James Bond’s trademark quote refers to vodka martinis not whisky, and whilst I’m aligning myself with Humphrey Bogart – whose famous last words were “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis” – I can nonetheless appreciate Bond’s particular discernment when it came to how his drink of choice should be prepared.
I’m often asked how whisky should be drunk. It’s like a recurring dream. Sometimes it seems like the same people keep asking me. Maybe I’m not interesting enough to engage on other subjects, so they stick to this topic as a refuge. Worrying…enough so that I thought I’d take it out of the equation by putting my response on the record. Perhaps I’ll carry little slips of paper from now on inscribed with this post’s URL and hand them out to whoever asks me again.
When I was on the marketing side of the industry, the party line was that whisky should be drunk the way the consumer wanted to drink it. If that was with cream soda, then so be it. I always thought that this was self-serving, and short sightedly so – particularly with premium brands. How many Chivas suitcases could and would someone actually drink? Yes it might impress your mates at first but how long before that wears off and you realise that passion fruit cordial tastes much the same with the ubiquitous Bells or J&B?
I’m not knocking whisky with mixers or even whisky cocktails. They have their place, and it’s clearly spacious. I don’t have any statistics at hand but I’d guess that the bulk of blended whisky is drunk with some sort of a mixer. Whisky is an acquired taste and for many people mixed whisky is the push start to a long and beautiful journey. I myself enjoy Canadian whisky with a mixer, and I’m partial to a Sour or an Old Fashioned. But I also subscribe to the belief that a mixer ruins a superior whisky. 007 may be tempted by a Romanov and coke (I said may), but guaranteed he’ll save his Grey Goose for a martini. Good whiskies are all about flavour and mouth-feel, and the subtleties thereof. These are lost when set against the backdrop of a mixer – why skim a diamond over the surface of a lake when a stone will do?
There is a better way – and it’s called water. Water in its liquid and frozen forms is whisky’s time honoured collaborator. Usually I’d initially nose and taste a whisky neat and thereafter add water – anything from a drop to an equal part (depending on the alcohol level and my mood at the time) – to help release the flavours of the whisky. Water reduces the edge of alcohol as a primary sensation, allowing you to more easily detect the subtler elements of aroma and taste. It’s best to avoid heavily chlorinated water, because like a mixer this would interfere with if not overpower the whisky. I would furthermore tend to stay away from sparkling water and soda, although it’s interesting to note that Dave Broom, one of the world’s pre-eminent whisky writers, recommends the former as an accompaniment to a young peaty whisky. Worth a try.
Ice is more controversial. Whisky is optimal at room temperature, but this is hardly a precise measure. A Cameroonian gentleman downing a dram in downtown Douala may have a different take on it compared to his Swedish counterpart. Anoraks – the geeks of the whisky world – will tell you that whisky should be drunk at the temperature of a Scottish parlour (+/- 15°C), hence the motivation for ice in certain climates. The reason for all of this concern about temperature is that whisky contains congeners (types of fats and oils) which are largely responsible for flavour, and which, in much the same way as other fats, congeal at lower temperatures, and thereby become inhibited. This is why non-chill filtered whiskies tend to haze when cooled. Ice also introduces uncontrolled dilution as it progressively melts. Soapstone “ice” blocks, chilled in the freezer and then added to a drink, offer a nifty solution to this problem. The Japanese have also popularized the ice ball, which due to its smaller surface area versus an ice-cube of similar volume, melts more slowly and therefore is less diluting. More on these cool (npi) ice-balls in a future post.
So it’s clear that the preferred ingredients should be water, yes, and ice, maybe. But as to how to put it all together, well, there is no exacting answer…not even in Japan, as precise a culture as one could hope to find. The most popular whisky drink over there is the mizuwari (the classic recipe calls for the golden nectar with an equal measure of water and 2 blocks of ice, stirred precisely 13 and half times!) but even this would invariably vary according to personal taste. The exciting solution to this dilemma then is to drink lots of whisky and experiment. And on that note – may the dram be with you!