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Thursday, 8 May 2014

How to enjoy whisky - my tips

There are plenty of sites with a 'how to drink whisky' page or video, so I thought I would go in a different direction. I will give my recommendations for a few 'criteria', but at the end of the day, how YOU enjoy drinking whisky is how YOU should drink whisky. I will also make note of how following these criteria can enhance your whisky experience.

Whether you have it straight, with water, or even with soda water (using any other mixer is, in my opinion, a waste of good whisky), whether you have it on the rocks (with ice), in a chilled tumbler or in a room temperature 'tulip' shaped whisky glass is all up to you. The main thing is to experiment and see what gives the best results and most enjoyment, for you.

Storing your whisky

Your average shelf, cupboard or cabinet is fine of course, but it should be away from direct sunlight, and preferably in a cooler area of the room or a cooler room of the house (the side of your house which gets the least sunlight, for example). And keep it secure if you're concerned about children/room mates/visitors getting in there when they shouldn't. 


The ideal glass, if you are going to be nosing your whisky and spending some quality time with it, is a tulip-shaped whisky glass, such as the Glencairn pictured below, which was specifically designed for whisky drinking. Otherwise a wine glass or even a tumbler will do fine, but they will let more of the aromas escape than a Glencairn or similar glass. For me it helps that the Glencairn glasses are genuine Scottish crystal as well, both for an uninterrupted view of the contents, and because it adds to the romance of the occasion! 

The idea(s) of the tulip shape is to funnel the aromas towards the opening and channel them into the nose, and also the 'bulb' at the bottom allows a good swirling without fear of spilling any precious whisky. They also slow the oxygenation of the liquid by allowing less air in than a traditional glass or tumbler. Also the heavy, solid base makes them very stable, and less likely to shatter (apparently, I haven't tested this bit!).


As you may be able to see from the images above, the genuine Glencairn glasses also have an etched 'The Glencairn Glass' branding on the base, so you can pick an imitation from the real deal. Have a look here for the real thing. 

You can also, if so inclined, get a glass lid for these glasses as well, however a glass coaster or small plate would be just as good. The idea here is that the aromas and vapours are trapped in the glass, and no extra air can get in, slowing the oxygenation of the whisky, and allowing the full nose of the whisky to be as unaffected as possible while in the glass. You only remove the lid when ready to nose and/or sip, then replace the lid immediately. 


This is a tough one, and really if we're honest, as long as you follow the basics, you can't go wrong. Essentially we should try and be isolated from other smells and aromas, particularly strong ones like cooking smells, perfumes, deodorants, cigarettes etc. to avoid those smells contaminating the aromas in our whisky.

However there are some aromas which can enhance your experience, such as (particularly antique) leather, mild cigar smoke, or a wood fire (from a distance), can boost certain aromas in the whisky, whether this is a good thing or not is up to yourselves. Aside from this, if you're doing a serious tasting, try and limit distractions, to allow you to concentrate on your individual senses. Music can help set the mood as well, and watching Braveheart, Rob Roy, or James Bond (preferably Connery, or Craig) on dvd or bluray can have the same effect! Kilt and/or longsword optional.

This is all well and good, but the main things are to make yourself comfortable, relax, and take your time! If you rush through a good whisky you are essentially wasting it, in my opinion. 

Ice, or water, or neat, or soda water, or what?

This is an interesting one, and probably one of the more controversial issues. Personally, I would suggest, to get the most from your whisky experience, first try it neat (no ice or water etc.), if it is too hot (alcohol burn/vapour) then add a small amount of water, using a teaspoon or a straw to carefully regulate the amount you are adding, as once your whisky is over-watered or drowned, every part of the experience is essentially lost. Too much water will hide the aromas, ruin the mouth feel and nearly cancel the finish of the whisky.

Too much ice above. Other than closing off the flavours and aromas as the ice chills the whisky, and once it has melted you are left with mostly water!
With a little water added, and at ambient temperature, if your whisky is un-chill-filtered (more on that later), you will get some 'scotch mist' where the natural particles left in the spirit react with the water, giving a slightly cloudy appearance. This is perfectly natural, and is an indicator of a well-made whisky. 

Adding the right amount of water (to taste) will usually also enhance certain flavours and aromas in the whisky, and reduce others. As an experiment try pouring two same-sized drams of the same whisky, add a small amount of water to one, allow them both to rest, then taste alongside one another. There will be a slight difference, and this is also a good way to train your palate to pick out aromas in the whisky. 

In hot environments (such as Australia!) it does become difficult to drink high ABV% spirits at ambient temperature, so I do often add a small piece of ice (around the size of a small coin, like a quarter or a 5c piece for example) to bring the temperature down slightly, which when melted has the same effect as a very small drop of water. It also looks awesome as the ice melts through the whisky! As an alternative, to really chill the whisky (not recommended, as it 'closes' the whisky, hiding the flavours and aromas), use a large, round ice cube like these below, which will melt more slowly than a traditional ice cube.

If you are drinking a cheaper whisky, such as a low-end blended whisky, adding a moderate amount of soda water makes for a refreshing drink, without nearly cancelling out the flavour of the whisky completely like cola or lemonade does. The only sweetness you get here comes from the whisky, not the mixer. Personally I am partial to a Jameson (Irish blended whisky) and soda water, particularly when 'out on the town' where drinking the good stuff can get very expensive, if the bars/pubs even have any. 

So, there we have some of my recommendations for drinking, and enjoying whisky. As I said above though, the main thing is that you enjoy it. Relax, take your time, savour the moment, and enjoy your whisky! I'll leave you with these inspirational words from Mr. Ron Burgundy...

Check back for my first whisky review, coming soon!