Four great tips for picking the right whisky this Christmas

We asked Gregor Hannah of Lady of the Glen whisky company for his tips on the best ways to pick the right whisky this Christmas

Published 25th Nov 2015
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

At this time of year choosing the right whisky as a gift for a friend and loved one - or even to enjoy yourself - can be something of a headache without having first tried the whisky.

Normally you want to match the bottle to the gift receiver’s taste and you rely on independent reviews, tasting notes, past experience and more often than not brand awareness. However, this limits your choice of whisky landscape and you can find high quality independent bottlers or slightly rarer releases from mainstream distilleries that are perhaps better suited to your gift receiver and coupled with that the bottle will likely be slightly more unique.

There are a few educated assumptions you can make on whisky based on just the details expressed in the product description – please note that I say ‘educated assumptions’ because there are some whiskies that taste so completely contradictory to their origins to suggest that a switch has taken place or your palate is playing tricks on you. Regardless, below are a few helpful tips:

1. The cask used to mature the whisky

A general rule of thumb is that the cask a whisky is matured in is responsible for 50 per cent to 80 per cent of the bottled whisky’s flavour. So understanding what flavours are associated with the different casks is important.

Picture: SPM

Picture: SPM

Bourbon Casks – The most common cask out there used for the maturation of whisky. Previously containing American Bourbon like Jack Daniels (even though it’s a Sour Mash), Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace among others. These casks can no longer be used for the maturation of Bourbon due to legal restrictions so they have historically been used for the maturation of Scotch whisky. You can expect whisky aged in a bourbon cask to have tastes associated with Vanilla, fudge, honey, different nuts like hazelnuts and almonds and even coconut.

Sherry Casks – Becoming much rarer and harder to find. Previously used for varieties of Sherry like Fino, Oloroso and Amontillado among others from Europe. With Sherry you would expect to get a heavier and richer range of flavours, common flavours include – slightly sweeter than bourbon, toffee, winter berries, cherry, raisins and spices like ginger will be more prevalent.

Other casks:

Rum – fruity, vanilla and buttery with spices like pepper and paprika.

Port – similar to Sherry though drier and with more red berry fruits, hints of citrus and dark chocolate.

Wine –sweet, dried fruits and raisins

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Some other details that are a little harder to find related to casks are below, these too will impact the flavour.

Refill Casks – If your Whisky is from a cask that is a first fill, that means it’s the first time it has been used for whisky since it last contained the Bourbon or Sherry etc. Naturally that means a first fill cask will have more to offer and influence the whisky compared to when it is used the second or third time, each time the influence will be reduced and you’ll be left with less character in the whisky.

Size of Cask – The larger the cask less exposure to wood and the less intense flavour. A quarter Cask for instance provides lots of spirit and wood contact and they are mainly used to give whisky flavour quickly, however whisky left too long in quarter cask can be overpowered by the wood. It is typical for whisky to be matured in a Bourbon cask Hogs Heads, which can contain approximately 225 litres or a Sherry Butt which can contain around 500 litres.

Finishing in casks/double wood matured or wood finished – a process of placing the whisky from one cask into another so that the Whisky can take on some of the flavours associated with that second or third cask. It is common fairly common practice for whisky to be finished in a Quarter Cask, for the reasons expressed above, they provide greater wood contact and can express themselves on the whisky quicker.

Like this? See also:

• Great Christmas gifts for whisky lovers made using discarded casks

• Mark Connelly, organiser of Glasgow's Whisky Festival picks out five essential gifts for whisky fans

2. The region in which the whisky was produced

These flavour profiles are a very rough guide as there will be many distilleries within a given region who don't conform to the area's norms.

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Picture: Wikimedia

Highland - The largest region and as a result it has a very varied range of flavours, the core of which are floral with honey and heather. However, Island distilleries (considered part of this region) are more likely to have a briney, salty flavour profile.

Speyside – The most populace region, lush with fruits of apple and pear and providing honey, nuts and spice. Though recently many Speyside distilleries have once again to embrace light hits of peat.

Lowland – Lowland malts tend to be lighter bodied and smoother with more sweetness and grassy notes.

Campbeltown – Salt and brine, with similarities to Islay’s peat and depth.

Islay – Coastal, Salty and that famous peated smoke.

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3. Maturation or age

Whisky will mature only in the cask once it has been removed the flavour or taste is now settled.

Age is not always a signifier for quality, though with the above whisky it more than likely is. Picture: TSPL

Age is not always a signifier for quality, though in the case with the above whisky it more than likely is. Picture: TSPL

To be defined as whisky it must remain in the cask for three years. Generally the older the Whisky the more expensive it is and this mainly due to age being an indication of its rarity.

The alcohol strength which dictates its duty value reduces as the whisky matures and the longer the whisky matures in the cask the more of it that is taken away through evaporation (the angel’s share). So a 26-year-old cask should contain a lot less bottles of Whisky than a 12-year-old cask, and this rarity adds to the value of the bottles.

The longer the Whisky sits and matures in the cask the richer and more intense the flavour. Most whisky for drinking is bottled between ages 12 and 18 years old because this is when the whisky is believed have had enough exposure, leaving it longer could risk the wood overpowering the spirit – ultimately the blender, independent bottler or owner of the cask will decide through regular sampling when they feel the whisky is ready.

4. Single cask release/independent bottler releases and vatting

A worker at Bruichladdich distillery takes a whisky sample from a single cask. Picture: Getty

A worker at Bruichladdich distillery takes a whisky sample from a single cask. Picture: Getty

If you are looking for an exceptionally unique whisky then independent bottling or single cask releases are more likely to be what you are looking for.

A number of the larger distilleries use a process called vatting - or marrying - which involves combining multiple casks to create the distillery’s own standard releases i.e. their traditional 18 year old, this allows them to present a consistent taste.

To understand vatting it is important to remember that every single cask is different, they come from different distilleries places , sit in different parts of the yard or warehouse and get varying exposure to weather conditions and this means that the whisky that they contain is different as a result.

These tips are to be used as a guide and obviously cannot compare to the knowledge gained through tasting, so we recommend trying as many different whiskies as you can before deciding. Obviously.

• Find out more about Lady of the Glen and their excellent selection of rare whiskies here 

Gregor comes from a long line of pipers and growing up was captivated by my father’s impressive whisky collection. This led to a passion for our national drink that eventually led to him creating Lady of the Glen Independent bottlers who now sell some of the rarest Scottish malts and grains on the market.
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