Welcome back! Last time we jumped into the question of What Is Scotch Whisky? and this week I’m following it up with some practical tips and suggestions for drinking and enjoying whisky. The question of how one should best enjoy their whisky is far more a matter of personal opinion than of science, but I aim to at least nudge you in the direction of conventional whisky wisdom when it comes to getting the best possible experience out of your dram. Just remember the golden rule while reading through this post: these are merely suggestions. How, when and why you enjoy your whisky is entirely your business, don’t let anyone dictate to you or try to tell you you’re wrong for getting satisfaction out drinking whisky any way you like it.
The prevailing whisky drinking image in popular culture is that of the wealthy businessman rolling around a big, heavy-bottomed tumbler filled with blended Scotch and ice, perhaps slamming it down on his desk during some heated business exchange. This is indeed the way many people (particularly outside of Scotland) have enjoyed their whisky for many years all around the world. I’m not going to tell you drinking whisky from a tumbler is wrong per se, but I would like to suggest a few alternatives if I could. The main reason serious whisky drinkers tend to prefer a different shape of glass than a big, open mouthed tumbler is the nose of the whisky. I’ll get more in depth about nosing whisky in a section below, but for now just know that tumblers allow the nose of your whisky far too wide an escape hatch, allowing precious and vital aroma notes to elude your grasp. The preferred shape of glass among whisky enthusiasts include smaller wine glasses, usually slightly tapered towards the top to help capture the nose, a Sherry copita, or best of all, the much lauded Glencairn glass. Only in production for the last 16 years or so, the Glencairn was one of the first pieces of glassware specifically designed for whisky enjoyment, and was the first glass endorsed by the Scotch Whisky Association. I have a collection of these beauties in my cupboard at the moment, and have found no better piece of glassware from which to nose and sip whisky.
Again, when it comes to pouring a dram of whisky, one of your biggest considerations is the nose. Overfilling a glass won’t give the whisky adequate room to breathe. Opening up, or allowing some of the excess alcohol in your glass to evaporate while simultaneously allowing some of the aroma compounds to activate through contact with oxygen, is a vital part of enjoying the aroma of whisky. Additionally, a giant glass of whisky is only likely to really accomplish one thing, and that’s get you hammered. While a warm glow and mild buzz is unquestionably part of the appeal of enjoying any fine spirits, getting heavily intoxicated will do nothing but dull your senses, and impair your judgement when it comes to assessing and appreciating whisky. If your aim is to get blind drunk, there are cheaper, easier, and less wasteful ways to do so (might I suggest Jägerbombs?). Stick with a pour of roughly 1.5oz and you’ll be able to pace yourself and perhaps enjoy a nice range of whiskies back to back over the course of a few hours.
Water? Ice? Neither? Both?
The eternal question, and of course, the answer (mostly) all comes back to that damn nose again. I’ll preface this by saying that unless I’m drinking an inexpensive blended whisky (as I’ll sometimes do with the addition of soda water when I’m at a bar) I personally never add ice to my whisky. Cooling down your whisky in any way is a surefire way to kill off a large number of vital aromas, cutting the enjoyment of your experience roughly in half. Additionally, adding ice makes it more difficult to control the level of dilution in your drink (yes, those fashionable and admittedly cool looking ice balls, will help cut down on this unwanted extra dilution a bit, but I still don’t partake in anything that will actively cool my whisky down if I’m trying to get the most out of it). Water on the other hand, can be a great ally in the enhancement and appreciation of the whisky drinking experience. The application of a small amount of water with the assistance of a small water jug, teaspoon, pipette, or even a straw, can in many cases do wonders to further open up a whisky (particularly one bottled at a higher strength than the typical 40% ABV), both in terms of aroma, and on the palate as well. Try to stick to room temperature bottled or filtered water, as impurities and aromas in tap water can impart off-flavours and aromas on your whisky. I always find it beneficial to taste a whisky neat first, and then make a careful consideration regarding the need for water. If the nose in particular is giving off quite a lot of roughness or alcohol burn, even after resting for a time, I’ll add a few tiny drops of water, roll my glass gently to integrate it, and let it sit for a moment before nosing again. Always be extremely careful when adding water, as over-dilution can rob particularly old or fragile whiskies of their nose almost entirely, or even wash out the palate in some cases.
Below are some useful steps you can take in order to better assess and evaluate a whisky (or beer, wine, or other fine spirits for that matter). You may find it useful and educational to take notes regarding each of these categories, or if you happen to be enjoying a dram with a friend or in a group, discuss your findings aloud. The more whisky drinking experience you gain under your belt, the more refined your palate and broader your vocabulary will become.
The first step to analyzing a whisky is simply to take a look at it in the glass. There is no exact science to interpreting appearance when it comes to single malts, but generally speaking older can mean darker (or in some cases means a Sherry or other wine cask was used for maturation or finishing). Making any kind of informed analysis is tricky however, as many distilleries will bottle their whiskies with the addition of caramel colouring to darken the spirit and give the impression of “age” or “richness”. Whether or not this added colour contributes any unwanted flavour to the finished whisky is a subject of much debate, and will be a topic I’m likely to explore further down the road. For now, just know that unless you are reasonably certain that no colour has been added (and some whisky companies will indeed explicitly tell you on the label that they have not done so), the colour of a whisky may not give you the complete picture. Regardless, taking note of the array of shades found in whisky (ranging from pale straw to almost ruby-like) is at the very least a useful and interesting exercise in getting a better overall picture of your dram as a whole.
And now we’ve arrived at the much heralded nosing of the whisky. The aroma of a whisky can tell you a great deal about what you may be in store for on the palate, and can be an intensely pleasurable experience in its own right. The best way to begin nosing a whisky is to first gently roll your dram around the glass. There is no need to aggressively swirl or aerate the liquid like you would with wine, the trick is to get your whisky to breathe just a little, and cling to the walls of the glass. After this, tilt the glass slightly towards your face and bring your nose about an inch or so from the rim of your glass. A common rookie mistake is to go too deep on nosing, which will result in nothing short of a vicious blast of alcohol vapour, and very little in the way of actual aroma. Nose for a few seconds and then put the glass down and try to pick out some identifiable aromas. Vanilla? Apples? Raisins? Salt? Smoke? There are truly no wrong answers, what you smell is what you smell. The aroma may at first seem like a bit of a jumbled mess, but try going back to it a few times before moving on to the next step. With time, practice and patience, you’ll be able to start identifying an increasing number of aromas.
At last, it’s time to drink some whisky. Begin by taking a small sip, no more than a quarter teaspoon or so, and roll it around on your tongue before swallowing. The first sip of a whisky, especially if it’s your first dram of the day, can be a fairly bracing experience. You may pick up little else but alcohol bite at first, particularly if your palate is relatively untrained. Try to move past the initial shock however, and pick out some identifiable flavours beyond “whisky” if you’re able. Again, there are no wrong answers. You could conceivably pick up anything from pears to licorice to chocolate to smoked mackerel. After your first sip, and assessment thereof, I highly recommend going back to the nose again. Has it changed? How are the nose and palate similar? How do they differ? Throughout the course of enjoying a whisky, I tend to go back and forth between the nose and the palate a great many times. Ultimately, finding the harmony (or in some cases the incongruity) between the aroma and taste of a whisky helps paint a better overall picture of experience as a whole. Around this point would be the time to decide whether or not you’d like to add a drop or two of water to your glass. I recommend experimenting with small amounts of water whenever possible, as the dramatic effect it can have on both the nose and palate can be truly remarkable.
Take care to not neglect this final and important step. After each sip of whisky, take a few moments to enjoy the finish, or aftertaste if you will, of the spirit. How long does it linger? Are there more pronounced or different notes from those initially on the palate? Generally speaking, the longer and more enjoyable the finish, the better the whisky. As with all the steps above, try not to rush this or any other aspect of whisky drinking. Having a dram of whisky is at best, a contemplative and even meditative experience. Allow time for the warmth, quality, and pleasure of the liquid wash over you, and above all have fun.