I’m a Scot abroad.
Scots have been leaving the motherland for centuries. We often write songs and tell stories to transport us back to the mountains and forests, loves and tragedies, nights spent fishing in the hills or trudging home through the snow.
There is a much easier way to magically arrive in Scotland though - crack open the Scotch, and get some friends around. A night of Scotch whisky can be enjoyed by anybody. Let the warm golden dram lift your spirits and start the entertainment.
When I think of the great evenings I have had drinking Scotch, I think of being with friends and relatives, I think of roaring fires in lodges and farmhouses, I think of nights spent in castles with snow lying outside, I think of the eccentric characters who provide the entertainment - Cousin Donachan, Uncle Muir, Dàibhidh Mòr (that’s ‘Big Dave’ in Gaelic). I also think of tastings in distilleries and local bars where I learned to appreciate the drink.
I want to put together this experience, and share this with you. There are a few basic elements you will need for full enjoyment. Sure enough, you can get by with a bottle and a couple of glasses, but why not go the whole hogshead and make a proper evening of it.
I am writing about Scotch whisky (without the e) but most of this advice would equally apply to an evening of American whiskey, brandy, rum or other spirits.
So, here are ten things you really should have in the drinks cabinet to make a truly magical evening, a night to impress.
A classic crystal tumbler cannot go wrong.
It could also be plain glass. The important thing to me is that it feels heavy and good quality.
Colored glass, or glass with designs, is kitsch and 70s - if you really, really want it, I’d reserve it for cocktails!
...and don’t humor suggestions of cocktails. That’s for another evening.
The biggest rookie mistake you can make is to serve whisky in a shot glass. In Scotland you would be shot. Or certainly get some funny looks.
There are some nice rolling whisky tumblers. These can look stylish, and are great for a conversation. But they are not going to look good as you walk from the cabinet to the fireplace carrying them on a tray.
In other words, feel free to break the rules, but best to keep this option for closer friends.
The decanter is the centerpiece of your table. This is where all eyes are drawn.
Despite that, the decanter is arguably a totally unnecessary addition to this list. Whisky does not improve from being decanted, as would red wine. Nevertheless, it looks great and adds a little more style than plunking a bottle down on the table.
Also, if you are serving a cheaper, blended Scotch, use a decanter. This will save your blushes.
If you have a nice drinks cabinet, and good malts, you can keep them there to best show the bottles off. There's no reason to start decanting them all.
Again choose a heavy, crystal, decanter for maximum class. Have a look at the market, there is a range of beautiful choices out there.
Chose one that a hundred years from now somebody will proudly say: “This was my great-grandfather’s decanter,” as they host their own whisky evening.
These little things not only keep your furniture dry and clean, but are also a statement. There are some stylish coasters out there.
You cannot beat leather, but there are also nice wooden ones or even metal.
I have Harris Tweed coasters. That’s ultra-Scottish!
To carry the decanter and tumblers across the room, or to offer the drinks to your guests standing by the fireplace, of course you need a tray.
Try to make sure the tray is in keeping with the rest of your cabinet. No plastic trays with a picture of Scottie dogs, please.
My Uncle Muir had an old, silver tray, with a worn leather surface. Might be worth checking out the antique store for something unique.
In a civilized whisky evening you probably want to serve your favorite malts, at least to kick off. It is worth-while making the effort to enjoy these with due attention, so you will need nosing glasses.
These bulbed glasses generally resemble the flower of Scotland, the thistle, but are designed for appreciating good whisky.
You can look at the colors against the light. Swirl them around to see the ‘legs’ run down the edges. Stick your nose right in to get a full whiff of the aromas.
And finally, taste the golden ambrosia itself.
Similar to red wine and brandy glasses, these glasses are perfect for warming up the whisky in your hand. This releases even more aroma and flavor.
There are several options on the market. Generally, they are in two styles: the Glencairn glass or the copita style. Most of them look great. Search out your favorite.
If push comes to shove and you cannot find any nosing glasses, another option is to look for a mini brandy glass or a bulbed sherry glass. These will complete most of the same functions.
Water Jar and Pipette
They say there are two things you can add to a good whisky - one is a little water, the other is more whisky.
A water jar is essential. You might take whisky neat, but many add water.
Water can take the edge of the whisky and even release new notes on the nose and tongue. (Tap water can add a negative flavor, so make sure it is distilled or filtered.)
I put a splash of whisky in my malts, just to take the edge off.
If you have a quality whisky it is good advice to try a whisky pipette, or water dropper. It might seem a little pretentious, but sometimes the tiniest of drops brings a whisky to life.
On the other hand, if it’s a warming ‘deoch’ (drink) you want, and not a tasting session, I add the water in the same quantity as the whisky.
Leave your guests to do this to their liking, it’s a very personal thing. That’s why the water jar is on the table.
Ice Box and Tongs
I love a whisky on the rocks. Guilty.
If you are drinking on a warm summer’s eve, looking out over the lake, a nice cool whisky is just the thing.
With good whisky - malts, or even upper-end blends - ice is big *N*O*. There are death sentences in Scotland for this crime. The ice neutralizes the flavors because of the cold and the water.
Notwithstanding, if you are drinking a blended Scotch it’s no sin. It’s all about taking away the harsher flavors and just enjoying the whisky and the evening.
You can be a whisky-nazi if you want, but your guests might not come back!
If you’re having Scotch and soda water, or any other mixer, I’d say ice is a necessity.
There are some beautiful ice-boxes out there. I would say look for a classic metal one, or even wooden. Try to avoid plastic or glass.
Ice tongs should be metal. The classic ones are pointed claws to grab the chunks of ice. Modern ice tongs tend to have flat ends, which are great, but some have the downside that the ice can escape your grasp - so make sure it doesn’t scoot out of the tongs and down your guest’s cleavage, like some dodgy 70s comedy.
Again, never use with good whisky - it will simply reduce the flavor.
If your objective is just to relax, however, then an excellent alternative to ice is stone or metal chillers. These allow you to chill your whisky without diluting it.
Nice conversation starters too.
You simply keep them in the freezer until needed. There are all kinds on the market, with some gorgeous variations, from authentic marbled stone to solid metal.
But do not be tempted by the novelty glass skulls. I will be very disappointed in you.
Scotch with soda water is one of the most classic ways to mix whisky, without losing class!
A soda dispenser would be a great addition. It might make you think of Laurel and Hardy, but the dispenser can be very attractive.
Resist the temptation to sit a plastic bottle on the table. If you don’t have a dispenser, best to keep the soda water in the fridge (or at least in the cabinet).
Make sure you carefully measure your guests’ whisky consumption. (JOKE!)
I would not advise using a jigger or a measuring cup at all - let the whisky flow as freely as feels natural.
That said, some guests might like specific measurements, especially if they are mixing with other elements, so this is a good thing to have on hand.
And it might be an idea to help red-cheeked Cousin Donachan be less heavy-handed when he’s topping up his glass.
Loads of craic!
Bonus item you must have at a whisky evening - good craic (pronounced ‘crack’, but no, not crack! - good craic is what we say in Scotland (and Ireland) to mean a great time. There’s no ‘English’ translation of craic). The most important thing when you're drinking whisky is to have loads of craic.
Enjoy the evening to the fullest, and don’t leave them short on drink. When you think things are winding up always offer a deoch an dorais, as we say in Scottish Gaelic - this is literally ‘the door’s drink’, or a drink for the road in English.
“So, anyway, you’ll be having one for the ditch, Don?”
Over the next three months I am writing three more blogs for a whisky evening - your home bar, how to drink whisky, and which whiskies to have in your home - so bookmark Beckett Simonon and come back to check them out.
If you have any questions, or want to share a whisky related experience yourself, leave me a comment below.