Non-fiction book

Whisky: the knowledge

Demystifying whisky


The first time I ever drank whisky I was almost too young to know better. Things ended badly. My grandma had to rescue me. I wouldn’t touch a drop of the stuff until a few years ago, on a press trip to Iceland. Bizarrely enough, we were there to taste a rare 45 year old single malt whisky, the Dalmore Aurora, named after the aurora borealis – the northern lights.

Save its name, there is no good reason why we should have been drinking it in Iceland. But we were, and if I was at the time a tad bewildered by the fuss, nobody else was. The whisky itself had been flown in separately, a week prior to our arrival, where it had sat in pride of place at the Hotel Rangá, rumours of its presence attracting a steady stream of pilgrims. The idea had been that we would taste beneath the lights, but it was April, the tail end of the season, and it was cloudy. We drank indoors. No matter: the Dalmore Aurora didn’t need a light show. It was quite a revelation – in its own right.

Apart from being amazed that it tasted nothing like I remembered whisky tasting, I was perplexed by the fact that it was spicy, and tasted of caramel. I couldn’t care less that it was just one of 200 bottles in the world – or that each went for £3000 a pop. I wanted to know why something consisting largely of ethanol and water should end up brown, light, sharp and slightly sweet, and why some of the group smelt pear and apple, melon, burnt marmalade, while others found roses, jasmine and chocolate. I liked that it had been distilled in stills nicknamed ‘the fat bastards’, but I had no idea how the bastards worked, nor the import of words like ex-bourbon, American white or Matusalem.

I wanted to know what all these words meant. I wanted to know why a liquid should smell and taste of things that it was patently not made of. I was yet to learn about the making of flavour, the effect of copper, the influence of wood, but I sensed a science behind the magic.

This book is the result of that sensing. It’s short – short enough to be read in one sitting. It’s designed to give you a good working knowledge of whisky, its production, various histories, its styles and types, an idea of what to drink. It’s comprehensive, but it’s not deep. The whiskies mentioned here are all findable and largely, I hope, affordable. This is a light journey, touching on many things. It’s a stepping stone, a means of going from knowing something to knowing something more to wanting to know something else.

To which end, if you have a bottle of whisky to hand, pour yourself a drink. If not, then it’s up to you, but I would be tempted to pop down to your local bar. It doesn’t really matter, but I’m hoping that, like my experience in Iceland, you know very little about how that liquid in your glass came to be what it is. Smell it. Take a sip. Take another. Now, start reading. And enjoy. I promise not to bore – though I must now break that promise with some history, definitions, terms and arbitrary decision making.

<For more, see book>