Last week we left off after detailing what types of whisky there are to drink, and this week we move on to the how!
Alright, now to the drinking! The second step after you’ve got a good whisky, is to pour that beautiful liquid into a clear glass, and notice its colour. The colour tells you something of what it was aged in. Most distillers will tell you cask selection far beyond the process of distillation itself, is what makes or breaks a great whisky. The distillation merely sets the whisky up to be best adjusted by the cask. Deeper colours typically indicate that the whisky has been aged in casks that are first-fill barrels, meaning that this whisky was the first to see the inside of the cask and has absorbed a larger percentage of the colour and flavour of the previous casking. Whisky is strictly aged in oak barrels, and primarily in barrels that have seen some other aging already, former wine, sherry, or bourbon barrels. Red colouring indicates possibly ex-sherry or wine barrels, auburn is likely ex-bourbon.
Step three, smell the whisky! Don’t whizz that glass past your nose quickly, stick your schnoz in there and get a good, deep whiff and do it a few times. The first time you smell alcohol in the day might knock you over, but do it anyway. The smell of a whisky has so much more flavour in it than taste will, because your nose is so much better at distinguishing than your tongue is. From one person to the next the capacity of our schnoz changes as some have more nerve endings and some have less. So when someone challenges you saying that their sense of what a whisky smells like is bible-truth, you can know they probably don’t know what they’re talking about and go right back to your own whisky. There is no wrong answer to what a whisky smells like, and we are going to find out that the same applies to taste.
Step four, taste the whisky. Usually when you try alcohol the power of it might just feel like a lot of burning. So try a sip and savour it in your mouth about five seconds or as long as you can stand to, then swallow. Don’t be quick to judge, it takes a while for a whisky to fully emerge. Go ahead and taste it again. Now because whisky can be bottled at varying strengths it’s often possible that you prefer to enjoy it with a little water. All you tough ego maniacs out there still reading this will call me a wuss, but the truth is that in almost every good pub in Scotland or Ireland you will see little pitchers of water sitting around. It’s because whisky needs to be adjusted to the preferences of the drinker, and in fact some may taste better at higher or lower strengths than just out of the bottle. They can vary from 60% right down to 40%, which is a huge range, so add a few drops (and I mean drops!) of water if at first you find it too strong and keep adding a few until you enjoy it.
When you do add a few drops of water to it, don’t swish the whisky around quite yet. Look carefully at the whisky in the light, it should go all cloudy or crystalline. What you’re seeing is the natural oil in the whisky separating and floating apart from the water. If it’s a good whisky, there’s a decent amount of oiliness to it.
Now taste it again. Savour it. Move it around in your mouth, across your tongue. Let it linger about fifteen seconds, and only then swallow. You’ll taste different things across different points of your mouth. Usually with peated whiskies the first thing you’ll taste is the charcoal which quickly becomes smokier and then sweeter quite quickly. At times a peated whisky will hit heavy with smoke on the front, and then mellow out beautifully as it goes down, and other times it starts slow and complex and then hits a bit smoky on the finish. Try it again. Notice the changes as you sip away at it–you will taste different things as you do.
At countless distilleries across Scotland, the common question is: what is good whisky? And tell us what it tastes like! To which I have found many respond with much humility by saying that the best whisky is the whisky that tastes best to you! With whisky there is no strictly wrong answer–except to say it tastes like shit, for that you will receive many-a-frowns, and possibly a black-eye if you yell it loudly in a pub.
If you’re looking for a more categorical way of discerning what you taste and what you smell, there are typically four categories that can be of assistance. Frst the nose, second the taste, third the finish, and fourth the balance between all four.
So that’s it! Nose it, taste it, and let it savour. While I would argue whisky is not about pretentiousness, it does tend to be something one has to spend a bit of time with to really get to know and that can make you look like your staring off into nowhere, like you’ve been transported into some new and magical land. It’s wonderful when you get there!