For the love of whisky

First published in Spatula Magazine.

Of all the epicurean pursuits, is there any more magical than whisky?  I’m asking the question rather than making the statement, because I can’t be relied on for objectivity.  I’ve been known to refer to whisky as the golden nectar of the gods, because not since Jesus turned water into wine has a divine hand been more apparent in the crafting of a beverage.   I am a whiskyphile, pure and simple.  Nevertheless, that grain, yeast and water, as rudimentary a recipe of ingredients as can be imagined, could yield such an astounding array of flavours, is inarguably cause for wonder no matter what your palatary persuasions.  I think I have a case.

Whisky was thought to have first been distilled in by Irish monks during the Dark Ages (so perhaps it’s true that God invented whiskey so that the Irish would never take over the world).  From there it spread to Scotland first, and then much later to the rest of the world, suffering an etymological schism in the process.  Today the Irish and Americans (with a few exceptions) call their product whiskey (with an “e”), whilst Scotland and the rest of the world have stuck with the original spelling.  This aberration occurred because the average Scotch of the late 19th Century was reputedly of such poor quality that the Irish and Americans wanted to set their whiskeys apart.  These semantics, whilst interesting, don’t really make much of a difference to anything other than signalling that as the craft spread various countries have each added their own individual expression to create a wonderful, diverse world of whisky.

Much has since changed and today the Scots are the frontrunners, producing whisky of undisputed quality.  A typical person’s whisky journey would begin with drinking Scotch blends such as J&B, Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s, before graduating, if the bug bites, to single malts, and the discovery of other styles.  At the early getting-to-know-you stage whisky can seem mystifying and challenging, and I guess that’s part of the appeal, but the basics are actually quite straightforward.  One whisky differs from another primarily because of the type of grain used in its making.  Single malts and blended malts use malted barley (peated and unpeated), Scotch and Irish grain whiskies use wheat, corn or a combination of these grains, Irish pure pot stills use a combination of malted and unmalted barley, blends are as the name suggests combinations of these styles, and bourbon is predominantly corn, mixed with either rye or wheat.  There’s more to it of course, in fact there’s always something new to learn even for seasoned whisky lovers, but this is the foundation.

Some people drink whisky because it’s cool.  They’re drawn to the mystique, the glamour, the lore, and the culture.  Most people drink whisky, and keep drinking it, because of its intrinsics, because of the flavour.   It was the lure of flavour which once prompted someone to remark: “The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question”.

Flavour refers to aroma and taste, and engaging with it can initially be off-putting.  Certainly that was my experience.  Just one look at an anorak (a whisky nerd) swilling a nosing glass and spouting forth with tweedy pompousness is enough to make you shudder.   As fascinating as flavours of sandalwood incense, mid-growth east coast heather, and Anatolian figs (not the common variety) may well be, at first sight it all seems a bit pretentious.

The trick with flavour is to trust your instincts and your imagination.  Your nose and palate interpret flavour in an individually specific manner.  There is no single, specific right answer.  Whilst there is a theory to flavour, and certain parameters, at the end of the day you’re answerable only to one person.  Remember that the whole whisky tasting endeavour is undertaken only to further your own satisfaction.  You don’t have to be a Jim Murray (there can be only one).  It’s not a test.  You drink whisky to enjoy it.  And once you’ve started to master the identification of broad flavours in whisky – the smoke of Scotch, the spice of Irish, the butteriness of Bourbon – something that can certainly be done on the hoof, there’s no limit to the variety to be explored, and the enjoyment to be savoured.

As to the how, this is where I do a 180 and turn prescriptive.  The target is flavour, and you can’t hit a target if there are obstacles in the way.  Some younger whiskies, particularly Americans and Canadians, may be suited to mixing or as a base for cocktails (such as Mint Juleps and Manhattans).  But not older, more premium, nuanced whiskies…at least not unless you want to waste your money (and if you do there are better ways).  These can be drunk neat, and if that’s your inclination you won’t be alone.  There’s a Scottish proverb that reads:  “There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one of them is malt whisky”.  Personally I find that the undiluted 43% strength is anaesthetizing.  Ice, in modest quantity, is optional, but it too can be numbing, can over dilute, and can generally get in the way.  The ideal is to add a splash of filtered or mineral water at room temperature, or rather the Scottish version thereof, hence, for those of us under the African sun, the allowance for a bit of ice.

I think my case is made.  Whisky towers high, there’s no doubt.  I remain partial but am able to call on two last, reputable advocates in my support – the market economy that has valued this beneficiated mix of grain, yeast and water as highly as £13 000 a bottle and Mark Twain who once wrote: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough”.  Worth a retweet I think.   May the dram be with you!

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