Six Myths About Whisky That Need Smashing

Do we really need an International Scotch Day to promote whisky? Perhaps not, but it’s a good excuse to start our Scotch Whisky Series with the debunking of six myths that haunt the industry.

Today is the second International Scotch Day. Now, don’t get that confused with World Whisky Day (19 May 2018); (National) Scotch Whisky Day (27 July); or National Bourbon Day (14 June) which doesn’t even fall within Bourbon Heritage Month (September).

Do we need another international day to mark whisky? Perhaps not, but it seems a good a time as any to turn the spotlight on the industry. A lot of whisky history (and indeed fact) is shrouded, often quite literally, in mist. This has led to the establishment of some damaging and unhelpful myths. Most of these started off as mere marketing puff, and have been honed and propounded by interested parties for decades to drive profit or promote one brand’s product over another’s.

Now one of the most dangerous side effects to these myths is that they actually serve to put a lot of consumers off trying whisky due to a belief that there’s a right and a wrong way to order it and drink it.

This must end. So here I set about looking to debunk six of the most common myths about scotch whisky.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to drink whisky

False, there’s no right way or wrong way to order or drink whisky. Provided your bartender understands what you want, you get what you want and provided you’re happy you’re doing it right. It’s your drink and you should drink it how you want to. 

Single Malt is Better Than Blended

Nonsense. First of all “better” is subjective, so let’s drop that right away. Next, talking about ‘blends’ as if they’re sui generis is not particularly helpful. To some extent or another, nearly all whisky is blended.  When people talk about blends they are generally being dismissive about entry level products from the supermarket which are already very different fromthe vatted blending of some of the fine Compass Box or Douglas Laing bottles available, or the blending that takes place for most single malts where the produce of different barrels at the same distillery are married together in the name of consistency. 

Back in the 19th century whisky started to take off because it was blended – it finally could be blended. Even today, over 90% of all whisky produced goes into blends.  Can 90% of consumers really be wrong? Well, of course they can, but if they’re drinking what they like, then they’re doing it right as far as I’m concerned.  

Granted the reason for the dominance of blends in the 19th and early 20th century was largely because the single expressions of each distillery were often pretty rough or at least wildly inconsistent, and needed the calm hand of a blender to mix and match to make a product that was more palatable. The names of some of the luminaries of the time – one John Walker a grocer from Kilmarnock and Messrs Chivas, shopkeepers on King Street, Aberdeen live on today. 

In fact, legend (marketing spiel) has it that the boom in single malt whisky started when a work experience kid at Glenfiddich in the early 1960s was challenged to ‘get rid of’ an oversupply of 12-year-old whisky.  He came up with the bright idea of bottling it as a single malt and begin promoting it as ‘better’ or ‘more genuine’ than blended whisky.  Fifty years on and Glenfiddich remains the biggest selling single malt in the world.  I hope he got a full-time job out of it. 

One thing’s for sure, having tried my hand at blending whisky, it’s bloody difficult, and those at the top of the game David Stewart (William Grant & Sons), Rachel Barrie (Morrison Bowmore) and Richard Paterson (Whyte & Mckay) are masters of their art – highly prized and with noses insured for over £2.5m.  I’m not going to tell them they’re making an inferior product.

Older whisky is better whisky (and don’t trust a NAS)

This is another myth constructed as a marketing tool.  In this case, the cachet around older whisky developed while the industry was going through a significant downturn.  Producers found themselves sitting on a large inventory that they couldn’t shift.  This meant whisky was gradually ageing, evaporating and costing them more to store.  As a result, they started to promote the idea that older whisky was better.   

Now, older whisky is often more expensive – and this is often also used as an explanation that it must be better.  But this really just speaks to the fact that older whisky costs the producer more.  It sits in a warehouse taking up shelf space for longer; and it is likely to be rarer as fewer casks will have been kept that long, and the angel’s share will have been greater.  As a result, the consumer will end up paying more, so it makes sense to tell them that they’re getting a premium product. 

And sure, there are great old whiskies, and there are great young whiskies but the whisky is ready when it is ready.  If that’s three years or twenty-three years is up to the distiller or blender (he or, more likely, she, of the £2.5m nose) to determine, and ultimately of course, as with all food and drink – taste is subjective.  You might prefer older whiskies or younger whiskies, but neither is demonstrably better than the other. 

Now, as for NAS (non-age statement) whisky, the myth here is actually one that hasn’t started within the industry.  It is, in fact, largely consumer snobbery that claims that NAS whisky is not as good as your 10, 12, 15 plus-year-old expressions.

First (hooray), some law. If an age appears on a bottle of whisky it must be the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle.  This is to avoid distillers taking advantage of the widespread belief that older = better, dropping a teaspoon of 25-year-old malt into a bottle of new make spirit, and calling it 25-year-old whisky. 

This was all well and good when the industry was (relatively) in the doldrums, but with the recent resurgence of whisky consumption have come concerns about the threat of whisky shortages (shock, horror! Keeps me awake at night – not really, I’ve got loads).  This has, completely coincidentally I am sure – coincided with a trend towards no age statement expressions often with intimidating Gaelic or Norse sounding names. 

These exist primarily to enable producers to better manage their inventories.  If a distillery is running low on ten-year-old casks (because in 2007 they didn’t predict the growth in the industry) they might need to pad a batch out with younger whisky.  Given that they (may) have spent many years telling people that older is better so they can sell more of their 15- and 18-year-old expressions, they may not want to launch a 6-year-old (even if it is only 1% six-year-old malt in 99% 10-year-old) so they top up the batch with a little six-year-old, a little four-year-old, some ten-year-old and some twelve-year-old, and because Scotch Whisky Association rules mean if they wanted to put an age on that bottle it would have to be a 4, they call it “sguabadh làr” (floor sweepings) instead.   

Does that make it worse than a blend with an age statement?  Well no, not automatically.  It might be.  It might not be.  It might turn out to be your favourite, but it is a commercial reality of the industry and I quite like the fact that many of the stuffier producers are now being bitten on the arse by their previous attempts to prove older is better… 

You should/shouldn’t add water/ice to scotch whisky

Bunkum.  This is another myth that will shortly lead us on to don’t drink it with Coke, or put a single malt in a cocktail.  Again, it’s your drink, you should drink it how you want to.   

Water and ice both serve a purpose.  Ice will round off the edges and soften the taste which is great when you’re just starting out.  Water is usually recommended by most producers and is arguably essential in a cask strength whisky.  It opens up different flavours, and can improve, or diminish the neat spirit depending on your preference.  As a result, there’s nearly always a glass of water and a pipette on the table at a tasting.  Professional tasters will add a little a time (hence the pipette), until the ‘nose prickle’ disappears.  Yes that is a technical term.  I would say however that filling the glass with water is a poor way to drink whisky – but arguably a fine way to drink water.  If you can get away with it! 

You shouldn’t use single malts in cocktails

Getoutta here.  If Dave Broom, one of the whisky industry’s leading writers, can publish a book about the merits of drinking 103 different whisky expressions from around the world with soda, coconut water, cola or green tea, and can then turn up at the Islay whisky festival and convert a room at the Lagavulin distillery to the Smokey Cokey – Lagavulin 16 and Coke then who’s to say you’re doing it wrong? 

Frankly, I love whisky and I love cocktails, so I love to make cocktails with whisky.  Yes, some of them are hard to mix with, but plenty aren’t.  If it works, and it tastes good to you, you’re doing it right.   

Elsewhere on this site, you’ll find recipes for drinks such as the West Coast Highball or Bobby Burns, and one of my all-time favourite mixed drinks is the Penicillin.  All of these show how versatile scotch whisky can be, and a couple have a healthy dose of Talisker 10, or even a punchy Islay single malt.  So don’t tell me strong confident whiskies don’t mix well. 

Although a word of warning: I’ve seen people asked to leave pubs in certain parts of Scotland for asking for some Coke to go in their single malt.  So maybe judge the room before you opt for that! 

Region is all

Nope.  The marketing departments of the main whisky producers cottoned onto the idea that each of Scotland’s five whisky-producing regions has its own distinctive character in the 1980s as a way to speak to consumers who’d started to grasp the distinctions of wines from different regions.  

Now while the popular view is starting to coalesce around the idea that terroir does play a role in wine production, whisky is far less a product of its region – the barley, for example, can come from anywhere.  Some distilleries even buy theirs in from farms in England.  England, I ask you… In any event, research now shows that far more of the distinctive character of a whisky comes from still shape and maturation.  

With the latter being a combination of both style of cask and atmospheric factors like humidity.  Its fair to say that location can play a role here – many believe that something of the salty sea air finds its way into coastal whiskies – but other local characteristics can be hard to spot.