Want to take your tastebuds on a little vacay? Just pour a dram and taste your way around the best whisky in the world.
No matter if you’re drinking whiskey or whisky, bourbon, rye or Scotch, this glorious spirit is a journey in a glass. Whisky can transport you around the world without leaving your barstool, from the Scottish moors, to Japanese mountains and the languid American south. But what country makes the best whisky? The only way to find out is to get sipping.
Here are five destinations you need to know to discover the best whisky in the world.
1. Start out in Scotland
Any proud Scot will tell you: Scotland is the OG of whisky. Scotland has been crafting whisky since at least the 15th century and is still the world’s largest producer. ‘Scotch’ is simply whisky made in Scotland under strict regulations, mostly in five reigning whisky regions: Islay, Highlands, Campbeltown, Lowlands and Speyside. Single malt Scotch must be distilled from 100% malted barley at a single distillery and aged for three years minimum in oak barrels.
One of the most distinctive (and divisive) expressions of Scottish whiskies is peated whisky. Peat is a traditional fuel used to dry the barley grain, leaving a smoky intense flavour that connoisseurs obsess over. But if peat is a bit much for you, there’s still hundreds of delectable Scottish single malts and blended Scotches to try.
Where to try: BLACK Bar & Grill divides its impressive array of Scotch whiskies up into those five famous regions.
2. Don’t forget Ireland
The Scots might stake a claim on whisky, but Ireland (where the ‘e’ comes into the spelling) argues that Irish monks first brought whiskey to the islands. Ireland today has less than 40 distilleries compared to 150-plus in Scotland, but its whiskey heritage and a distillery boom is seeing that gap shrink. Irish whiskey is triple distilled (unlike twice for Scotch) and rarely uses peat, so it tends to be thought of as smoother and lighter than its Scottish neighbour’s.
Where to try: BLACK Bar & Grill’s small but interesting range of Irish whiskey includes the cult single-pot-still Redbreast and single-grain Greenore.
3. Journey to Japan
Japan was relatively late to the whisky party, but Japanese whisky is now on the lips of every diehard whisky nerd. Japan’s first whisky was bottled at the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923 by Shinjiro Torri, the founder of Suntory (which remains Japan’s largest distillers alongside Nikka). Shinjiro and early distillers adopted Scottish techniques, but Japan has developed its own flair, with sophisticated blending more common than single malt whisky.
Australia House of Suntory ambassador Tom Scott explains: “There is a subtle finesse or ‘elegance’ to the complexity within the whiskies of Japan, a craft industry that has learnt from what other whisky producers of the world have to offer, combined with the intrinsic culture, nature, and values of Japan to make a truly unique spirit.”
Where to try it: Get your head around Japanese whisky with one of the Japanese whisky flights at Sokyo at The Star Sydney.
4. Skip on over to the States
Over a few hundred years, a diverse, experimental whiskey industry has distilled in the US. In the States, where it’s ‘whiskey’, you’ll inevitably encounter bourbon and rye whiskey. Bourbon is a US invention (from Kentucky, precisely), derived from at least 51% corn mash (the grain/water/yeast base of whiskey distillation). Tennessee whiskey is also corn-based, but only charcoal-filtered bourbon/whiskey made in that state can use the name. Rye whisky is distilled with rye mash. The increasingly trendy moonshine is also technically whisky, just unaged (the barrels give whiskey its golden-brown tinge).
For aged whiskey (purists would say it ain’t whiskey if it isn’t aged), many US distillers use new oak, which produces sweeter, vanilla notes than the old oak preferred in Scotland. The warmer weather in America’s south also speeds distillation, helping US whiskey develop taste and complexity faster.
Where to try: BLACK Bar & Grill helpfully breaks down its US whiskeys into rye, Tennessee and bourbon.
5. Come on back Down Under
Australia is also a recent whisky world entrant but is making up for lost time. The ‘godfather’ of Australian whisky Bill Lark kickstarted Australia’s industry in Tassie in 1992. Tassie remains the home of Australian whisky thanks to distilleries such as Sullivan’s Cove, but Victoria and NSW are creeping up.
Dave Withers, master distiller at Sydney young-gun distillery Archie Rose, explains that Australia is becoming known for an unconventional approach, capitalising on our natural riches. “Australian whisky is becoming synonymous with high-quality spirit,” he says. “Increasingly the tried-and-true techniques are being merged with innovative and world class production techniques which draw on the fantastic raw materials of Australia: grain, casks and climate.”
Where to try: Sample both a single malt by Bill Lark and Archie Rose’s rye whisky at Flying Fish.
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