I only started drinking whisky a few years ago while bartending in Los Angeles. You Americans are so culturally inquisitive. You’d find yourselves being seduced by my caramel Highland brogue as I stood in front of dozens of fancy Scotch bottles, insisting that I must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff.
The truth is, I thought it all tasted like turpentine.
But knowing how tips work, I hauled ass to the library, got myself a book and started learning how to speak a little whisky chat. Turns out I rather enjoyed it.
Now here I am, three years later, telling you how to drink whisky properly – but on the internet – without my accent – it doesn’t have quite the same dulcet mark of authority.
Know Thy Whisky Producing Regions
Before starting to chat about the finer points and how to approach this initially hostile intoxicant, it’s important to give a quick lesson on the rugged regions of Scotland.
There are six whisky-producing regions in my homeland; Speyside (The Macallan, The Balvenie, Glenlivet), Highland (Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Oban), Lowlands (Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie), Islay (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg), Campbeltown (Springbank) and Islands (Talisker, Jura, Highland Park).
Each produces slightly different kinds of malt in slightly different ways.
Look, Sniff, Sip & Repeat
First you need to look at the malt under the light. Give the glass a twist. The colour can give you a sense of the age, and perhaps the wood barrel that housed it. Generally speaking, the younger the whisky, the lighter the colour but sometimes caramel colouring will be added.
Have a sniff with your mouth open. Become engulfed by the pungent spirit. Gently take a wee sip. Swirl it around your mouth. Swallow. Don’t wince. Breathe. And repeat, until you have lowered your inhibitions enough to be yourself around strangers.
Scotch is best neat, or with a little water.
It will take a while to enjoy it, but you should always drink scotch neat, or with a splash of water. If you must have ice to cope with the burn, then I’m afraid you’re not ready. Keep suffering. If your knuckles still bleed when you punch that bucket of gravel, then you’re no Bruce Lee yet, friend.
Macallan 12, the beginner’s Scotch
My advice – start with Speyside. It’s the most compassionate style and the closest we have to the Capri-Sun nectar of bourbon.
If, for instance, you find yourself sitting at a bar waiting on a friend, turn your phone off and order a Macallan 12. It’s probably the most universally loved and ubiquitous single malt in the world.
Note the bartender’s subtle glance of approval, and enjoy how immediately sophisticated and cultured you look as you hold that wee glass of gold.
Variety is the spice of life.
Like conversation, cinema and sex, each encounter with whisky should be considered an opportunity for a new experience.
If you know you like Macallan then don’t order it. Try another Spey. Maybe a nip of a wee Highland like Glenmorangie or Aberfeldy, which can be a tad spicy. And if you’re really feeling lascivious, try one of the divisive Islays. Briny, peaty, smoky, they are a truly acquired taste; the ‘finger up the arse’ of Scotch whiskies, one could say. :::
Don’t make this face when you drink it. Photo: Andy Eick / Flickr
People spend their lives acquiring the acute taste buds necessary to deconstruct and blind taste malts from the darkest forgotten corners of the distilleries across Scotland.
And when you become one of those stiffs, please never forget that we love it for the feeling it gives us.
Drink Scotch. It’s the solution to everything.