On the subject of how to drink whisk(e)y [or hereafter ‘whisky’ by default]. There are 3 simple steps on how to drink whisky: open, pour, swallow. On how to enjoy and appreciate whisky, many people have written treatise, books, novellas etc. I prefer a rather simple relaxed style which works for me and I will explain below the reasoning behind how and why I drink whisky.
Step 1. Obtain or pour yourself a dram.
I have to admit Iain Banks [in his book Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram] came up with one of the best descriptions of what a ‘dram’ is. Essentially it is a volume of whisky poured into your glass that is acceptable in volume to both the drinker and the pourer. If you are pouring your own – easy. If not, then just bear in mind that the pourer may one day be the drinker and equally you the drinker may one day be pouring your prized asset liquid gold into their glass [thus restoring the universal equilibrium]…
Dram poured and ready to go!
The type of glass you pour your whisky into is irrelevant, however if you want the full sensory experience you can’t beat the Glencairn whisky glass – designed specifically for this purpose. This is the glass I like to drink out of [I’m not particularly fond of over large whisky tumblers].
The Glencairn crystal whisky glass
However when I am tasting I actually prefer to go for a similar shaped tot glass a little smaller than the Glencairn or a stemmed nosing glass. The reason behind this is they fit completely into one hand – allowing me to warm the whisky as much as possible and leave my free hand to pick up a pen and write down my thoughts the instant they happen.
Hand-sized tot glass – perfect for tasting whisky in
Nosing glass – equally suitable
Step 2 [Optional] Examine the colour.
The point in using a clear glass is to allow you to hold your dram up to the light and examine the colour. This is a completely unnecessary step, however it can give you a clue as to what you are about to drink. Mostly whisky is a refractive golden colour which comes from the oak wood casks [as new make spirit is colourless]. With time in the cask this will deepen and become a richer gold. The type of cask, its previous contents, how it has been constructed and fired by the coopers and the length of time the whisky stays in it may all affect the final colour. For example a short finish 6-12 month in red wine cask or port pipe may turn the whisky blood red or deep pink. Colour is becoming one of the more reproducible ways of assessing whisky finish and as such some distillers are moving away from the traditional age rating to colour ranges.
The Macallan 1824 series based entirely on colour
Give the whisky a swirl or roll it around the glass [keep it inside – helped by the thistle-like shape] and watch the tears form. The viscosity of the whisky is dependent upon several factors including the alcohol content. As the whisky runs down the glass it will form long streaks [tears] the thicker they are indicates more alcohol [& oils]. As the whisky is essentially a mix of two solvents, water and alcohol [mostly ethanol] and oils are dissolved in alcohol [as oil and alcohol are miscible] the tears represent how much oil and alcohol is dissolved in water.
Adjusting the water/alcohol balance [changing the ABV] may reduce the miscibility of the oil & alcohol and lead to the oil emulsifying with the water content, hence the whisky becomes cloudy [this is all due to the polarity of the solvent molecules – or so I have been told!]. This can also be temperature-dependent so keep your whisky warm and alcoholic! Cloudy whisky is not a bad sign – it should taste just the same. The addition of a small amount of water alters this miscibility and often softens the flavour of the whisky by drawing out some of the oils from the alcohol and into the water – I tend only to do this if I feel the whisky is either too harsh or too alcoholic to fully appreciate the flavours present in it.
Step 3 [optional] Take a sniff
Be careful as strong whisky [high ABV e.g. anything over 46% like cask strength etc.] can quickly overwhelm the nose and leave you smelling nothing after the first whiff. For strong whisky again roll it around the glass to increase the surface area and warm it in your hand – both of which will promote evaporation, carrying the smells up and out of the glass into your nose. Sniff first from a short distance and if safe to proceed end up burying your nose in the glass and snort it all you desire. Usually the aromas are indicative of the likely tastes to follow, other times they are not. This depends a little on the chemical scents you are smelling, some odourous compounds have little flavour and likewise some strong flavours have little smell. The sense of taste is strongly linked to the odours we smell as the nose educates the tastebuds and refines the experience overall. A good nose should indicate possible strength, presence of peat use in manufacture, types of cask finishing and also serves as a little foreplay before the tasting.
The whisky wheel of likely flavours/aromas
Step 4 Take a sip
Initially I like to take a small sip and roll it around my mouth, over my tongue and almost chew on it to get it all over my tastebuds. From here you should start to taste the various flavours that are going on before swallowing. I like to take a second sip and hold it in my mouth and warm it to see how intense the flavours become and how they develop. This is the most creative phase and there are no right or wrong answers, however many common flavours or groups of flavours occur due to the properties imbued by the casks, some you’ll like and some maybe not.
Example flavour wheel
Step 5. Finish
After the second swallow I think about the effects the whisky leaves in my mouth [called the Finish]. The finish can be long and lingering or over in an instant, drying or mouth watering, sweet or bitter, etc. I will then serially re-sip in an attempt to nail down exactly what the flavours were, or what they are most similar too in my recollection and experience. The great thing about tasting is everyone has a unique opinion or references to which they base their experience and so it is best done socially. The reason I started taking tasting notes was due to having tried so many whiskies I kept forgetting what each tasted like. Lastly I like to think about what food or occasion would compliment the whisky best [e.g. after dinner, or on a cold winter evening, etc.].
First one tasted – what’s next?