... whisky / whiskey; however you wish to spell it (both forms are legitimate spellings), unless you know what you are talking about!
I am so sick of hearing the thumb-sucked options of bar sponges the world around when it comes to the fine art of whiskey drinking that I am dedicating an entire article to this topic! I'm not the sort of person who tries to win arguments by throwing my pay check on the table, but I've spent more on whiskey in the last two years than most people spend on educating their children, and I don't drink whiskey to get drunk (like most opinionated whiskey drinkers do); I drink whiskey solely to find the exquisite flavours and aromas that one gets from good whiskey.
If I want to get smashed, I drink the usual gasoline-flavoured pub piss (vodka, cane, cheap brandy, and cheap beer) that have collectively been tearing apart marriages and forcing teenagers to run for the puke bucket since the benefits of fermentation were first discovered!
It thus pisses me off when I find myself locked in conversation (which soon develops into a full-blow argument) with some pub peasant who thinks because he drinks Johnny Walker Red / Black / Green / Gold / Blue Label, he has mastered the art of whiskey drinking and can teach me (and others) the subtleties of draining the dram! My dear friends, every hobby of mine is like an additional career to me, and I make every effort to have and be the best at everything I do! I will now school you in the art of whiskey drinking... listen up and learn something you pub flies!
Myths abound but no experts around:
I will tackle the argument first by debunking some popular pub myths about fine whiskey; I will then discuss how whiskey is made and the main two kinds of whiskey (a brief crash course), and then I will get into the art and how you too can discover the beauty and artistry involved in whiskey drinking, without being a veteran or a lawyer or a super-taster.... Like most things in life, whiskey drinking is more science than art, and I will those of you who may think this whiskey drinking obsession is simply 'all in the mind' and for people who want to pretend to have 'taste' that despite your ignorance and lifetime's worth of inexperience, I can help you smell and taste the differences between whiskies for yourself, just like any pro!
Myth #1 - The best whiskey comes from Scotland (where it was invented)
Bushmills, on the northern coast of Ireland, has had a license to distil since 1608 and was the first legal distillery in the British Isles. That is just the first legal vendor, not the original inventor(s)! Whomever invented whiskey (and what their nationality was) is not even documented in the canals of history, and, thus, no country can legitimately claim to have invented whiskey--though we are pretty sure it could not have started in the Middle East!
While Scotch (Scottish whiskey) is generally better, there are plenty of international whiskeys from as far as Japan all the way to America and other continents that are PHENOMENALLY good whiskies! If you say that Scottish whiskey is the best, you are a whiskey racist and an ignoramus! One bottle of Japanese Yamazaki will sort you out; it may even help you realise how shit Johnny Walker whiskey actually is!
And before some J&B fan now howls in support of old Jakkals en Bolf (because it is an Irish whiskey), J&B is actually crappy, somewhat overpriced whiskey--by most samplers' standards!
Myth #2 - Older / darker whiskies are better than younger / lighter whiskies
'Better in what way?' is what I usually ask the pub-sitter that makes this claim. "Oh, it just tastes and smells better." I then usually rip out the old blindfold to test the vineyard veteran's extraordinary senses of taste and smell. None have been able to consistently identify the older / darker whiskies from the younger / lighter whiskies when blindfolded (even I can't do that). Also, whiskey colour is not always attributable to its age--sometimes, fucker is afoot!
Cheaper, younger whiskies are often coloured with 'tasteless' caramel colouring called E150, which imparts a darker, well matured look to the whiskey, but does nothing much for improving the taste or smell of the whiskey. Some decades-old whiskies are the colour of urine, and their taste and smell is right up there with the darkest amber whiskies of equal age. I hope that settles this issue once and for all.
How and from what is whiskey made?
Whiskey is made from three (purists will say two) types of ingredients, namely grain, corn, or barley. There are many different ways in which the grain / corn / barley are roasted (like coffee beans) and then fermented before being put in casks to age. I could finish a book just on the different methods and to detail any of them is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, how the raw product is treated and how long the whiskey is allowed to age will produce a distinct whiskey as unique to every distiller any other culinary products are unique to their producers.
Blended whiskeys are usually different age and processed grain whiskies that are mixed together to give a consistent, branded taste. Johnny Walker Black Label is perhaps the best blended whiskey in the world (or certainly the most famous). It is renowned for its consistency throughout the ages and its smokey character. Johnny Walker Black Label, to me, is like a cup of Rooibos Tea: I am not always in the mood for it, but I'm never disappointed when I finish a cup. I've not had Black Label in well over a year now (I have much better whiskies to keep me busy), but it is always a safe whiskey to fall back to if you want to be in familiar territory and not be distracted by details.
Single Malt whiskies are usually NOT blended, though Johnny Walker Green Label is a blended malt and quite a poor one at that. Green Label is BY FAR the best whiskey in the Johnny Walker line-up, but it is a poor malt roughly on the same level as Glenfiddich 12 year old. I consider Green Label and Glenfiddich 12 year old as entry level malts that taste very similar to blended grain whiskey (a taste I consider too commercial and predictable). The best of the Single Malts for me are the peated whiskies. Peat is a rotting wood / vegetation mix dug up from the ground and burned in distilleries to dry / roast / flavour the raw barley before fermentation commences.
Peated whiskies are usually not gentle on the mouth and throat as they have a very heavy, smokey / spicey flavour and the good stuff usually comes in cask-strength (that can be 55-60% alcohol per volume). I prefer these peated whiskies (or as I call them, Groot Piet) because they are distinct from other whiskies and almost never disappoint me (even the cheap brands). Peated whiskey is like a good roast, and in my house both are ALWAYS welcome!
The abovementioned grain and barley whiskies are considered by purists as 'true' whiskies. The next group is American bourbon (usually made from corn). I am no whiskey racists, and I don't care if bourbon is not considered a true whiskey by some snobs; I've had great times with bourbon and one of my favourite brand is Wild Turkey 101 proof (that is American slang for 50.5% alcohol by volume, just divide the 'proof' by two to get the %). WT101 (petrol for overtime workers) is a bourbon with all the complexity, aroma, and flavour of a good Single Malt. I know bourbon is 'falsely' considered to be sweet (usually by people who just see cowboys drink it in movies), but WT101 is a heavyweight in the flavour department, and I definitely recommend this bourbon as a start to widen your whiskey sampling experience.
Myth #3 - Single Malt whiskies are better than blended whiskies
Single Malts and Blends can both be equally satisfying but appeal to different markets. Blends are usually cheaper and (provided the brand is reputable) very consistent in taste. This is like Oros, which if mixed with the same amount of water every time, always tastes the same. Single Malts are artisan whiskies and come from smaller distilleries and are produced in smaller quantities (thus they are usually more expensive). Single Malt whiskies are crafted by methods that are unique to each and every distillery. Single Malt whiskies can have the same tendency as your 100% pure fruit juices have: they can reflect seasonal variations that affect the taste and smell of the final product.
With reputable Single Malts, you never have to worry about the variation being far off the sweet spot, but even so, sometimes, you can have two identical whiskies (same distillery, same recipe, same age, but different years of manufacture) and one will be better (in either taste or aroma or both) than the other. Believe it or not, there was a time when Johnny Walker Red Label was a fine whiskey (many bottles from the 1960s are absolutely superb), but those days are gone!
How to smell the different aromas for yourself:
This is the easiest part to master with whiskey sampling, and it provides 50% of the joy of drinking fine whiskey. You don't need a highly sophisticated sense of smell--though if you spent your teenage years sniffing coke and glue, you may not experience this part to its full. Smelling whiskey is a gentle and sophisticated thing. If you shove your nose deep into the glass and snort like a bull, you will smell nothing but that hospital smell and your nose will burn! Be gentle when smelling whisky. Approach it as you would a classy woman in a decent establishment:
Come from a distance and don't move too quickly or quirkily. Now, gently smell the aroma. Let it sit in your olfactory sensors a bit and then move in a bit closer. Vary how deep you sniff it and how long (each method will yield different aromas). You might smell hints of vanilla, apricot, incense, spice, wood smoke, peat, a Sunday roast, an old leather sofa, your grandma's legendary ginger cookies, etc. Also note that whiskey will smell different depending on its temperature, and, with the exception of Johnny Walker Gold Label (to be served chilled and in chilled tumblers), almost every other whiskey should be server at room temperature!
How to taste the different flavours for yourself:
The reason most people can't distinguish Three Ships from Talisker is that they mix the whiskey with coke (or some other fizzy drink) or too much water. Coke & too much water will heavily mask the differences between two whiskies, and you are wasting your money if you drink expensive / rare whiskey in this fashion. The only whiskey that MUST be mixed, is that horse-piss concoction known as Johnny Walker Red Label; if ever a whiskey deserved to be called mix-worthy, this is the one!
The best advice is to drink good whiskey neat (nothing added to it). Coke may make it slip down with greater ease and less pain, but that is what you do with cheap booze and usually just to get hammered. Fine brandy and fine whiskey must be had neat! If the whiskey is a bit strong for you (especially when you are just starting out), you may add water (preferably room temp or slightly chilled). Don't add ice! Ice can hurt a good whiskey almost as much as coke does! For more experienced whiskey drinkers, only the very high alcohol percentage (cask-strength) whiskies require a splash of water, but for anything below 55% alcohol content, use only minimal amounts of water (half a teaspoon at a time) to lighten and open the whiskey.
Rituals you need NOT concern yourself with:
Like anything else, whiskey drinkers have a specific lingo that helps them explain certain properties of the whiskey they are drinking. Many idiots use these terms in an attempt to sound like a whisky-tasting expert, but trust me, you fool nobody by talking about the 'nose' (smell) as being citrusy, or the finish (aftertaste) as being long and smokey when all you do is pull those comments out of your @$$. While no two whisky samplers (no matter how experienced they are) will ever smell and taste exactly the same things in the same shot of whiskey, they will tend to congeal along certain themes, and you just look like a idiot when you start saying that a heavily-peated whiskey smells like apricot and tastes like honey & nutmeg when to the rest of the room it actually smells like a bon fire and tastes like spiced cinnamon & coffee!
The 'perfect' whiskey glass
This nonsense is so widespread that I want to start burning down pubs as a result of it! The shape of the glass does NOTHING, read, NOTHING to the taste or smell of the whisky! The glass can however affect the taste & smell of whiskey depending on how it conducts the heat from your hand to the whiskey. In warm environments (or in summer), you want more glass between your hand and the whiskey, so as to insulate the whiskey from drawing too much heat from your hand. Read the next section for a bit of science on glass conductivity.
Rituals you SHOULD try to follow, religiously:
Best served chilled or not?
Most whiskies should be server at room temperature, but it gets a little bit more complicated than that because the vessel (glass) can alter the temperature and improve / dampen the qualities of the whisky. Personally, I use a thermos glass (Google it) in Singapore because the weather here is VERY hot and humid, and I don't want to overheat my whiskey when I hold it in my hand (the thermos' vacuum region acts as an insulator, blocking my hand's heat from reaching the whiskey).
In a colder area (or during winter), you may want less glass between your hand and the whiskey, as this will allow it to warm up and open its aroma / flavour better. Stick to this advice and you will never be far off from having your whiskey at a good temperature for optimal enjoyment (but also vary it a bit to experiment with the smell & taste).
Miscellaneous facts you won't learn in most pubs:
Personally, I find that every time I eat a snack that is rumoured to go well with whiskey, I am left disappointed. Cheese leaves oil in my mouth and it makes the whiskey lose all its bite and flavour. Peanuts / pork cracklings / raisins / prawn crackers all affect how they whiskey tastes in my mouth and really does not bring out the best in any of the whiskies I regularly drink. It is similar to how eating liquorice can make coke taste funny. I would recommend that you treat whiskey like a mistress: meet her in private and don't invite company.
Unlike fine wine, whiskey does not age well
Whiskey, unlike wine, has NO active fermentation / aging component once it is bottled. I briefly want to take a stab at those snobbish, red-nosed wine drinkers. Let's be honest here folks (because I've also tried the 'fine' wine thing), the better / older the wine, the more it tastes like apple VINEGAR! Thus I prefer whiskey, cognac, and crafted beer, but that's just me.
Whiskey does not improve with time spent in the bottle, so go pull out that rare bottle and enjoy it; it is as good now as it will ever be! Do note, however, that whiskey will 'rust' (oxidize) once you pop the cork or break the seal of the cap. This rusting effect can improve (some whiskies) before eventually dampening the taste. For most whiskies, aging after opening will make it go progressively 'flat' as the months go by. So, if you have a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that you cracked open two years ago and only drink from on special occasions, rest assured, that whiskey is getting worse and worse by the month. You are wasting your money!
Oh, and on that note, let's end with a final, persistent, and aggravating myth:
Myth #4 - Johnny Walker Blue Label is the best / most expensive whiskey EVAR!!!
There are select bottles of vintage Single Malt whiskies that cost more per bottle than an entire truck loaded full of Johnny Walker Blue Label crates! Not only that, but Johnny Walker Blue Label is a medium-grade whiskey (at best) and never the favourite of experienced whiskey drinkers who know what they are paying for and actually care to please their senses! Please, for god's sake, stop believing everything that marketing people tell you! Go out and get a simple bottle of Talisker, Aardbeg, The McCallan, Highland Park, Oban, Cragganmore, or Laphroaig (any of the 10/12/14 year olds) and get a taste of REAL quality whiskies, at a much more affordable price!
May I suggest to the Johnny Walker brand that it give it's Blue Label variant the proper slogan: Johnny Walker Blue Label - Taking the piss out of doctors, lawyers, business people, and politicians since 1991!
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