What makes a good whisky? What the experts say...

How do you define a “good whisky”?

There are so many methods, traditions, standards and processes that go into making a bottle of whisky, that vary across the thousands of distilleries around the world. From your single malt scotches to your American bourbons, and from household names such as Jack Daniels, to rarities produced for centuries on the smallest of the Scottish Isles, there are so many elements that go towards choosing the ‘perfect’ whisky.

Of all the spirits, whisky seems to be the one that comes with the most passionate, enthusiastic drinkers, with a particularly busy online world filled with specialised blogs, forums and Facebook groups. We want to find out what it is that makes whisky such a beloved spirit, and as a result, have contacted a number of the most dedicated bloggers, enthusiasts and experts, to determine what they think makes a “good whisky”.

We asked all of the blogs and publications we spoke to: “What do you think makes a good whisky?”

Here's what they had to say...

What makes a good whisky?

Bobby Childs Adventures In Whiskey

Bobby Childs

AdventuresInWhiskey.com

What makes a good whisky? Such a tough question. However, I think it can be at least partially answered using a single word: character. What do I mean by character? It's not necessarily flavour, though that is a major part. A whisky should be able to transport you to another place. Look at Lagavulin 16, for instance. It is much more than a "standard" peated whisky. The way the campfire smoke plays against sweet fruit and toffee notes brings you instantly to that legendary island in the Inner Hebrides. Have I ever visited Islay? No, but after drinking a dram of Lagavulin, I feel like I have.

A characterful whisky is like a flirt with someone you're very much interested in. It'll have you blushing upon first pouring it in the glass. A whisky full of character does not fall flat on the nose. It fills your palate with satisfaction, and leaves you craving another sip as soon as you swallow. No matter the type of whisky you prefer to drink, know this: a whisky without character simply isn't worth drinking.

 

Hasse Berg, The Son of Winston Churchill

Hasse Berg

The Son of Winston Churchill

“What makes a good whisky” always comes down to personal preferences. If you were to round-up ten whisky enthusiasts from around the world, and ask them the same question, they would probably give you ten different answers. Surely they would agree on some aspects, after all it is whisky fans we are talking about here, and that’s really the beauty about whisky, the variety of whiskies, people and opinions. Some prefer Bourbon over Scotch, other holds a passion toward Japanese or Scandinavian whisky, and last but not least, some break it even further down to a Scotch whisky region or distillery, and others lean toward cask strength scotch or high proof single cask bourbons.

So, “what makes a good whisky” in my opinion? Well, first and foremost good conversation company! No matter what you pour in your glass, sharing a dram and the passion always makes a whisky pretty darn enjoyable. I could very easy list some of my all time greatest whisky experiences, and talk about some of the whiskies from closed Scottish distilleries, that I have had the good fortune to taste, or tell you how much I enjoyed GlenDronach’s 15 years old revival, when it was available, or talk about some of my current favorite bourbons, like Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2014.

But I believe that discontinued whiskies, closed distilleries and highly sought after, old and rare or limited edition whiskies that are being flipped around, and sold on the secondary market, for four or five times more than the original suggested retail price, only have interest to a small group of people, and sadly often ends up as collector’s items, and that is really the downside of the current whisky boom, because whisky was meant to be enjoyed. So the greatest whisky is always the one you are willing to open, and share with friends and family, and the ones that currently are poured in your glass, and are widely available, and don't burn a hole in your pocket, the size of Chuquicamata in Chile.

Personally I'm a lover and devoted follower of world whisky in all its many forms, but I do have a weakness when it comes to Bourbon, and an ongoing love affair with Scottish whisky from Islay. If you offer to pour me a Lagavulin 16 or an Ardbeg 10 from Islay, or maybe a Blanton's Original Single Barrel or Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon from Kentucky, then I'm definitely your man! Exciting new things are happening all around in the wonderful whisky world, as we speak, and it is definitely worth mentioning a few rather “new” players in the game; Like the Scottish Highland distillery Wolfburn, who recently released their first official whisky “Hand Crafted” and now have added a couple more whiskies to their Signature range. In my opinion, despite its young age, their “Hand Crafted” Single Malt whisky, are showing real potential.

Another “new” distillery that I’m a big fan of is Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery located in the Scottish whisky region Campbeltown. After releasing ten different so called work in progress bottles, they have finally released their 12 years old Kilkerran Single Malt, which is an absolutely amazing whisky, at a very reasonable price.

If you are into bourbon, you might want to keep an eye out for Castle & Key. Marianne Barnes and her crew are working wonders rebuilding the Old Taylor Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, and they have just put their first barrels of bourbon down for maturation, and I for one, are very excited to see what comes of it. But since it’s going to be a Bottled in Bound Bourbon, we simply have to wait four years, before we know for sure. Just before I finish my pour and close the curtains, I would also like to draw a bit of attention to the smaller craft whisky distilleries from around the world. Give them a chance and try out their products, those guys are putting their hearts and souls into making great whisky.

 

Roy Duff, Aqvavitae

Roy Duff

Aqvavitae

One person’s ‘great’ is often another’s average. With this subjective dynamic part of the whisky fabric, I think a great whisky is one that’s widely accepted to be better than average.

A great whisky for me is one that’s capable of generating one of those ‘epiphany’ moments - where you’re suddenly hit by something more than a nostalgic aroma or an engaging flavour. It’s a short but profound experience which connects with every nerve and has your brain scrambling to try to fathom what just happened. It’s when you realise that whisky is created to do nothing more than stimulate the senses. And that it’s great at it.

A great whisky does this very well, but of course any whisky has the potential to do this, as every whisky is made to do just this. Theoretically, then, every whisky has the potential to be ‘great’.

We only discover a whisky’s potential upon experience - the moment it’s opened. Until that step - what is it? In a sealed bottle it’s as impotent as coloured water. At best it’s ornamental.

I understand that people invest in great whisky, and perhaps collect it. Unfortunately in both scenarios it’s required to stay intact. But the status and the value are only held together by anticipation - the idea that at any moment it could be opened, shared and enjoyed, and so revealing its ‘greatness’.

So, what makes a great whisky? I’d say… opening it.

  

Whisky barrels

 

Femke Tijtsma Sijtsma, Whisky Girl

Femke Tijtsma Sijtsma

Whisky Girl

At times, everybody loves a good whisky. Who doesn’t prefer a whisky with a beautiful color, a delicious smell and an excellent palate, but what makes a good whisky? Enthusiasts have their own thoughts and opinions running around in their heads about this question.

Where one person thinks after a first sip of whisky; “wow, this is amazing”, their friend can be like; “seriously?” What never changed in the past and never will change, is that taste is always personal. In a lifetime you develop your own personal taste for almost everything and it nevers stops developing.

Every whisky starts with the raw materials. The purest water, the best quality barley and top yeast are responsible to make the right balance. However, a good whisky for me, is a whisky that makes me feel good after a hard day's work or after a nice long walk outside. One that gives me warm memories or puts a smile on my face. A good whisky is one you would like to share with friends and family. No matter if this is a birthday, Saturday Night or a weekly get together.

Whisky doesn’t have to be expensive or to have the label ‘good whisky’ stuck on it to be enjoyable. Taste can't be led by price or grade, mostly this is a mindset. Does an expensive bottle makes the whisky better and a cheaper one makes the whisky horrible? No, this all is totally irrelevant. You have to listen to your body, what excites your taste buds, what makes your heart pump. A good whisky will make you shiver and it delivers quivering nose hairs and makes a playground paradise for the tastebuds. For me, that makes a good whisky or whiskey.

When you are going to a shop to spoil yourself with a familiar or new whisky, you definitely will get some advice and opinions from the seller of certain whiskies, they are selling at the shop. Advice is free, it just depends on what you are going to do with it. I know what I enjoy when it comes to whisky, but this liquid always manages to surprise me over and over again. The whisky world is gigantic for there is so much to discover, so much to explore and so much to nose and taste.

Personal taste preferences changes all the time and some haven't found the whisky they love, yet. It doesn’t matter if the whisky has been distilled in Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Australia or Japan, just listen to your body and open your mind for new whisky experiences.

Write down what you like at this point and repeat this every 5 years until you are 80 years old. You will be surprised. There is always a chance there will be another good whisky waiting for you to be opened, one with a beautiful color, a delicious smell and an excellent palate

 

Chris Boyle, Whisky Enthusiast

Chris Boyle

Whisky Enthusiast

For me, a good whisky must be both complex and balanced. These qualities are a must. After that, I’m looking for character, smoothness, finish, and something akin to an X-factor.

The most important ingredient to ensuring that these qualities are present in a whisky is the people involved. One can talk about the quality of the casks, length of maturation, triple-distillation vs double-distillation, geographical influences et cetera, but at the end of the day, the passion of the makers and the love that’s been put in always shines through.

 

Richard Thomas The Whiskey Reviewer

Richard Thomas

The Whiskey Reviewer

I point the finger at tailoring your production process to match the climate, so as to get the most from your spirit and wood and thereby achieve the best in maturation. Because whiskey-making used to be confined to a handful of traditional areas (Canada, Ireland, Japan,  Scotland, Kentucky and Tennessee) for the most part, the role of climate in maturation gets overlooked. Now with whiskey-making having spread to so many new parts of the U.S. and new countries, we can see heat, humidity and/or the lack of it in places like Sweden, India and Texas being used as maturation tools.

The Irish like to point to their mild climate as a factor in smoothing their whiskey, sometimes moreso than triple maturation, and in Kentucky they talk about the frigid winters and steamy summers driving the spirit's interplay with the new white oak barrels. Yet all the same, I think how it all fits together gets lost because those processes evolved and became traditional. Now we can see what happens if you take a process developed in Scotland and move it, carbon copied, to a desert or a jungle, because people have tried it. That doesn't work. It all fits together, and it all needs to fit into your terroir.

 



Whisky being poured into a glass

 

Tim Glittenberg

Whisky Helden

A good whisky is bottled at cask strength, is not subjected to chill filtration or any other treatments and has its own story to tell. The whisky should reflect the remarkable passion and love of the craft of distillation and should be bottled at its optimum of maturity whether old or young. For me it is not age itself that matters, also the quality of the cask, the development of flavours and the whole surrounding are key drivers for an exceptional whisky….and of course a good whisky always has to be peated.

 

Ash Wright

Sandbar Manchester

It is a very difficult question to answer without invoking a built in sense of snobbery. We at sandbar have dedicated a lot of time and money into [selecting/collecting] the best whisky (we can afford because there seems to be no limit to what you can spend) and the last ten years we have found many of our past purchases have rocketed in value due to increased rarity. It is such a heavy influence on value it can often be misleading as an identifying mark of quality. We believe Instead we look for quality in the production - i.e. quality in the distilleries, blenders and bottlers. Producers which are making whisky with passion and experience and releasing carefully crafted whisky made in small volumes; such whiskies can often go unnoticed at first until they start winning awards. We have found this approach has often lead us to discover some very beautiful whiskies.


 

 

Character, palate, nose - many different things that can go towards making a good whisky. Clearly, there are so many factors to take into account when deciding whether or not a whisky hits the spot, and has everything you want from the traditional spirit. Distilleries and flavour seem to be recurring topics in what our bloggers have written, but it's not completely limited to that.

Has all of this talk about whisky left you longing to add a new bottle to your collection? We stock a huge range of Scotch, Irish and American whiskies, as well as several others from around the world. Go to www.thespiritsembassy.com/collections/whiskies/ 

What do you think makes a good whisky? Comment below and join the discussion.


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