How to Drink Whisky
What is whisky? Whisky is often thought of as being that brown liquid that gets sloshed around in the tumbler of a cigar smoking big shot. The reality is quite different. Whisky is in fact an egalitarian drink, a beverage for everyone which has many faces. It is just as much about having fun and sharing a drink with friends as it is about considered discernment. Its recent popularity has much to owe to whisky’s diversity, and authenticity. With this in mind it is worthwhile taking a closer look at what makes whisky tick.
Whisky is often explained according to its country/region of origin. Yet like so many things in life, the flavours of whiskies have as many exceptions as rules. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand the styles of whisky is within a few basic flavour camps:
Fruity: These whiskies tend to be lighter in disposition and contain the classic flavours of orchard fruits and can have a honeyed sweetness about them. The intensity and accents of these flavours will vary from distillery to distillery however the majority of Scottish whiskies from the Highland and Speyside regions fall into this category. Many Japanese whiskies are also classed as having a subtle, fruity and aromatic charm.
Pronounced cask influence: All whisky is matured in oak casks. Some whiskies, as is the case with Bourbon, must be matured in virgin casks which can heavily influence the style of spirit, imparting vanilla, cream and caramel sweet flavours. Other whiskies may be matured in casks that formerly held Sherry or Port. It was discovered many hundreds of years ago by the Scots that whiskies matured in casks that formerly held fortified wines produced good quality spirit which was influenced by the former contents. In scotch whisky, spirit matured in ex-Sherry casks are often highly sought after due to their rarity and rich flavour. Australian whiskies tend to also have an intense contribution from the cask they were matured in.
Grain and Blends: Whisky can be made from a number of different grains, each of which provides its own distinctive flavour. Within Scotch whisky typically wheat or corn is used to create a spirit which is very light in character and matures quite quickly. Its production is often quite economical making it easy to produce whiskies that hit a specific price point. Accordingly, grain whiskies are blended with single malt whiskies to create consistent and reliable whisky at a value for money price point.
Smoky: this distinctive aroma originates from barley that is dried over a fire made with peat (an archaic fuel source) or wood. The smoky aromatics produced by the fire bind to the outside of the barley such that when spirit is made from that grain, the smokiness is carried through. The aroma of peat smoke is quite polarising with some individuals finding it an acquired taste. The most famous region for smoky whiskies is Islay in Scotland however some modern distilleries utilise malts produced with wood smoking.
Savoury: There is a small selection of whiskies which have a savoury characteristic. This can appear as meaty/earthy flavour which is often particular to the production process. Saltiness is common in some whiskies and is often attributed to the coastal location of spirit distillation and whisky maturation.
Finding Your Favourite Whisky
The best way to find the styles of whisky you enjoy most is to drink around. There are several clubs and groups that regularly meet for tastings, with these events being great social outings while allowing participants to chat to likeminded whisky enthusiasts and sample a wide variety of styles. Tasting whisky in this sort of format can be a great way of engaging with a wide range of whisky for relatively modest investment. Events like those run by The Oak Barrel in Sydney are amongst the best in the country and range from those designed for beginners all the way through to aficionados. Similarly, venues like Whisky & Alement and The Elysian in Melbourne offer regular tastings and also very reasonably priced whiskies by the glass making these great venues to sample a wide range of more unusual malts. Some groups run events for their members like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. These unique whiskies bottled exclusively for their members are cask strength (higher proof) whiskies of a consistently outstanding quality.
If you are interested in learning more about the whiskies you enjoy as well as recommendations for what to try next, then online blogs can be useful. Sites such as Time For Whisky, The Whisky Ledger and Distant Thunder Whisky Club offer a wide range of whiskies, events and venues to visit in Australia. The infamous whisky stalwart Serge Valentin offers in-depth tasting notes for some weird and wonderful whiskies on his site Whisky Fun. Weekly views, news and reviews may also be found on Scotchwhisky.com.
How to Drink Whisky
The simple answer is, the way you like it. There is a wealth of different flavours that can be found in a pour of whisky. How much attention you wish to give those aromas and flavours is entirely up to you. There is an important distinction to make between drinking and appreciating whisky which ultimately rests on how much you seek to extract from your glass. The drinking of whisky is quite a popular way of imbibing. It involves consuming the product without assessing the product on its own or making the attributes of the spirit a priority. Whisky can find itself in a range of mixers, cocktails and also neat and its ability to be up to the task of still delivering a great experience is testimony to the quality of the spirit. Not all whisky needs to interrogated and spoken of with reverence. Whisky is also about fun, conviviality and merriment.
How to Taste and Nose Whisky
The tasting or appreciation of whisky is about evaluating its qualities. When assessing whisky, it is important to use a glass that will let you get the very most out of your pour of whisky. A bowl-shaped glass which tapers towards the opening is ideal. This style of glass allows the aromas to gather and focus in such a way that if the drinker brings the glass to his/her nose, the aromas of the spirit can easily be discerned. There are specific whisky glasses that have been designed for whisky such as the Glencairn glass, however most wine glasses can be used.
The best way to appreciate spirits such as whisky is to use your nose. Humans have a limited range of flavours they can taste however we can detect millions of distinct aromas by smell. You may find that merely sticking your nose into a glass and inhaling deeply is unlikely to result in a pleasant experience. Often you will experience a stinging sensation in the bridge of your nose corresponding to high alcohol vapours. It is best when engaging with a whisky to sniff gently and regularly, ensuring that you do not let the alcohol vapours become overpowering. A good trick is to try inhaling with your mouth open or from a slight distance from the opening of the glass. By returning to the glass regularly, you will find that the aroma will evolve gradually showing more and more different flavours. It is important to spend a bit of time smelling your whisky. The reason for this is quite pragmatic; if the only enjoyment you get out of your whisky is the tasting of it, then you are not getting your value for money - you are missing out on a whole other layer of experience.
Once you have nosed your whisky for a while and you are satisfied you have received as much as you would like from the spirit then it is time to move onto having a taste. Take a sip and roll the liquid around your mouth. The aim here is to coat the inside of your mouth with the whisky. If the alcohol is too intense for you then you can use a small amount of water to dilute the whisky. This will make the whisky less intense and ‘open it up.’ What this refers to is the additional flavours that emerge as the alcohol recedes. If you smell with whisky after dilution you may notice the spirit has become milder and sweeter. More specifically, you may begin to pick up some of the typical flavours apparent in whiskies, being vanilla, cream, caramel and chocolate along with honey or jams, flowers and fruits. If you cannot identify exactly what you are smelling and do not fret. The most important question to ask is ‘do you like it?’ If you wish to go deeper you may ask ‘what is it that I like or dislike?’ For example, is it fruity? What sort of fruit is it; tropical, berries, stone fruit? Over time, with regular practice (that is the fun bit) you will begin to recall and identify more specific flavours.
Perhaps most importantly though, it is worth noting that there is no ‘correct way’ to drink whisky, aside from the way you enjoy most. So sit back, pour yourself a dram and enjoy the moment however you choose to.