For the first time whisky drinker it can be hard to break away from the mistaken beliefs and prejudices we’ve acquired from the fringes, bourbon isn’t whisky, bourbon is inferior, whiskey originated in Ireland, women can’t appreciate whisky, and the ever famous you shouldn’t add water. I’ve heard every single one of these, sometimes from so called whisky connoisseurs with expensive collections and the one about bourbon quality, that was me once upon a time. Unfortunately all of these myths are commonplace and can prevent people from fully exploring the world of whisky, so here at Uisce Beatha we’ve compiled a list of whisky myths and the facts behind them.
Bourbon isn’t a Whisky
Technically this is true, bourbon is a whiskey, not a whisky, the Americans adopted the Irish spelling not the Scottish so bourbon is a whiskey. A whisky (or whiskey) is a spirit distilled (using either a pot or continuous still) from malted grain, in the case of Scotch single malts that grain is barley, for blended whisky this may mean a variety of grains such as rye, barley, corn or wheat. Bourbon must legally be made in America with at least 51% corn, though this is usually higher at around 70%.
Regardless a bourbon is a type of whisky, one which is due to the popularity of offerings like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam more often associated with underage drinking and mixers, regardless both are types of whisk(e)y. That’s not to say the two are identical their are major difference between a high quality bourbon and a fine Scotch, they use different ingredients, Americans generally favour the continuous still over the pot still, American’s are legally required to use new casks and of course each country has its own legally protected terms.
Bourbon is an Inferior Whiskey
Again this one has more to do with marketing than anything else, Bourbon being made with corn rather than malted barley means it’s far sweeter than Scotch, the use of new rather than reused barrels imparts darker colour and more aromatic notes faster and of course the climate variety in America means their spirits mature faster.
Personally I lean more towards smoked, peated whisky and have only a few bourbons in my collection but at least at the lower end of the market, pound for pound you can get a better quality bourbon than you can a Scotch. Don’t believe me go grab yourself a bottle of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, it’ll set you back around £20, about the price of a bottle of Bells or Famous Grouse. It’s a no age statement straight bourbon meaning that by law it needs to be aged a minimum of 4 years, though most reviewers place this closer to 7.
Bourbon is not necessarily a cheap alternative to whisky, just as you wouldn’t judge a Scotch based on a supermarket blend, don’t judge a bourbon based on J.D.
Whisk(e)y Originated in Ireland
The reality is that we have no idea where the whisky (or whiskey) we drink today originated, Malachy Magee insists it is almost certain that whiskey, uisce beatha or water of life was first made in Ireland though he gives no evidence to back this claim. The first possible reference of uisce beatha is found in 1405 in Ireland in The Annals of Clonmacnoise. which reports that “Chieftain of Moyntyreolas, died at Christmas by taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” unfortunately with no further information there is little agreement among academics as to whether this referred to whisky, brandy or another distillate.
The first definitive record we have was found in Fife in 1494 who was granted “eight bolls of malt where within to make aqua vitae by order of the King James IV”. This is not to claim that Scotland was the first country to produce whisky, after all distillation dates back to at least the time or Aristotle, however anyone who claims to know definitively should make him or herself known to the academic community at their earliest convenience.
Women Can’t Appreciate Whisky
Or its popular variation that whisky is a man’s drink. Apart from being truly ridiculous and more than a little insulting women are actually better placed to appreciate the subtleties of whisky than men are! Why? Because enjoying a good whisky is all in the nose and at least during their reproductive years women seem to be far better at detecting subtle odours than men.
There are also enough female members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society to throw female only tastings, female brand ambassadors, blogger and authors who all know more about whisky than the average male. I fact i’m about to reference one of them now:
You can’t Add Water To Whisky
One of the most controversial topics in the world of whisky, adding water to whisky is fiercely debated but honestly there is nothing wrong with adding water if that is your preference, in fact for cask strength offerings adding a little water is sometimes necessary to unlock the aromas and flavours. Sometimes known as ‘releasing the serpent’ adding water to whisky results in an exothermic reaction raising the temperature by approximately 2°C/3.5°F unlocking the flavour-bearing congeners in the whisky. This results in “Viscimetric whorls” or legs appearing in the whisky, releases volatile aromas and makes our palate more receptive to salty and fruity tastes, rather than sweet and spicy.
Ice In Whisky
While ice makes the whisky more refreshing and calms the burn of the alcohol creating a more gentle almost creamy taste it also inhibits the aromas and flavours. Consequently I’m never going to recommend anyone put ice in a good whisky or serve it on the rocks, but if you are going to use ice you might want to consider a cheaper blend whisky which has been produced for this very reason.
Ultimately even this though is a matter of preference, there are no hard and fast rules. You can find out more in the below video with the fantastic Heather Greene:
Heather Greene ambassador for Glenfiddich explains the four ways you can enjoy their awarded single malt
Older Whiskies Are Better
That the age of a whisky is an indicator of quality is perhaps the most commonly held misconception and goes some way to explaining the hostile attitude to No Age Statements. The age statement on a whisky tells us exactly one thing, the age of the youngest whisky in the blend, thus two 18 year old whiskies might have wildly different qualities. Fuji Gotemba distillery for example has two 18 year old expressions Fuji Sanroku and Fuji Gotemba, the former contains a 24 year old whisky, the later only 18 year olds. This also draws no distinction between whisky matured in new oak, and one matured in rejuvenated sherry casks which will age very differently, nor even the region which produced the whisky – different climates alter the rate of maturation.
The age of a whisky is at best one factor which will determine what a whisky tastes of, leave a whisky in the barrel too long and it will come out bitter and burnt, take it from the cask too soon and it will never reach its full potential, blend a great whisky the wrong way and you’ll flatten it out destroying the subtle flavours and aromas imparted by the oak. There are great young whiskies just as there are bad old ones, as always in the world of whisky it’s more complicated than just checking the age.
Have you found a myth that needs debunking? Let us know in the comments below!