Whisky 101

Art of the Cocktail, Beer & Cocktails, Drink, Learn, Primers

Cold, cozy nights call for a fire in the fireplace and a drink to keep you warm. This time of year, whisky is the spirit of choice, whether you’re blending a classic cocktail or sipping it neat. Here’s everything you need to know about tasting, mixing and enjoying it.


Tasting Tips


When tasting whisky, smell the nose first, then let it coat your whole tongue and allow it to sit for a minute before swallowing. Whisky tastes a little different on every point on your palette, so this method gives you the most well-rounded appreciation of the flavors.


Adding one or two drops of clean, distilled water can do wonders for the taste of whisky. The water smooths the “esters” in the alcohol — the part that makes it burn and flare up the back of your sinuses — so you can more astutely taste the different notes. It also brings out more of the “nose” of the drink. Adding an ice cube has a similar effect, while also chilling the spirit to the ideal drinking temperature (though you risk watering it down).


The lower the temperature of whisky, the higher the viscosity. Keeping your bottle in the freezer will create a slightly more syrupy texture that will linger a little longer on the tongue — like adding water, this is another trick that allows you to really taste the whisky.


A note on color: Darker usually means older, and lighter means younger; color comes from the barrel, so the longer it’s in there the more color it picks up. Barrel type also influences color. Bourbon barrel-aged scotches are lighter because the barrel has been used several times before the scotch goes in, but wine barrel-aged scotches can be very dark because they pick up color from the wine as well.


Varieties & Flavor Notes


  • Irish: Irish whiskey has almost no smoke or peat, and is typically characterized by smooth, sweet honey and vanilla. Irish whiskey is smooth because it is distilled three times, while Scotch is only distilled twice. (Fun fact: whiskey is spelled with an “e” when referring to Irish and many American whiskies, while “whisky” is the preferred spelling in Scotland, Japan and most other regions. “Whisky” is also the spelling commonly used when referring to the category as a whole.)
  • Scotch: The flavors of Scotch vary dramatically by region, but Island varieties are peatier and smokier than those from Highlands or Speyside. Scotch is usually made from barley, though the Irish use any number of grains. To be called Scotch, a whisky must be distilled and matured in oak for a minimum of 3 years on Scottish soil.
  • Bourbon: Bourbon contains notes of vanilla bean and caramel and tends to have more heat on the palate than Irish whiskey. It must be made from at least 51% corn, but most bourbons contain a larger percentage for added sweetness.
  • Rye: Rye’s flavor is unique — spicy and sharp. To be called Rye, it should be distilled from at least 51% rye.
  • Single Malt: Single malt refers to whiskies distilled in one distillery (single) from a single malted grain (malt), and is always distilled in copper pot stills. In contrast, blended whisky can be made a few ways: a blend of several single malts, or a blend of both malt and grain whisky (grain whisky is distilled from grains which have not been malted and is very light in flavor). Blends are almost always smoother and sweeter than single malts, so they can help novices break in their taste buds.


Classic Cocktails


Most cocktails work best with American whiskies — bourbon for sweet notes, rye for spicy notes — but blended Scotches and Irish whiskies can also work well. Single Malts can make a great cocktail, but they’re not for mixology beginners, as the flavors don’t blend as well and aren’t as forgiving.


Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular whisky cocktails:

  • Old-Fashioned: American whisky, bitters, simple syrup and a twist of orange peel.
  • Manhattan: Whisky, vermouth and bitters.
  • Whisky Sour: Whisky, simple syrup and lemon juice.
  • Sazerac: Whisky, simple syrup, bitters and absinthe or pastis.
  • Mint Julep: Bourbon, mint and sugar.
Infusions: Infusing sweeter whiskies like bourbon or Irish whisky with fruit makes for a delicious and easy cocktail ingredient. Cherry and orange are always great flavors, but try cranberry or pear for the holidays.
Other Uses


Bourbon makes a great cooking ingredient! Use it to deglaze a pan, add it to a sauce, or substitute it in place of vanilla extract. Bread pudding, French toast and ice cream are ideal dishes to showcase its flavors. Since bourbon is distilled from corn it’s high in sugar, making it great for anything that needs a hint of sweetness or caramelization. Click here to see our recipes featuring bourbon, and see our Baccarat glassware collection here.

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