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. I also think of distilleries and local bars where I learned to appreciate the drink.
I want to share this experience with you.
Guide to drinking
In this guide I want you to think about the variety of ways to enjoy Scotch (*hint, none of them include shots).
I want to start with looking at the royalty of Scottish whisky - Single Malts. This includes the food and snacks to consider serving with malt whisky.
After that, I will look at how to drink Blended Whisky - your Johnny Walker, and so on.
This is a blog about whisky - whiskey (with an ‘e’) is generally speaking a spirit which is distilled outside Scotland.
Scotch is the popular American way to distinguish whiskey and whisky - and is more specific because it obviously is just another way to say Scottish!
It is the topic for another blog to talk about the differences in Scotch whiskies, like blends and malts, expressions and regions, and so on and so forth.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
In summary, a Single Malt is a whisky which has come from a single distillery, produced in one year. It, therefore, has the characteristics which come from the area it was produced, and the location where it has been aged.
It often has an age on it, which is the length of time spent in a cask. This can be anything from, generally, 10 years to 30 years.
Many modern ‘expressions’ (or varieties of malts) now bottle without an age, and these can be from two or three different years in the same distillery (on the decision of the Master Blender) to create a specific type of whisky.
Let’s start with the most important. Tasting.
A tasting is not just tasting. It encompasses looking, smelling, tasting in the mouth, and swallowing.
Or rather it should just be called drinking whisky and be done with it.
Still, by giving it a name, it brings it to focus.
There are two ways to go about this - it can be a formal tasting scenario, where you are comparing whiskies and discussing their merits. This might well be a nice centerpiece for an evening.
Or otherwise, it may just be for your own enjoyment, or an informal comparison with a couple of friends, and perhaps a little insightful comment here and there!
So when you are tasting whisky, what are you taking on board?
The first step is to pour the whisky into a nosing glass. Swirl it around and hold it to the light. You will notice two things - the color of the whisky and the way it sticks to the glass.
The color will often hint how well-aged a whisky is, what type of cask it has been aged in, and perhaps what has been in that cask previously.
For example, a malt aged in a bourbon cask will usually be light in color, compared with a malt aged a sherry cask. And if it is aged in a Port cask it will be a different color all together!
Some whiskies are light, or thinner, and these leave thin ‘legs’ which don’t stick to the edge very long. Other whiskies are thicker, and leave big broad legs, as it trickles slowly down the glass.
These legs are sometimes called tears. And quite appropriately - because there have been many an argument over whether they can tell you a goddam thing about the quality of the drink.
Many say that thicker, fatty, legs mean the whisky is more full-bodied, tannany, robust… Others shout poppycock. Make your own mind up.
Swirling it around has a secondary effect - it opens up the spirit to the air, maybe warms it a little, and releases all those lovely aromas, ready for the next bit:
Stick your nose far into the glass and take a big whiff.
And come up with some debonair summary of the aromas, rather than just “oh my god, that’s strong,” or, only slightly better, “oh my god, that’s peaty.”
Here are some suggestions of typical aromas you might come across:
beeswax, bourbon, buttery, caramel, cerealy, cigar-box, citrus, fruity, flowery, grassy, honey, leafy, leathery, malty, nutty, seaweed, sherry, smoke, sweet (although this irks me a little, sweet’s a taste!), tar, vanilla, woody.
All the different aromas have reasons behind them. For example, you might smell smoke because it has been aged in a fired, bourbon cask, or it might have a seaweed aroma after being aged by the sea.
While your average whisky drinkers don’t tend to use such flamboyant language as wine connoisseurs, it helps to engage the imagination for this part.
Look at the list with a whisky in your hand, and see what you think. The more malt whisky you drink, the better you will become at differentiating the aromas. And remember, there is no right or wrong - the fun is seeing what interesting ideas come into your head.
One of the best pieces of no-nonsense advice I ever got was at The Dalmore distillery: “When tasting whisky swirl it around a wee while - if it has was fifteen years in a cask waiting for this very moment, you can give it fifteen seconds in the mouth.”
This is not only out of respect for the dram. As it sits in the mouth, it reaches all the different taste sensors. It also warms up; this means that more flavors are released and you can really get a feel for how smooth it is.
I swear that some older, cask-strength, whiskies have entirely evaporated before I even swallowed. Magical.
Think about these five pillars:
Unlike wine tasting, when tasting a whisky, as a rule, we don’t spit! As you swallow the whisky you will note more aspects. You will notice how smoothly it goes down, how it warms the throat or stomach, how long the flavor remains in the mouth, and whether this changes.
I like to taste a whisky without adding water initially, but it is worth adding a small dash of distilled or filtered water, or even just a couple of drops from a whisky pipette. This releases new flavors and can take away some of the harshness to allow you to focus on the more subtle properties.
Tap water is a no-no. It usually has a flavor, so will distract from the whisky.
Cleanse the palate and give some time between tasting different whiskies to allow your senses to relax and get ready for the next whisky. Have water on the table and everybody can help themselves.
It’s a strong drink, so you won’t be tasting too many at a time. Six is usually a good maximum. Carry on drinking malts, by all means, you just won’t be registering everything with quite the same accuracy!
All these things will help you differentiate the malts, and decide which you like. What makes it interesting is that everybody has their own preferences at each stage. You are learning as much about yourself and your friends as you are about the drink itself.
Swirl that whisky and you might hear the sound of the loch from whence it came, and put your ear to the glass to hear the sea and wind, from the shore where it sat in its cask for over a decade.
But the best way to get the sounds of Scotland - search music on YouTube or Spotify!
If you are drinking pure malts, I advise to always have snacks. They clear the palate and can form great flavor combinations.
The most common are salty snacks - peanuts, mini-pretzels, crackers, and so on. These cleanse the mouth and put something in the belly.
Chocolate, or something sweet like ice-cream, can be a fantastic accompaniment to many whiskies. The warmth of whisky in the mouth melts the chocolate or ice-cream and lets flavors circulate. Perhaps best with a Highland or Speyside malt.
Malt whisky is a fantastic after-dinner digestif. This the ideal way to continue a classy evening. After you have finished dessert, maybe alongside the coffee or cheeseboard, or when you ‘retire to the study’ to continue the conversation into the night.
Blue cheese is a fantastic option, especially for whiskies with strong flavors, like an Islay malt. The combination of the peatiness of the malt and the pungent smells and boom on the tongue of a blue cheese give a full-on experience.
Many people swear by the whisky and cigar combination, especially after a nice meal. It is not something I have experienced (I think it is pretty exclusively an American thing!). Smoke can offend or disgust some guests, so do this with caution. That said, there are clearly many people how love this combo, so if this excites you, why not try this with an old favorite malt, or a good blend? Which leads me nicely onto…
The majority of whisky drunk around the world is Blended Scotch. Blended Scotch, to summarize, is a mix of different whiskies from around Scotland.
This has three major reasons:
It neutralizes strong flavors, which makes it easier to drink and more appropriate for mixers and cocktails.
It means that over years and decades it is possible to guarantee a consistency, whereas malt whiskies from a single distillery are affected from year to year by weather, barley production, cask supply and so on.
The process can be much cheaper.
Blends of purely malts exist (Blended Malts) but are not the norm. Blends are usually made up of part malt whisky and a large percentage grain whisky, which is a cheaper way to make whisky (using not only barley but other grains, and using a different type of still).
So how do you drink blends?
Higher-end blends, such as Johnny Walker Gold, Chivas Regal 12yo, Monkey Shoulder, are enjoyed by many the world over.
These are not for mixing, as a rule, but rather to be enjoyed with a little ice or a touch of water. Some nicer ones are perfect for sipping straight, and you can find a blend which suits your liking - some are peatier for example, such as The Famous Grouse Smoky Black.
The most common way around the world to have a blend is with ice and coke. Often seen as a sin by whisky lovers, but with a cheaper whisky who cares? You can also mix it with lemonade or IrnBru (Scotland’s other national drink).
More traditionally (and more acceptable in a classy surrounding!) you might drink a blend with soda water and ice, or a three parts mix of whisky, soda, and ginger ale.
A traditional way to drink a blend in Scotland is called a ‘half and half’ (or hauf an hauf) otherwise called a ‘whisky chaser’. The idea is to have your beer and your whisky side-by-side and means that you are changing from one flavor to the other, back and fore. You are having your cake and eating it.
This is more typical to drink in a bar, but nothing stops you playing with this idea at home. Be careful mixing your drinks though, it can quickly lead downhill!
The options for a whisky evening are as wide as your imagination. All you have to do is make sure you enjoy the night, and the drink.
Give plenty of attention to what you are drinking. The point of the whisky is not getting drunk: it should be the center of the conversation, and the center of the fun.
So Slàinte mhòr to you, as we say in Scotland (it’s pronounced ‘slan - ch - vor’ and means something like great health). A toast to your health and to a grand evening of whisky drinking!