and heritage. Edradour Distillery, above the resort town of Pitlochry, in the heart of Scotland, is a good example.  You are quite likely to see the owner, Andrew Symington, in his working clothes, keeping an eye on the bustle in the reception area. The visit here has a special charm as Edradour is Scotland's smallest distillery in terms of its own output per week, though the warehouses also hold stocks of whiskies bought from other distilleries and aged here before being bottled and sold under the Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky brand.

(I should also point out that on one occasion when we were taking a journalist round, the owner gave us a bottle of the Natural Cask Strength Single Malt. That was a few years back but the whisky was sensational! The empty bottle and its packaging live in our drinks cupboard to this day, just as a pleasant reminder!) 

However, Edradour isn't the only small-sale production run by a local team with passion: Bruichladdich on Islay is another example of this 'genre' - and they make the world's only organic single malt. If you want to discover a little about the early marketing of whisky, then Dewars World of Whisky in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, is particularly good on this aspect of the industry.


Barley is the basis for malt whisky. This crop is just ripening, but is still a few weeks from harvesting.

Barley is the basis for malt whisky. This crop is just ripening, but is still a few weeks from harvesting.

Scotch malt whiskies have a long tradition. For centuries, Scotland’s people, both Highland and Lowland, produced ‘uisge beatha’ ‘water of life’, long before it became an internationally-renowned drink. Now, malt whiskies are one of the most important and characteristic Scottish exports. There is still an element of mystery about the making of malt whisky from the simple ingredients of barley, water, yeast and, sometimes, peat smoke. And, it’s a mystery or mystique that is talked up and made much of by every whisky distillery in Scotland with a visitor centre.

If you already know that whisky is the stuff made in Scotland (as well as Canada, Japan, Germany) while whiskey (sic) is made in Ireland and in the USA, then you may also know most of the next few paragraphs - but let's go back to basics for a moment.

There are two main types of whisky – malt and grain. Malt whiskies, which connoisseurs claim have a more sophisticated flavour and bouquet and hence fetch a higher price, are made with malted barley. Malted barley is grain that has been allowed to sprout, then hot air dried. ‘Maltings’ are the industrial plants which undertake this process, these days mostly away from the distilleries themselves.

Grain whisky also contains malted barley, along with unmalted barley and maize. Both types are used in the whisky blending process. Some of the best-known whisky brand names are blended whiskies – sometimes known in our house as ‘cooking whiskies’ – but many whisky enthusiasts prefer to explore Scotland’s range of ‘single malts’, in other words, malt whiskies that are unblended distillations unique to each individual distillery.

Malt whiskies are sometimes grouped as Highland, Lowland, Islay (from the island) and Campbeltown (meaning from the Mull of Kintyre). The Campbeltown malts are no longer significant and thus a dangerous over-simplification can be made into two very general types. Firstly, the malt whiskies made in the east (or north) of Scotland, eg Speyside.

These malt whiskies tend to be lighter or ‘sweeter’ than the other main area – island or western malts which often have an easily recognisable taste of peat-smoke, or a salty, almost iodine-like taste of the sea. (If you are able to differentiate the taste of an Islay malt from that of a Speyside malt then you are well on your way of being able to bluff your way out of any after-dinner ambush set by your whisky-loving friends.)

Whisky Distilling – what will I see at a distillery in Scotland?

I think that even before you visit a real distillery, there’s a good way of getting some background to malt whiskies, if you are making Edinburgh your base. The Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of the Royal Mile, near the Castle, is a good starting point.

Malt whisky barrels maturing...we're waiting...waiting

Malt whisky barrels maturing...we're waiting...waiting

Whisky distillers who push their brand of single malt by way of allowing visitors around the distilleries (and there are a lot of them in Scotland) are all faced with the same problem. Distilling, the making of malt whiskies, is all about waiting and judging and care. These are not especially exciting themes to work with from the point of view of a bus-load of tourists on a tight schedule.

Each distillery makes a good creative effort to make the visitor experience memorable, though most emphasise the tradition, heritage and mystery. A good guide for your tour can make or break the experience (as indeed can the size of the sample you get to drink afterwards).

Standard template for the story of a whisky distillery

A typical narrative of the story of a distillery will run as follows:

‘Old Glenmuckle single malt whisky was made illegally by the founder, Campbell MacAroon, but he applied for a licence then sold his product to the USA as well as to exclusive London clubs. The secret of the taste of Glenmuckle lies in the unique shape of the stills, as well as the magic spring from which the water comes.

MacAroon the founder’s great-grandson sold the company to a multi-national twenty years ago. (Most of the other drinks in their world-wide portfolio are made with potatoes.) The four people employed in the distillery today have all worked there since they were twelve. The quality is exactly the same today as it was when the whisky was smuggled out of the glen inside bagpipes, below the noses of the Customs and Excise inspectors….’ 

With local variations, the above summary is the standard template for most malt whisky distillery audio-visuals. (Trust me.) 

Bowmore distillery on the Isle of Islay

Bowmore distillery on the Isle of Islay

A typical distillery visit would show the following processes.

Barley and malt

Barley is soaked to start it sprouting, then spread out on floors to grow, after which it is dried. Actually, probably not. In most cases, it will have arrived by the truck load from the maltings. However, the old malting floor will be available as a corporate venue. Also available for weddings or ceilidhs. Having said that, some malting floors integral to the distillery do survive.

Wort in the mash tun

During this drying process peat-smoke may give the malt its flavour. The malt is then ground and hot water added. The resulting liquid, called wort, is held in a mash tun, a large circular vat with a several thousand litre capacity. Water at high temperatures is washed through and run off, eventually to leave a sweet, semi-transparent liquid in the underback or worts receiver at the bottom of the mash tun. (The solids remaining in the mash tun are known as draff and are dried to be used as winter cattle food!)

Dalwhinnie Distillery, from the A9, the Highland road

Dalwhinnie Distillery, from the A9, the Highland road

(Pictured) Dalwhinnie Distillery, as seen in a snapshot from a moving vehicle on the A9 'The Highland Road'. This distillery is the highest in Scotland. Nice single malt, too – plus they offer a delicious tasting session pairing malts and gourmet chocolates – yum!

Yeast in the washback

Now pay attention at the back of the group. This liquid is cooled and then added, along with yeast, to a wash-back, another large vat. Fermentation takes place. (You’ll get to sniff the contents.) The now alcoholic liquid, known as the wash, is pumped via a wash-charger into a wash still – a large copper still where it is heated. The vapours condense in a worm, a coiled copper tube in a tank of cold water. This distilling process is repeated, at least twice.

Spirit safe, Edradour Distillery

Spirit safe, Edradour Distillery

Wash still and spirit safe

The distillate is then run into a spirit safe. Here the expertise of staff is used to decide the point at which the still is producing the purest whisky – as both at the beginning and the end of the heating/distilling process, there will be impurities. Only pure distillate is run from the safe into a spirit receiver.

Casks for maturing

From here the product goes to a spirit store, where water is added to reduce strength, then it goes into casks for maturing. Oak casks previously used to mature sherry are sometimes used to give a distinctive flavour to whisky. These casks also add colour, and some experimentation goes on, creating flavours by maturing the spirit using imported casks from distilling/fermenting activities elsewhere in the world. (Gosh, that’s pretty general – I’m talking here about US bourbon casks, or Spanish sherry casks and so on.)

Various whisky barrels for maturing Scotch whisky

Various whisky barrels for maturing Scotch whisky

Whisky matures by law for at least three years. Then it either goes to the blender or is left to mature for several more years before bottling as single malt.