Thursday, May 10, 2012

Whisky For the People

I've met a large number of people who find some single malt whiskies too smoky, or "burny", to be enjoyed. It is true that many single malt Scotches contain distinct, intense characteristics that subtler spirits, such as Irish whiskey and rye, lack. These traits can be overwhelming and in-your-face if you are unaccustomed to sipping neat drams, but there are ways to enjoy the complexity of single malts without searing your esophagus or befuddling your taste buds.

There are snobs in all facets of life, and whisky snobs are extremely sensitive when it comes to the concept of contaminating their precious and pure aqua vitae with water...or Like coffee snobs who disdain dairy, and wine snobs who are obsessed with French varietals, there are whisky snobs who become downright aggressive when it comes to combining single malts with any other substance. Much of the time, snobbery is a form of insecurity and anxiety with regard to one's interests and self-image; and occasionally, it escalates to neurosis. I can think of two people in particular whose abnormally strong views on coffee and whisky - respectively - quashed my desire to remain being friends with them. Seriously. They were beverage fundamentalists! 

I lived in Scotland for more than two years. I drank a LOT of single malt Scotch, and I have enjoyed numerous distillery tours, and I know that adding room temperature filtered water to a dram of whisky not only has little effect on the bouquet and flavour of the spirit but can actually enhance these characteristics. Alcohol can begin to obfuscate flavour when it reaches 45% abv. Adding a splash of water can tone down the alcohol and allow you to actually taste the esters. So don't be afraid to add a bit of water to your drink, especially if it happens to be cask strength.

Ice is another way to mollify those big, bold, peaty malts. Many whisky drinkers - snobs and normates alike - discourage the use of ice due to its effect on the aroma of the spirit. Ice solidifies the fragrant oils from the various barrels (usually bourbon and sherry casks) that have infused the alcohol over many years of aging. I will side with the snobs on this one and concede that ice prevents one from fully experiencing the many nuances of a single malt, but sometimes you just feel like a cold drink, am I right? If you are going to use ice, place just one or two cubes in your glencairn glass.

Snobbery - Insecurity at Work
Now, I am personally against the use of single malts in cocktails. Single malts are created as stand-alone beverages, and they are also substantially more expensive than blended Scotch whiskies. Blends such as J&B, Johnny Walker, and Famous Grouse are often adequate options for cocktails that require the inclusion of Scotch. Having said this, there are cocktails that are able to preserve the integrity of a multifaceted single malt whisky. The ice and lemon contained within a Scotch Mist may disrupt the nose of a whisky, but is a reasonable option when wishing to mellow a single malt. I have always liked Drambuie and think the addition of this Scotch-based liqueur and some ice to a light, grassy dram such as Dalwhinnie or Auchentoshan is a great (and socially acceptable!) alternative to a neat drink. If the Rusty Nail was good enough for Ole Blue Eyes, it shouuuuuuld be good enough for you. I don't know you that well though.

I felt the desire to write this entry because I have met many people who appreciate the complexity and flavour(s) of single malt Scotch but don't enjoy the burniness or, in some cases, the robust peatiness of some whiskies. If you like it, you can discover a way to drink and enjoy it. Down with the snobs!