Is there a right way to drink whiskey?
At first glance, “how to drink whiskey?” is a topic worthy of ridicule. Open the bottle, pour the liquid into glass and sip – surely that’s all that is required to appreciate this noble brown spirit?
Yet while a guide to drinking whiskey might appear akin to an instruction manual on how to open a front door, whiskey is a complex subject with a historic and fascinating culture all of its own. It takes years to make, and centuries to make well. It is also a subject full of misapprehensions and disagreement. Some experts believe that whiskey benefits greatly from the addition of water; others abhor the idea. Some argue that you should spit whiskey when tasting professionally; others insist that you cannot appreciate the full experience without swallowing it.
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Which Glass Type to Drink from?
However, on the subject of which glass to use, there is a broad consensus among experts and professionals. The iconic and ubiquitous tumbler is perfect for blended whiskey or bourbon when mixers or ice might be added. But it is useless for appreciating the complex and multi-faceted aromas of single malt whiskey. Our view is that a tulip-shaped glass is ideal because it focuses and concentrates the aromas into the nose. You can buy them at most glass shops at a modest cost. Others, believe it or not, favor a Champagne flute, sherry glass, or even a white wine glass. All of which triumph over tumblers when used to appreciate fine whiskey.
That being said, whiskey doesn’t have to be ‘fine’ to be fully appreciated. The wealth of whiskey styles is the category’s greatest strength – while whiskey isn’t wine, identifying the diversity of flavors will greatly enhance your enjoyment of it, not least because you will be able to identify flavors that most appeal to you.
At the top of the hierarchy arguably stands single malt whiskey. A blend of yeast, water, and malted barley, single malt whiskey must be the product of one distillery. Scotland is the leading player in this sector, but excellent single malts are made globally in countries including the US, Japan, South Africa, and Germany. However, few whiskey lovers would confess to disliking a Scottish single malt. Many distilleries dry the barley over a peat fire, which imparts signature smoky and peaty flavors, which some adore and others revile.
In contrast, grain whiskey is produced from grain or grains other than malted barley, including rye, wheat, corn, and unmalted barley. Blended whiskey is a combination of single malts from different distilleries mixed with grain whiskey. But this is just the beginning – blended malt whiskey, pot still whiskey, Bourdon and rye whiskey all vie for the whiskey-lovers attention. The net result is an enviable mosaic of flavors and textures.
But in whiskey, there are two, but not mutually exclusive styles – sweet and savory. Many whiskeys – though not all – tend to have defining characteristics that either lean toward flavors of banoffee pie, maple syrup, ginger barley, and Christmas Cake, or earthy, mushroomy, autumnal flavors. Most American and Irish whiskey, many Speyside and Lowland whiskeys fall into the sweet category. In contrast, several Highland and some Scottish Islands and Japanese whiskeys offer a more savory range of aromas and flavors.
Tasting whiskey professionally
The real beauty of whiskey is its lack of pretension. Snobs and bores are not permitted in the world’s distilleries – whiskey is at its heart a simple drink made of grain, yeast, and water, running the gamut from harsh firewater to a sophisticated and complex social lubricant. Nevertheless, it should have no airs and graces. But while learning to appreciate whiskey professionally does not have to involve strict guidelines or pompous ceremony, observing a few pointers can help you along your whiskey journey and aide in the enjoyment of all manner of whiskey styles.
A tulip-shaped glass is ideal for appreciating malt whiskey styles. The key is not to rush the ‘nosing process’ – whiskey has a strong alcoholic content that can hurt the nostrils if too quickly inhaled. It is best to approach a glass of whiskey with caution, gently inhaling the aromas. Professionals tend to nose whiskey with more distance between the face and glass than wine critics for that very reason.
Experts are rarely in agreement: some deride adding water while others insist upon it. Our own experience suggests that a dash of water can make the alcoholic attack on the palate more manageable and less harsh, allowing the taster to enjoy a broader range of flavors. Besides, distilleries routinely add water before bottling to bring the alcohol level down, which can hover around the high 60s after distillation. Blenders will use water to take samples down to just 20% ABV; water is crucial for breaking down the whiskey and releasing an array of aromas, thereby making appreciation easier. Of course, if you like the heat and potency of high strength whiskey, then ignore the above!
Another point of debate concerns whether to spit or swallow whatever you’re tasting. On the one hand, the palate can tire quite quickly when sampling such a powerful spirit as whiskey – professional tasters need to keep a clear head. Yet to fully judge a whiskey’s full potential and quality, it is advisable to swallow. One of the hallmarks of great a whiskey, like wine, is the quality of the finish. The warm feeling as the spirit passes down the throat and the impression left afterward are crucial to the tasting experience. We always recommend sipping and savoring any high-quality whiskey to understand the nuances inherent to your glass of amber nectar.
Whiskey and gastronomy
Can you enjoy whiskey with food? Many would argue no: “the alcohol sears your throat and overwhelms rather than compliments cuisine” is an observation we’ve heard many times. Yet whiskey and food matching are not as clean-cut as some critics suggest. Remember that for many years beer was disregarded as an acceptable accompaniment to cuisine – that stale cliché has been resoundingly put to death. So too can whiskey match a range of dishes, particularly when there are umami flavors present? Indeed, cheese and whiskey is just one beautiful combination that often silences the naysayers. The fats in cheese react extremely well with whiskey, and many regard pairing blue cheese with strong single malts as a gastronomic marriage made in paradise. Roquefort simply adores single malts like Lagavulin, while hard cheeses such as cheddar and Parmesan tend to prefer sweeter, rounder whiskeys – rye whiskey is a surefire winner.
Seafood is another natural partner to whiskey. Langoustines and scallops love spicy/peaty single malt styles: the saltiness in the shellfish bounces off the seaside notes in the whiskey. Foie gras is another pairing that always astounds food & wine lovers. A rich and fruity Speyside whiskey cuts across the fatty richness with aplomb, while Asian dishes like Peking duck are made for fruity Speyside single malts. Even desserts can work surprisingly well with sweeter whiskey styles; Dalwhinnie, an award-winning single Highland Malt, is rarely fazed by even the most potent and unctuous dishes. Chocolate is the best partner to this alcoholic bottled honey.
Of course, the notion that whiskey and food are (potentially) an ideal match will always remain alien to some. We prefer, however, to keep an open mind and experience the surfeit of delicious gastronomic experiences that this wonderfully versatile spirit can provide.