Beginner's guide to whisky: what you need to know

whisky on table

Blanche Clark

Posted December 22, 2022

Whisky is more than 200 years old but it’s undergoing a revival with local distilleries producing world-class spirits that are hitting the spot in Australia. 

Interest in whisky is growing, and Australian distilleries are marking their mark.

Tasmania leads the way with more than 22 whisky distilleries, but Victoria has at least seven gaining some serious whisky cred, including Starward distillery in Port Melbourne.

RACV Club Bars Manager Rob Pierce says the revival of interest in whisky is linked to our increasing sophistication in terms of spirits. Whisky is also the base for popular cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned cocktail.

“Gin had a revival about 10 years ago, and now we have gin bars and cocktails, and whisky is doing the same thing. More younger people are trying whiskies, and the new distilleries are being much more creative about what they produce.

cabinents at wine bar racv

The Wine Bar at RACV City Club has whisky lockers, which Club Members hire to hold their favourite bottles.


Brief history lesson 

The Scots began making whisky with malted barley more than 500 years ago, probably in response to the lack of grapes to make wine. The Scotch Whisky Association says lighter-flavoured grain whisky debuted 200-odd years ago. Single-malt whisky is produced and bottled in a single distillery, whereas blended whisky combines two or more malt and grain whiskies. 

More expensive blended scotch whiskies tend to have a higher percentage of malt.

American whiskey can be made with any grain or grain mash that has been fermented, distilled, and aged in an oak vessel. However, some names have brand protection: a bourbon can only be made in the United States and a scotch can only be made in Scotland. 

Is it spelt whisky or whiskey?

Whether you’re a scotch expert, or yet to develop a palate for a wee dram, it’s important to know the history behind the alternate spellings and origins of the names. 

  • Whisky is from Scotland and whiskey is from Ireland, and it’s believed the Americans kept the “e” in the word because of the large number of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. 
  • A whisky is only called scotch (which is capitalised when paired with the word whisky) when it is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland. 
  • As for American whiskey, the origins of bourbon are hazy, though Kentucky is considered the epicentre. This style of whisky must have at least 51 per cent corn mash in its production. 

Start with bourbon

Like wine, whisky is something you appreciate the more you learn about the different aromas and flavours. Rob says there are so many different whiskies that people often need guidance to develop their whisky palate. 

Not only are whiskies made with malted barley, corn or rye, there are single and blended whiskies, and each country, whether it's Scotland, Ireland, Japan, the US, or Australia, has a different style.

“My advice is to start with a bourbon,” Rob says. “Bourbon has sweeter tones, because of the corn. People find its vanilla profile more appealing, which helps you start to appreciate the nuances and flavour of the high-proof spirit.” 

Adding ice or water is a personal choice, although purists prefer water, believing the dilution enhances the aroma and flavour. Water can also take away the “burn” that whisky novices often experience. 

There are a couple of gateway whiskies: the Nikka Coffee Grain Whisky, which has a similar flavour profile to bourbon, and an unpeated whisky, such as the Spring Bay Single Malt Whisky from Tasmania, which is lighter, with more caramel notes.

“From there you can adjust your palate, and many people end up trying the Islay whisky styles, like Laphroaig,” Rob says. “They are peaty and heavy and that appeals to a lot of people, but you usually have to work your way up to those flavour profiles.” 


Use your favourite whisky to mix an Old Fashioned cocktail

RACV Club whisky events 

The Wine Bar at RACV City Club is a great place to educate yourself about whisky. The bar tenders offer advice, and Club Members can try different whiskies to help them work out what they like. 

“Once you get to a certain level, you will find their own palate,” Rob says. “There’s such a wide variety, and you can enjoy different styles at different times.” 

The Wine Bar also has whisky lockers, which Club Members can hire and fill with a favourite whisky that they can enjoy anytime during opening hours. Club Members also receive emails about forthcoming Club whisky events.

Rob says the whisky events suit both single-malt connoisseurs and whisky novices. 

“Most people are aware of the range of flavours when it comes to wine, but don’t realise it’s the same for whiskies,” he says. “Members can come into the Wine Bar, or to an event, and work out what whisky they like; everyone has their own favourites.” 


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