There are people who shy off whisky after a drink or two. The harsh taste, burning aftertaste on the palate … perhaps a thick tongue by late night and a hangover the next morning? Whatever the case with your first experience, be assured that there is a right way to enjoy whisky. And you can follow a few steps to optimize your taste and feel of this heavenly drink. It works, trust us … as zillions of whisky enthusiasts will swear on a stack of Bibles.
If you ask someone’s advice about how to enjoy whisky, you will get two schools of thought, which go in diametrically opposite directions. One group will say that you need to savour whisky neat, following a fairly precise series of steps to optimize the taste experience of the drink itself. The other will tell you to smother the taste, lots of water or soda (30% whisky and 70% soda will pretty much do the trick) or cocktail mixes, be they whisky sour, coke or other sugary mixes.
We definitely belong to the first group – not necessarily neat, but finding a way to savour the taste, flavour and mouthfeel of the whisky. This is much more important with good whiskies, such as Single Malt Scotch of appropriate vintage and good quality bourbon. The second group probably belong to the school of thought whereby drinking more whisky is good regardless of the quality, so if smothering its harsh taste with soda or a mixer helps you get larger amounts inside your system, so be it.
Just be warned. If you had a problem with your first drink, you are unlikely to become a long term fan if you pound cheap whisky till you pass out. Blended scotch, cheap bourbon or rye have their time and place, but they are not necessarily the type of drink whose flavour and taste will help you overcome your reticence.
How to Enjoy Good Whisky …
So, for the rest of this discussion, let’s talk about how you can learn to enjoy good whisky. That almost always means a great single malt Scotch? Lagavulin 16, perhaps? Aberlour A’bunadh Balvenie 21? No matter what it is, these whiskies have been distilled and aged with a view to entice and titillate your palate.
How about giving them that chance?
Step 1: Clean Your Palate
To start with, we assume that you are going to enjoy your whisky neat, or close to it. If so, it is important to drink some flavourless still water before you start. Don’t drink any flavoured or aerated water, the idea is to leave your palate clean, so you can savour the taste of what comes afterwards.
Step 2: Pour a Shot (Two Fingers) into the Whisky Glass
You must choose the right glass. A lowball glass, for example, is frowned upon – you won’t get the full aroma that way. Choose a nosing glass – a Glencairn or a copita preferably.
Step 3 – Swirl and Enjoy the Color
Swirl the liquid around and notice the color. It can range from golden to amber to dark brown, that gives you an idea of the time the whisky that has been aged and the amount of taste, flavour, aroma and mouthfeel it has developed. Why do you care, you say? It’s simple. If you are trying to learn how to enjoy whisky, build up the anticipation first by appreciating how good a treat has been prepared for you by the master brewer of what may become your favourite distillery.
Step 4 – Sniff and Enjoy the Aroma
One of the best things about great single malt is its rich aroma. Depending on how long it’s been aged and the type of cask that’s been used (bourbon vs. sherry, 1st fill vs. 2nd fill) the aroma will vary. A sherry wood cask and/or a 2nd fill cask will tend to leave the whisky with a fruity and nutty aroma, while a bourbon and/or 1st fill cask will have a more pronounced vanilla and chocolate caramel flavour. This is in addition to whatever peaty, smoky or other flavour the drink has. Whichever it is, you should enjoy it.
Before you drink, bring the glass up to your nostrils and drink in the aroma – once, twice. Then lower the glass, take in a deep breath and do it again. Anticipate the taste that will soon coat your tongue.
Step 5 – The First Sip
This is critical. The first time you drink the whisky, take a “sip”, not a big gulp. Then run the whisky all over your palate and gullet. Gurgle with it if you must but coat the inside of your mouth with the amber liquid. Let it roll over your taste buds. There will be a strong flavour of ethanol that hits your mouth and throat. Don’t be afraid, it’s a tiny amount in your mouth – you won’t gag. The ethanol taste prepares your mouth to now get beyond it with the second sip, so you can truly enjoy the taste, flavour and mouthfeel of the drink.
Step 6 – Clean Your Palate Again
Leave the whisky aside after the first sip. Go back to the still water and have another swig to clear your palate yet again. You are now ready.
Step 7 – No Chug, Chug, Chug …
Keep drinking your whisky, now fully enjoying the flavour and taste. Don’t overdo it. Do not drink it fast, there’s no hurry and you’re not drinking beer or cheap pounding alcohol. There is nothing quite as beautiful as having a few neat whiskies, slowly, over the course of an evening and feeling that warm glow seeps over your insides. If you get to that stage, you’ve made it past your early innovations.
Can You Use Water?
You could, though purists may argue against it. There is in fact a lively debate between connoisseurs and even scientists on whether or not a little water tends to actually enhance the taste of whisky. Some evidence suggests that water causes a compound named guaiacol – which accounts for the smoky taste that is developed when malted barley is smoked on peat fires – to rise to the surface of the liquid, thereby enhancing the flavour, taste and mouthfeel of the drink.
Scotch typically has higher than 40% alcohol by volume, so a bit of dilution will be fine. Try not to get carried away, an ice cube or two or a few drops of stilled water is what purists would recommend using.
And Don’t Drink to Excess, Please …
If you are trying to learn how to enjoy whisky, enjoy the buzz without getting overwhelmed by it. A hangover or other regrets the morning after is hardly the way to make a new friend.
It’s definitely possible to learn how to love whisky. If you follow the steps above to some detail (you don’t have to stand by yourself in a corner of the room meditating over a glass in your hand – just be yourself and relax), you will let the aroma, flavour and taste come to you. Savour them slowly, get past the burning sensation of the ethanol and you will be ready to embark on a new and exciting journey.