Thursday, April 24, 2008

Water works

Hopefully over the last couple of posts I've made apparent some of the motivations one might have for drinking whisky, and just for the record, I didn't even mention how great it can taste!
But how does one go about drinking whisky? Everyone has their own preference: straight up or neat, with a pinch of water, soda water, on the rocks, with a mix, and on we go. What about the glass? Is it better with a sturdy whisky tumbler or somewhat more dainty sherry copita or other wine glass?
This is probably a good time for you to decide what your own motivations for drinking whisky are, because this will undoubtedly influence how you will ultimately drink it. For those who really want to appreciate the nose, palate, and finish of a good whisky, there are some practices that will help promote these aspects and give a greater appreciation of a given whisky's complexity. Each of the topics below will be discussed in greater detail in later posts, but let's start with the basics:


It makes up 71% of the world's surface, and up to roughly 80% of a human's body mass. It is also an important ingredient in whisky (go figure).
Most whiskies are bottled at somewhere between 40 and 50% alcohol by volume (abv). The rest is water. Why would you want to add more water?
To properly nose a whisky, it is generally agreed that the addition of water helps open up the spirit and release more subtle aromas. Many master distillers claim that diluting to 20% abv allows them to properly nose whiskies and determine if they are ready for blending and/or bottling.
What kind of water? Well, following the logic that you're trying to taste and nose the whisky for its own subtle flavours and aromas, it's better not to add flavoured water, soda water, tonic water, or chlorinated tap water. Most whisky-ites will tell you that soft or spring water is the best aqua to use. This will open up the whisky and limit the infiltration of outside flavours/aromas.
In general, I like to add some water to a whisky after nosing and tasting it neat (w/o water). In order to really get a sense of a particular bottle or expression, over the course of a few drams I will gradually reduce the amount of water added, starting from about 20-30% abv for the first dram or two, and reducing that to just a few drops or none at all over subsequent drams.
With cask strength whiskies weighing in at 60% abv and up, water will help take the edge off these brutes and appreciate their subtleties, but it's worth taking a few sips at cask strength to determine their smoothness at that alcohol level. You'd be surprised at how drinkable these heavy hitters can be!
In closing, addition of water to whisky seems to be a very personal thing, with opinions on the subject covering a wide spectrum. Experimentation is the key to finding your own particular preference of brands, expressions, and alcohol strengths.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why drink whisky? Part Two

"Whisky and beer are a man's worst enemies...but the man that runs away from his enemies is a coward!"
-Zeca Pagodinho

In my last entry I discussed my first experience with whisky, and shared more personal feelings about my passion for uisgebeatha - the water of life. In this entry, the second part of "Why drink whisky?", I want to generalize a bit and talk a bit about whisky and life in general.
There is without a doubt a certain romantic notion about whisky that is present in popular culture. Images of crofters manning illicit stills hidden within caves in the Scottish Highlands, smugglers and bootleggers in Kentucky and Tennessee crafting moonshine bourbon and becoming legends in their own right. It all smacks of danger, intrigue, and whole lot of fun.
Whisky has a very colourful history, full of these strange and wonderful characters, and includes many tall tales better told over a glass of your favourite nectar. We'll get into some of these stories in later entries. For now, it's important simply to appreciate the fact that whisky is a spirit that has been evolving continuously over the past few centuries.
Time is a subject that comes up quite frequently in discussions about whisky. In a similar vein to wine, age is often touted as improving the spirit (the older the better). This is not always the case, and distillers are always aging their whiskies for different lengths of time, trying to find the ages and conditions that suit their spirit best. This is as much an art as a science, and that is what makes it so special.
In a world that puts so much emphasis on speed, efficiency, and consumption, relaxing with a drink that has taken years to produce while sipping it slowly to appreciate its finer qualities is both liberating and enlightening.
This escape can be a very individual experience (as everyone appreciates each whisky differently), but it can also be very social. Sharing a nice bottle with friends, comparing tastes and discussing life in general have provided me with many fine memories. Even if any readers out there decide never to drink a single dram of whisky, I strongly encourage you to slow down occasionally and take the time to be in the moment and enjoy life. Appreciate these moments with friends, family and any other passion, be it music, art, or food and beverage.
Convinced yet? If so, I hope this blog will help educate and entertain you while we discover many mysteries of the "water of life"

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Why drink whisky? Part One

This is an interesting question. Not because it's a difficult one to answer, but because everyone will have their own reasons for drinking whisky. Some will drink it because they think it will impress their friends or to look good doing it. This has got to be one of the worst reasons for consuming whisky, although it probably constitutes a significant percentage of annual global sales.
If you are reading this blog, chances are that you are interested in whisky for more personal reasons (at least I hope so). Your own enjoyment should take frontstage with a clean conscience here. I'm confident that as you continue drinking whisky and grow to enjoy it more and more, there will be other reasons that will evolve over time. They will creep stealthily onstage while everyone is paying attention to the lead actor, but in the end they will add to the story and keep the play going. When all is said and done however, you just plain have to like drinking the stuff.
My relationship with whisky has been a passionate affair, but (fortunately) lacks the high drama of hollywood romances: No cheating, no big fights or temporary break-ups, just the odd morning of waking up and hoping I didn't finish that expensive bottle when I couldn't properly appreciate it (sigh).
Since we were properly introduced, whisky and I have been close friends and amorous lovers although I fear our relationship is too often a bit one-sided. She has many would-be suitors and has no time for high-maintenance lovers!
I owe my introduction to the joys of single malt scotch to my best friend about 10 years ago in an apartment in London, Ontario, Canada. He had received a bottle of 12-year MacAllan from his brother and wanted to share it with someone. My alcoholic preferences at the time were firmly rooted in craft beers, while previous trysts with hard alcohol in various forms had a nasty habit of ending somewhat unfavourably.
He cracked the bottle and let me smell it first. It was much sweeter than I was expecting, and had an aroma that (at the time) reminded me of wine. We each tried a little bit straight up and I have to say at that point my plan was to put on a brave face and humour my friend while heroically suppressing any obvious displeasure that might call my manhood into question. Instead, I could not believe that something listed at roughly 40% alcohol by volume (abv) could be so smooth. The whisky had a very sweet taste and the texture of melted butter in my mouth. The remarkably pleasant and overt aftertaste lingered long after my friend had put the cap back on the bottle. It was to be the first of many pleasant whisky surprises.