Pouring a scotch is one of those life skills that is both superfluous and essential. Its absence won’t interfere with your survival, but its mastery transforms survival to salvation. The ability to appreciate a great whisky — whether the occasion is succour at the end of the day, a communion with friends, or the consummation of a deal struck — is one of the hallmarks — and delights — of sophistication. It’s important to know what to do and how to do it, and, as always, Wanted has your back.
When supposed experts wax lyrical about the wisps of (impossibly specific) this, the hints of (extravagantly descriptive) that, and so on, that they’re detecting in a whisky, it can be off-putting and intimidating. However, while there’s often a liberal dose of interpretation at play in such scenarios, the real, indisputable, depth of flavour in a well-crafted whisky is simply stupendous. It’s there… if you just know how to access it.
The “secret” (such as it is) is in the nose. You need to pursue the aromas as fervently as you do the taste. Our noses are far more sensitive than our palates. When they are properly focused, and when the whisky is served in a suitable glass, they reveal hidden dimensions layered beneath the surface.
The optimal glass for fully appreciating these flavours tapers inwards from a wide bulb concentrating the rich whisky vapours, and then flares outwards at the rim, gently delivering liquid to the lips. That said, consuming whisky is a holistic experience. The liquid is of central importance, but other indirect factors, including your mood, your imagination, and your setting, play a part. Sometimes, in less cerebral moments, you might just want to feel the weight of a heavy crystal tumbler in your hand. Know your options and when to deploy them.
There’s something about ordering whisky “straight-up” or “on the rocks”, with its suggestion of languid savoir faire, which seems instinctively right. But while it might be cool, it’s just not school.
Personal preferences differ, and varying whiskies can respond differently, but as a general rule single malts and premium whiskies are best enjoyed with a dash of filtered water, a practice known as “releasing the serpent”. The water causes a reaction within the whisky, thereby opening it up and amplifying its flavour.
Johnnie Walker Red Label, the world’s biggest-selling whisky, has an astounding range, but its salty, spicy, sweet, and smoky flavours won’t be properly experienced unless you lure them out with some water.
Indirect factors, external to the whisky itself, can influence enjoyment, and these should not be underestimated
On the other hand, the strength of the alcohol in neat whisky interferes with its flavour. Professionals evaluate whisky at about 20% alcohol by volume, (which would require adding to your glass just more than the same volume of water as whisky for a standard 43% bottling). This extreme feels and tastes over-diluted to me, but it’s a useful parameter. As a rough guide I’d suggest starting with a quarter volume, and adjusting to taste. Use a small jug with a tight spout for the purpose, or a pipette if you’re a hard-core nerd.
Ice is an automatic choice for many whisky drinkers, especially in our climate, but it presents several problems that should give you pause for thought. Firstly, the fatty acids that largely give the whisky its flavour become congealed by the ice, and affect the drink’s flavour. Secondly, the cold from ice tends to produce a numbing effect on the palate, further inhibiting flavour. And lastly, ice produces uncontrolled dilution, meaning that your drink will vary in intensity from start to finish, giving you an inconsistent experience. If you must add ice, then use a measured portion of crushed ice, or seek out the slow-melt of an ice sphere.
Much as the making of whisky is a blend of science and art, so is the drinking of it. Indirect factors, external to the whisky itself, can influence enjoyment, and these should not be underestimated. If you’re planning on pouring a special bottle, or even your regular dram, it is worth the effort to engineer events accordingly. There is no mechanistic formula: we’re on subjective ground here. What works a treat for one person might be a damp squib for another.
The old favourites — a winter whisky in front of a roaring fire, exploring a new bottle with a gathering of whisky-loving friends, and toasting a special occasion — will likely have universal appeal. I find that common themes, for example, the smoky combination of Scottish Leader’s Signature with a braai, enhance my experience. But this is a personal business. Find your triggers and put them to good use.
This extends to fitting the whisky to mood and moment. You may respond best to something hearty and uncomplicated when you’re feeling tired, and something subtle and complex when you’re buoyant and energised. There’s so much variety and complexity in Scotch whisky that it’s possible to find the perfect dram for every conceivable state.
As with all things, practice makes perfect, and pouring the perfect serve of whisky is no exception. If you apply yourself diligently, the fruits of your labour will be ample reward. Enjoy!