Here at Trakke, we don’t just love drinking whisky, we like to think we have a lot in common with it, too. We know that good quality products take time and patience, we know that craftsmanship is important, and we know that Scottish materials – whether they be malted barley, or waxed cotton – are some of the best in the world. The one thing we can’t say we share? Well, wax cotton doesn’t taste as nice as a good Scotch. And, though we like to think our bags bring people together as much as a nice dram, they definitely won’t make you think you can dance better. To that end, here’s our step-by-step tutorial for how to drink whisky like a pro. No wax cotton in sight.
Any whisky tutorial has to start at the beginning, and that’s the glass. Drinking straight out of the bottle can do in a pinch, but politeness gives us some helpful guidelines about what to drink from – be it a wine glass, a tumbler, a Quaich, or if you’re up on the mountains, one of our very own beautiful Dram hip flasks. But back at home, one method stands above all others: The Glencairn Whisky glass. Released in 2001, it was developed with industry professionals, and is the only glass approved by the industry governing body the Scotch Whisky Association. To us, it’s the best whisky glass available - It has the perfect tulip profile, allowing the whisky to breathe, while funnelling the vapours up into a narrow channel for nosing.
But if you don’t have one lying around (though, they make the best whisky gifts), any good small wine glass will do. Though, if you’re trying this at work? We’ll forgive you for disguising it in a coffee mug.
First, let’s take a look at the colour of the whisky. Barley spirit comes out of the still colourless, so this gives us an initial chance to see how much of the hue has been imparted by the oak cask. Whether it’s darker due to being older, or darker due to the nature of the cask (wine and port casks will impart a red hue to the whisky, and sherry casks will impart an amber glow), it’s our first step at reading what’s in the glass.
But, and it’s a very big but:
Whisky can have added colour. That’s right. The one additive permitted by the SWA is spirit caramel, or e150a. The reason given for this is fair – to standardise colours across batches, so different bottles look identical on the shelf. But in practice? When darker whisky looks like older whisky, and older whisky is thought to be better whisky, you can see why some of the more mass-market distilleries might darken their bottles a little more than they should. It won’t impact the taste of your whisky, but it will mean that the colour isn’t going to be telling you the whole story.
The solution to this? Focus on the smell, and the taste, not the appearance. But also, look for three magic words on the side of your bottle: No Added Colour. Those three words will let you know that any colour in your glass is coming solely from its long Scottish slumber in oak.
We pour the whisky, and then what’s next? We swirl it around, of course! Whisky, as with other spirits and alcohols, gives off vapours, and those contain aroma bearing compounds. Scientists have identified 400 flavour bearing compounds in a single glass, and suspect there may be as many more to be discovered. So, after pouring into your glass, the swirl is your chance to release some of those into the air, channel them through a narrow opening, and enjoy them with the most intoxicating sense we possess: our sense of smell.
But hold on, not quite yet! We’ve got one step before we actually put our nose in the glass.
There are some whisky drinkers who think the legs of a whisky – those long stalks that run down the glass after you’ve swirled it – will tell you everything, right down to the weather on the day the barley was harvested. The truth of the matter, though? Looking at the legs of a whisky will do two things, and two things only.
Firstly, it’ll give you an indication of the alcohol content. The higher the alcohol, the more defined the legs. Simple.
Secondly, it’ll give you an opportunity to look at your glass and say “nice legs”.
Nosing can be as simple as putting our nose an inch over the glass, lightly inhaling, and trying to put to words to smells. Though, if you find your nostrils are burning a little much from the alcohol, we’ve got two stellar tips:
But if you’re looking to go a little deeper? We’ve got a tip: try nosing your glass “top to bottom”.
Because the different compounds in whisky have different weights, they separate as they evaporate, forming layers. This creates the opportunity to smell these different layers separately depending on where you nose the glass.
Tilt your glass 45 degrees, and place your nose at the upper tip of up opening. Here you’ll find the lightest of the aromas – the barley, the floral notes, lemon peel and grass. Then, if you bring your nose half way down the opening, you’ll find more of the cask influence; vanilla from the oak, cinnamon and spices. Finally, bring your nose to the base of the opening for the deepest, heaviest compounds – peat, minerality, salt, and that strong punch of alcohol that tickles your nostrils.
A journey from the top to the bottom of your glass shares with you the journey the whisky has taken to get there, and it can be absolutely fascinating.
After nosing, it’s time to get describing! We know trying to put words to smells can be difficult, daunting, and just downright hard sometimes (so many smells just don’t seem to have a name). But, here’s the joy of it:
When it comes to how to describe whisky, there is no wrong answer.
Do you smell wet dog? Well, then wet dog whisky it is! Cucumber? Pine cones? Pineapple? You are 100% correct, and it’s your responsibility to let other people know. Here at Trakke we’ve laughed at whisky that smells like damp rocks, scorched pepper, and even packing tape. You need only look at some of the most common terms to realise that your tasting notes don’t need to sound pleasant, or even edible. Turpentine, anyone?
Take a look at these whisky wheels for guidance, but remember, the most fun part of tasting a whisky is coming up with a way to describe it. Get imaginative, be creative, and see where your nose takes you.
Now, taking a small sip of the spirit, try rolling it around your tongue – above and below. Pay attention to the mouthfeel of the whisky – is it oily? Is it chewy? Is it thin? Try to describe how it feels. This is the “mouthfeel” of the whisky.
If you find at this point that the whisky is a little “hot” (does it make your mouth tingle) due to the high alcohol content, you can try adding a few drops of water to cool it down, and open up some of the aromas. And if anyone cries foul at you adding a splash of water to your whisky, just point out to them that the majority of Master Blenders taste their whisky watered down to 20% ABV, so you’re in good company!
Then, after swallowing, pay close attention to the finish. A whisky that has taken only a few seconds to sip, can still linger for minutes on the tongue. The finish is when what seemed initially like a fine whisky can suddenly disappear, revealing a lack of depth and character to the spirit. Or conversely, it’s when you can find a whisky whose warmth and flavour lingers for far longer than you anticipated, giving off continual notes of spice and warmth.
We’ve done all the hard work, now is the time to put glass to lips, take another sip and let that warmth spread throughout your body. You’re drinking the culmination of hundreds of years of expertise, and numerous years of a liquid’s patient slumber, all in one small glass.
Drink responsibly, savour it wisely, and share it freely; because the best Scotch whisky isn’t the oldest, or the peatiest, or even the most expensive. It’s the one we drink with friends.
Did we say no wax cotton in sight? Well, you’ve got to carry it in something.