Whisky is an enigmatic spirit. It comes in many forms and versions. No other spirit can command the type of prices that whisky can, and this is essentially without any change to the ingredients. It is the arrogant king of the jungle. It doesn’t play well with others either when it comes to cocktails. Yes there are some great whisky cocktails, but they’re more challenging to put together. It is also important to acknowledge that I’m thinking of scotch whisky here. American and Canadian whiskies, based on corn and rye respectively are easier on the palate, and therefore easier to work with.
Apart from the fact that different countries produce whisky : Scotland, Ireland, America (so that’s bourbon), Canada and Japan are the main 5, there are different types of whisky too. Even Scotch subdivides into blendeds : like Teachers, Bells and Famous Grouse.
They’re the ones to use when making cocktails. You certainly don’t use malt whisky, generally. Malts are made up of finely balanced and subtle flavours. Using peaty malts is a notable exception.
Something I learned on a whisky distillery tour in Scotland a few years ago concerns the high price of aged whisky. You might pay £30 for a 15 or 18 year old Scotch malt, but the price rapidly rises into the hundreds for one which is over 30 years old. Some of this is due to the perceived mellower taste, but in fact a whisky doesn’t improve after 15 years in the barrel. After 15 years it’s as good as it’s going to be. No it’s to do with evaporation. In Scotland, up to 2% of the spirit volume is lost through the wood each year due to this evaporation. This is known rather romantically in the distilleries as the angel’s share!
For whisky distilling countries with hotter climates such as India, the evaporation is of course much more significant.