Friday, July 23, 2010

Beginner's Guide to Whisk(e)y part 1 : How to drink Whisky

Are you new to the world of whisky ? 

Here's a few of my guidelines to help you on how to drink enjoy a whisky and what to try and/or buy and how to broaden your horizons and get some experience. This is based on questions I tend to get most often

First a bit on drinking whisky. No, I am not going to tell you how you should drink your whisky, You have to figure that out yourself. Your nose and palate isn't the same as my nose and palate, so the way I drink whisky might not be the way for You to drink whisky. The world is full of whiskywriters, "experts" and brand ambassadors who can lecture You on how there's exactly one right way to enjoy a good whisky. It can be confusing as they can describe the only right way to drink a whisky exactly the opposite way as the "guru" you were listening to yesterday said. This is probably the area where there is most bullshit to listen to in the world of good whisky :-)

Whisky is an alcoholic drink. It contains alcohol, well alcohol is really a group of chemical compunds with a specific molecular setup and by that - similar chemical  properties, but when common people like you and me says alcohol we actually mean the alcohol named ethanol, CH3CH2OH 

Someone working with chemistry might be referring to the whole group of compounds, but when they are in bar with you and me alcohol is the same for them as us, so when I say alcohol I mean ethanol

Alcohol is an organic solvent, just like ether, formaldehyde, chloroform and terpentine is. Opposed to the other mentioned solvents, alcohol is "slightly" less toxic, and the state of mild toxication is sought need to hide the fact that part of the fun with whisky is getting a little tipsy :-)

But drinking alcohol exposes your nose, mouth, palate and throat to this chemical solvent; ethanol. If the alcohol is very diluted, like it is in beer, wine or a cocktail this is no issue, but if you drink a whisky neat, the ABV (alcohol by volume) can be from the standard lowest legal botling strength 40%, up to, in extreme cases, 70%, if bottled straight from the cask. Cask Strengths whiskies are normally in the range from 50 to 60% ABV. In these cases the "chemical solvent" exposure will affect you and the parts of your body it gets in contact with! 

Experienced drinkers, including me, often drink their whisky neat, whatever the bottle strength is, or add a drop or two of water, to "open" up the whisky. You don't really add these drops of water to dilute your whisky but to start a chemical and/or physical reaction that releases flavours. 

Newcomers to whisky are usually not used to drink neat alcohol at these high strengths and it can cause an unpleasant "alcoholic" burn that will take away any kind of pleasure and mask all flavours of whisky

The first thing you have to overcome is dealing with this. You won't enjoy a whisky with an unpleasant burning sensation in your mouth and throat, trying to cough out blood  through the white of your eyes. As you get more experienced drinking strong alcohols, experience and a few tricks will help you. Here's a couple of common strategies :

1. Diluting with water. This will dilute the alcohol, the disadvantage is that you also dilute the flavours but you can work on this a bit and try to find a balance, you really want to add as little water as possible, just enough for the burn not to destroy the whole experience

2. Cooling the whisky in a fridge or more commonly with icecubes. Cold will mask the alcohol strength and the flavours to an extend where you can't taste anything but a cold sensation. This works best with very strong flavoured alcohols or it can be a way to be able to drink stuff you think tastes bad. Here in Denmark it's very common to drink Snaps from the fridge, which I find understandable as I don't think it tastes very good. Adding ice to a wellknown Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniels is also understandable. I find JD very strong flavoured and even with ice its still possible to taste the stuff

If you drink good single malt whisky, also a good bourbon or ryes which has become very popular and available lately, adding ice is really not a good idea. The reason you go out and pay 2, 3, 10 times or even more than the cheapest whisk(e)ys availble costs is because of the better flavours, the higher complexity and the whole enjoyment factor is worth it. If you add ice your money could as well has been spend on cheaper stuff.

A lot of the great flavours in a whisky are very subtle and hard to find, you might need some practise or help to find them, but if the whisky is cold it will be next to impossible

The more you drink, the wiser you get!

So my advice is balancing the spirit with water, which some experience you get used to it, and will be able to add less and less water. Personally I start up with adding no water at all. First I take a dropsize sip of the whisky. This is to get myself accustomed to a drink with high alcohol content. The small sips prepares my palate so to say. The saliva in my mouth  helps me diluting the whisky. Further on I just take bigger and bigger sips keeping the whisky in my mouth. You drink whisky cause its supposed to taste very good, so you don't want to pour it straight down the belly as when you drink to get drunk, you want to keep it in the mouth, chew it, breathe thru it and whatever tricks there is to perform to extract the flavours. As you practise you'll find your own ways of doing this and also get better at it

You actually taste a whisky mainly with your nose or the smelling sense. If you have a cold and the passage between your mouth and nose is blocked it gets very hard or impossible to taste things, something we all unfortunately have had experiences with.

Nosing whisky

So when you got a great whisky in a glass you want to nose it. You want to smell it, inhale it, breathe it through your nose. This is where you need a proper glass. You need to find a glass that delivers the aromas best for you. There's no "best" glass as your nose isnt the same as my nose. But in the industry, the proffesional nosers are using nosing glasses which is actual a classic copita sherry glass. These exist in many variations and are highly recommandable. Here's a few examples

The Glencairn Glass has become very popular, its a 
copita type glass with a solid bottom and hard to break

Different types of Copita style glasses for whisky drinking and a wee water decanter.

A more well known glass type like the tumbler, I find unsuitable for nosing purposes and whisky drinking. Unfortunately most bars have no clue on this and insists on serving whiskies in tumblers. A pity. If a bar doesnt have copita type glasses ask for a wine glass or cognac bulb and repour your whisky. Personally I am no fan fan of cognac bulbs as they dont delivers for me but I happen to know a few who prefers these to copitas. But as said above, we all got different noses

Nosing a whisky, you need to practise it a bit. You need to find your right distance between the glass and the nose. Some people like to stick it (if it fits in) as far down the glass as possible, others like to catch the aromas high above the rims of the glass. Play around with this, the closer you get to liquid the more alcohol you get, but also more intensity. It's a bit like adding water, you need to practise to find the right balance. Fortunatelly practise is quite fun when it comes to whiskydrinking

Some people like to nose first then drink, I like to nose a bit, then take a sip, then mix between nosing and drinking until the glass is empty and another whisky is poured

Well this was Part 1, next parts will be on where to start in the whisky jungle and how to get around it


  1. Am I late to the party? This is awesome.

  2. where can I buy the glas that's left of the Ardbeg tasting glass? Is it a Glencairn copita?

  3. Hi Timmy

    The Glencairn is to the right of the Ardbeg glass. The one to the left is a classic scottish nosing glass.
    I had to google around a bit and found them at LFW :