A Field Guide to Whisky: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were too tipsy to ask

"A Field Guide to Whisky," by Hans Offringa

What country produces the most whisky? (Hint: It’s not Scotland).

What are the risks involved in investing in whisky, aside from the possibility you’ll go on a bender and drink your portfolio?

What is the best way to store an unopened bottle of whisky, in the unlikely event that you possess the superhuman power to leave that golden nectar unmolested?

And, while we’re at it, what exactly is whisky—and how is it made?

In his book, A Field Guide to Whisky, Hans Offringa—Patron of the Whisky Festival of Northern Netherlands, Honorary Scotsman, and Keeper of the Quaich (it’s a Scotch thing)—addresses all these issues, and hundreds of others besides.

Whisky on the rocks. Literally.

Whisky on the rocks. Literally.

Flip through his 320-page “expert compendium” of the world’s best-loved firewater, and you’ll be prepared for any whisky-related question a bearded, bespectacled quiz master would dare to throw your way. In fact, there’s an entire chapter devoted to trivia.

I’ve been a whisky lover ever since my first visit to Scotland more than a decade ago, and I’m always fascinated by how much there is to learn. Now, I’ll be tossing around terms like “potcheen,” “lyne arm” and “boil ball” (which are apparently not plagues eradicated in the Middle Ages) with aplomb.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered, thanks to Offringa’s guide.

-There are 13 main categories of whisky: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, blended whisky, Bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, Rye whiskey, Wheat whiskey, Corn whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, and Irish whiskey.

-If you’re wondering why whisky is sometimes spelled with an “e” and sometimes without, it depends primarily on where it’s made. Irish and American distillers usually add the “e,” while producers in other countries typically leave it out.

inside the blending lab at Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky

inside the blending lab at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky

-Most whisky aficionados are familiar with the “angels’ share”—the alcohol that evaporates from a whisky cask during maturation—but the Devil gets his due, too. The whisky that’s left behind in the barrel when it’s emptied is dubbed “the Devil’s cut.” Jim Beam has devised a method to extract this residue, using the rinsing water to dilute its “Devil’s Cut” bourbon.

-The term “the Real McCoy” dates to the 1930s. Captain Bill McCoy was renowned for illegally importing top-shelf whisky during Prohibition in the US, so when people wanted the good stuff, they asked for (yes, you guessed it) “the Real McCoy.”

two bottles of Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, is definitely “the Real McCoy.”

whisky still

I have also learned that I will never be as cool as this guy.

-While it’s fairly common knowledge that whisky is produced in Scotland, Ireland, the US, Canada, and Japan, countries like Australia, Denmark, Norway and Turkey are also getting in on the action. Offringa offers an A-Z list of whisky-producing nations.

-Size does matter. (Sorry, fellas). As Offringa explains, “whisky matured in a quarter cask (125 liters) may develop as much flavor in six years as ten-year-old whisky maturing in a hogshead (250 liters).”

If my math teacher had served us shots of whisky while explaining “surface-to-volume” ratio, I might have paid more attention. At least I would’ve had more fun in class.Scotch whisky casks

-Blended whisky got a boost in the mid-19th century, thanks to grape-guzzling Phylloxera, which wiped out fields of French Cognac. So, on behalf of whisky drinkers everywhere, “Vive la France!”

-Bourbon can only legally be called bourbon when it’s made in the US, just as whisky can only be called Scotch when it’s made in Scotland.

A collection of historic bourbon whiskies on display at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky.

A collection of historic bourbon whiskies on display at the Buffalo Trace Distillery

-“Playing with fire, methanol, and other volatile spirits can be extremely dangerous.” Okay, so I already suspected that, but the moral of the story is…don’t brew your own hooch, y’all.

man distilling whisky at an outdoor still

Please, kids, do not try this at home.

That’s just a taster, folks. I suggest picking up your own copy and pouring through it with a wee(ish) dram of your favorite tipple. A Field Guide to Whisky, published by Artisan, sells for $24.95 US, £17.99 UK.

Reading a book about whisky while drinking a dram of ScotchRead more about Scotch whisky here.


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