The Fascinating World of Whiskey – Total Wine Class

Though I have always enjoyed a good whisky and have even traveled to whisky distilleries Speyside in Scotland, my actual knowledge of whisky has been based purely on taste, not on actually knowing about the liquor. What differentiates the various regions and what nations around the world offer a great whisky or “whiskey”? Is it a good idea to add a wee bit of water to a just poured whisky or is that a tacky and uninformed way to ruin a fine liquor? And what about ice, for that matter? Is it smart to pour a single malt over a few ice cubes, or is that going to adversely impact my enjoyment?

Luckily I didn’t have to live in perpetual ignorance thanks to Total Wine in Denver, Colorado. Last weekend they offered up a free whisky tasting class so my buddies and I signed up; a few hours of learning about whisky from an expert and having a few samples to taste? Excellent. And it was indeed quite fun and informative both.

The classroom is at the back of Total Wine, easily the nicest and swankiest liquor store I’ve ever stepped foot in, and it holds about 35-40 people. The room was full and it was a satisfyingly diverse group of gender and ethnicity, very much the best of Denver. Each of us had four samples ready to taste, along with some snack foods and morsels to try out for pairings. My ‘mini-flight’ of whisky looked like this:

total wine whiskey tasting class

First thing to talk about is whisky versus whiskey. They’re basically the same thing, but generally speaking, Scottish whisky is spelled without the ‘e’ while most every other whiskey (Irish, Japanese, South American) includes the ‘e’. There are a zillion rules around what must be produced where with whiskey and whisky, but surprisingly the spelling of the word doesn’t seem to be included. However, you don’t want to make a rye-based whiskey in Mexico and call it a bourbon (which is an American whiskey, but I’ll come back to that) or a whisky in Guam using a Scottish recipe and call it scotch (only whisky brewed in Scotland can be called scotch).

Yes, there are whiskey distilleries in both South Africa and Guam!

Here are the four different whiskeys we tasted:

four whiskeys - whiskey tasting samples - total wine

Left to right (which is the same order they were in the tasting glasses) are Green Spot Irish Whiskey, Black Ridge Bourbon, Hayama Pure Malt Whiskey and Balvenie 12yr Double Wood Scotch Whiskey.

Green Spot is a single pot still whiskey from Midleton Distillery in County Cork and earned an impressive 92 points in the 2014 Ultimate Spirits Challenge. Whiskey expert Jim Murray listed Green Spot as “one of the ten whiskies you must have in your lifetime” in his Whiskey Bible. Yes, it’s good!

whisky samples tastingBlack Ridge Bourbon is a five year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon from clear springs distillery and is a gold medal winner from the San Francisco Spirits competition. The recipe was developed back in 1879 and still utilizes the iron-free limestone water from its original spring, adding local corn, rye and malted barley. A bourbon, btw, must have at least 51% corn and be distilled and aged in the USA.

Hayama Pure Malt Whiskey is the first single malt Japanese whiskey released overseas and Total Wine has an exclusive distribution agreement at this point. It’s distilled by Sasanokawa Shuzo distillery, founded back in 1765 as a sake distillery. It’s been producing award-winning whiskies since 1946. Did you know Japan has been making whiskey since 1946?

Balvenie Double Wood has been on the market for 27 years now and was the first single malt whisky to use a second type of cask as part of the maturation process: This particular whisky rests in Spanish Oloroso casks for three months, gaining notes of both citrus and spice. It’s a 90 point winner at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge too. It was also my favorite of the four.

Here’s Chad, our teacher and the head whiskey buyer for Total Wine, extolling passionately about the various whiskeys we were poised to taste:

chad teaching about whiskey, total wine denver

He was terrific too, funny, engaging, and clearly quite passionate about his area of expertise. Yes, he had a spittoon to discreetly spit out his samples after his tastes. The rest of us? We swallowed ’em with appreciation. 🙂

All in all, super interesting way to spend a few hours and I was startled at how different the various whiskeys were – some much better to my nose and palate than others – and how much difference a wee splash of water made to each sample we had. As Chad explained it, the liquor molecules are “closed” when poured out of the bottle, and the water helps “open them up”. It definitely mellows that first hit of flavor when you put it on your tongue, universally improving all four whiskeys we tried. Add an ice cube? You close the flavor back up, but that can be a smart move if you have an overly pungent alcohol. Generally, though, it’s only in America that we have liquor over ice. Now ya know.

We had a great time all, and I was so enthused walking out that I signed us up for a wine tasting class they’re offering in a few weeks. I might not be much of a drinker, but I might as well know about my liquors, whiskeys and wines, right?

Total Wine, 3905 E Evans Ave, Denver, CO 80210. Web site:

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