Thursday, February 7, 2013


I like the little things, the way a glass feels in your hand, a good glass - thick, with a heavy base. I love the sound an ice cube makes when you drop it from just the right height. Too high, and it will chip when you drop it. Chip the ice and it will melt too fast in the scotch.

Quote from John Spencer’s character, Leo McGarry, in the TV series West Wing as part of a dialogue on alcoholism.  

This is one of my favorite homages to whisky but it also points out one of the most common miss conceptions that whisky is a hard core drink for hardcore drinkers and inseparably linked to inebriation.

I was having coffee with an Italian friend the other day and I asked him if he enjoyed whisky.  He told me he didn’t drink.  Being a southern Italian he most likely drinks wine and even grappa, a local distilled spirit, but he was quick to assure me he was not a heavy drinker and certainly not a scotch drinker.  This is not an uncommon reaction and with whiskys ranging between 40%abv and 70%abv for some cask strengths it would be disingenuous to imply that it is not a strong spirit.  However the jump from a strong spirit to alcoholism is one of the largest misconceptions surrounding our understanding of the drink.

One of the sites I use to order whisky from, posts at the bottom of each page a reminder “Drink Responsibly - Sip, don’t Gulp”.  I remember going to work one day around the Christmas period and hearing that a regular bar patron had won a nip of a 45 year old Bowmore in the holiday raffle.  The way the story was told, the man clenched his teeth and threw it back like a shot. The person telling the story laughed, ‘I thought the gaffer was going to cry’.

Undoubtedly there is a technique to drinking and tasting whisky.  I’m not sure if I would go so far as to say that there was an etiquette to it.  I find that some ‘connoisseurs’ can be a bit pedantic.  Jim Murray, the author of the ‘Whisky Bible’, whom I deeply respect,  has a list of nine guidelines to tastings including no perfumes, only glass, no food and spittoons. Someone once told me ‘you can tell you’re a whisky snob if you object to the way another man takes his drink’.  I would personally add anyone who mentions spelling or chill filtering to the list but thoughts are just my pet peeves.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to make your whisky experience a bit less of a step toward inebriation and more of an indulgence of flavor.

First point: On the Rocks

Firstly, no one I met in Scotland ever asked for whisky ‘on the rocks’.  Using the phrase is equivalent to pinning a sign to your forehead saying you are American.  Second, cold temperatures do shut down taste.  However, water opens up the flavor and releases more aromas changing the character of the whisky.  When tasting whisky it is good practice to taste the whisky before and after adding water.  Many people find they enjoy a whisky more with water than with out.  Adding room temperature water is a technic used by whisky professionals and master blenders and should not be construed as watering the drink down or dulling the flavor.

‘Even if you don’t take your whisky with water usually, it is essential for purposes of whisky appreciation and analysis’
SMWS Handbook

If you are in a warm climate feel free to add ice for your enjoyment.  If not try it at room temp with water. 

Second: A Wee Large

A nip of whisky is 25ml. A wee large used to be 35ml.  A wee large is something I heard about from the older generation of whisky drinkers. As I understand it the larger measure used to be the common unit in the north of Scotland and in working class areas of Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen.  As a result of modern licensing laws it is now illegal but still rumored to be served at some bars and pubs.

Like the ‘dram’, the wee large is a measure of weight and value, now fading into antiquity, that reminds us that quantity can effect value.  Make sure you are enjoying the quality of the drinking experience.  

Because whisky is so strong make sure to take your time and drink the right amount.

Third: a Good Glass   

There is undoubtedly something satisfying about a heavy based whisky tumbler like the one described above; a sturdy piece to accompany a no nonsense activity.  But the real thing you are looking for in a good tasting glass is a rounded bowl and narrow neck, a glass you can get your nose into.   At the Grill we used Glencairn glasses. These glasses are shaped a bit like a tulip with a soft angled short base.  The spherical bowl and weighted stand means that I have many memories of chasing after them either as they rolled around on their side or righted themselves after a miss-judged placement on my part.    

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