Whiskey is such a familiar beverage it almost seems silly to ask the question posed by the title. But, despite its centuries long presence in our world, there is still much about this golden beverage that's not widely known.

What Is Whiskey?

Though some of the expertise goes back thousands of years, the knowledge for making whiskey is much more recent. These spirits made from barley, rye or corn have much in common with beer, which was made as far back as the ancient Egyptians. But whiskey is distilled, not fermented, and that practice only began in the Middle Ages, probably by monks in Ireland or Scotland. Some experts put the beginning of whiskey at the early 15th century, others near the end.

Interestingly, though technology in many areas has improved dramatically, the basic process is still much the same today. Distillers of the 16th century would recognize and probably know how to use most of the equipment of the modern era without difficulty.

Though different grains can be used, barley is one of the most common. The seed is soaked for a couple of days until it germinates, then baked in a kiln to halt the process. Enzymes in the germination process produce sugars that are then turned into alcohol, similar to the beermaking process.

But fermentation of the type used to make beer will only produce ABV (alcohol by volume) concentrations of about 15% maximum. Distillation is the key to making whiskeys of 70, 80 or more proof. 'Proof' is double the alcohol content.

Scotch whisky, or simply Scotch (the Irish distillers in Dublin are alleged to have added the 'e' later to distinguish their product), is a variation on the basic brew. The chief difference is the burning of peat to dry the barley, which imparts much of the distinctive flavor of this northern drink.

From there, the process can take any number of different routes. The choice made dictates whether the end result will be a 'Single Malt', or a 'Blend', or some other variation. A single malt is the product of one distillery, using exclusively malted barley. A blended malt combines the product of several distilleries to achieve a liquor unique to every brand. A 'grain whiskey' is produced by using rye, corn or other grain mixed with the barley.

But that is only the beginning of what goes into making a fine whiskey.

The clear liquid that is now about 70% alcohol is poured into large oak casks called barrels. By law, it has to mature for at least three years to earn the name 'whiskey'. But most good whiskey, and all good scotch, will have matured for at least 10 years before being bottled. Unlike wines, whiskeys don't age further in the bottle. The scotch casks themselves are specially prepared, usually by having been already used to make bourbon or sherry.

Whiskey swinging in a glass.

The aging process is also hundreds of years old, and the product the result of recipes handed down or developed over that period. But, the fine spirit produced is enjoyed in much the same way as it was then: slowly and with relish.

How To Judge Whiskeys

It's sometimes believed that judging wines and spirits is nothing more than a subjective exercise in ranking according to personal taste. There's an element of that, of course. But there are also real differences between what is good and what is not so good, even in the area of whiskeys.

The best way to appreciate that is to sort through some examples. If you do, it will quickly become apparent that - while the terms used sometimes sound a little pretentious - the ranking of a good whiskey is not a sham.

Take the 30-year old Suntory Hibiki, for example. While the fact that one of the world's best whiskeys is Japanese may be surprising, there are good reasons it achieved that rank.

The Suntory has a mouthfeel that puts it among the smoothest competitors. Warm, dry and with hints of aniseed it is almost sweet, like a liqueur. The carmelized fruit hints contribute to that. Yet, the deep oak aroma with a hint of walnuts and beeswax keep it from going over the edge.

Think this is all marketing hype? Try an experiment.

Take a large shot glass and pour about 25-50 ml into it. Swirl the glass very gently and let the aromas waft to your nose from a distance of a few inches. Can you smell the cask? Thought you might. Now move closer. Pick up a hint of licorice? That's the aniseed going to work.

Now layer a little bit of the liquid on the tongue. Move it around slowly. You'll find it hard to resist swallowing, but if you want to sample multiple whiskeys within a day, it's essential to spit. Otherwise, enjoy. You'll find with only a little bit of experience that you are able just like the professionals to pick out smoke, apple skins and other hints that are definitely there.

Now let's try the same exercise with a fine scotch.

You may have your favorite, but here we'll outline some of the aspects of the truly fine 18-year old Dewar's Founders' Reserve. It's true that this spirit sells for a bit more than the average grocery store brand. But lest you think that is just more marketing at work, pay heed before you pay money.

Take a whiff as before. You'll discover a certain nuttiness that is halfway between almonds and walnuts. There is no such nut, so it can't be imagined, only sensed. Get a little closer and you'll sense the lemony aspect of the scotch.

Take a sip. Let it evaporate over the tongue and palate. Can you sense the raspberry notes with hints of smoke? Of course you can. You're becoming quite the pro yourself now. The finish will leave you with an aftertaste of mint and spice.

The lessons from these two examples are clear. Take your time. Get more out of whiskey by sampling and paying attention. Sip, don't gulp. Now go reward yourself with that great cigar.