I spent quite some time enjoying Scotch before I began to understand that there was a technique to sampling the wondrous spirit. I’m far from being an expert, but for those who stumble upon this blog and know less than I do…
First, start out with a decent, single malt scotch. If you’re unfamiliar with Scotch, it’s best to sample a few varieties from friends or family to discover what type of scotch you prefer before splurging on an expensive bottle. There are many resources on the web, and hopefully your local liquor store has an in-house expert. If all else fails, at the bottom of this post I’ve listed a few brands and expressions that I’ve enjoyed (I’ve tried to keep my selections within a semi-moderate price range).
Before I get any further, I’d like to add my thoughts on the ever-contentious argument of whether you should add ice to scotch. In my opinion: no. But it’s your scotch, so do whatever you want (but you probably wouldn’t get a second dram of my single malt Scotch if you asked for ice in the first). Adding ice to scotch cools the liquid and counters the alcohol burn (a difficult hurdle for beginning Scotch drinkers), but you’ll sacrifice taste as the liquid cools: lowering the temperature with ice obscures the elusive flavours Scotch enthusiasts enjoy. Scotch should never — in my humble opinion — be cold: if you must add ice, put a large cube in the drink so that it doesn’t melt quickly (the larger the cube, the slower it melts, due to a smaller surface area in contact with the liquid). If you want to cool your Scotch, there are specially designed stones that can be put in the freezer and used in your drink: the stones won’t scratch your glass and won’t water-down your Scotch. If you insist on having a bunch of ice in your Scotch, I would recommend purchasing lower priced expressions, or blends.
Buy a good glass (or set of glasses) for full enjoyment: the glass should be used exclusively for enjoying whisky. A tulip glass is favoured by most, but some like a small, fluted glass or snifter. When I first set out upon my whisky-pilgrimige, I found a set of nicely shaped, inexpensive juice glasses that provided an enjoyable experience. The desired shape is a wider diameter ‘bowl’ and a narrower lip; a tulip shaped glass is an ideal shape for swirling, nosing, and tasting. I now have Glencairn glasses (thanks to a Christmas gift from my wife).
Pour a dram into your glass. There exists a specific volume associated with the term dram, but — practically speaking — a dram is a term that denotes varying volumes that are dispensed in a whisky glass. The volume dispensed depends on personal preference and/or the generosity of the dispenser: I recommend anything from a half-ounce to two ounces (I’ve never gone below a half, but have occasionally been ‘guilty’ of overshooting the two-ounce specification. It depends on how much time you want to devote to sampling a dram).
Tilt the glass and swirl so the whisky wets the inner wall of the glass, increasing the surface area for evaporation, hence enriching the fragrance. Pay attention to the viscosity of the liquid as you swirl it around the glass. Swirling the whisky opens flavours and mellows the dram through aeration.
Nose the whisky: hold your nose several centimeters from the top of the glass and detect the subtle aromas. Dip your nose a little closer; again, pay attention to the aromas: perhaps different essences arrive. Then lower your nose closer, but not so close that alcohol burn masks the experience. If you keep your mouth open while nosing the whisky it may help in differentiating the diverse aromas.
Gently swirl the whisky and nose again at different glass angles and distances to appreciate all the delicate aromas
The mouthfeel: have a small sip, just enough to coat your mouth and swirl around your tongue. Some whiskys feel thick, oily, or grainy compared to others: coat your tongue and assess the texture.
Taste: hold the whisky in your mouth until you’ve sampled all its flavours, and then swallow. If the whisky is held in the mouth long enough — ten seconds or so — then it will not burn the throat when swallowed.
The finish: after swallowing, breathe slowly out your mouth. Observe the flavours that have lingered on your palate. Now keep your mouth lightly closed and breathe in through your nose, letting a small amount of air enter through your mouth. Notice any flavours that arise up and into your sinuses. Whiskeys have different lengths of finish. When the flavours dissipate, breathe normally.
I usually prefer drinking Scotch neat (except with a cask strength whisky), but when first tasting a Scotch, and after I’ve sampled it neat, I like to add a few drops of water to the dram to see if any aromas/flavours become ‘unlocked’ (don’t use tap water because dissolved minerals and chlorine will mask the taste of Scotch. And don’t use carbonated water. Use filtered water or natural, clear and clean spring water). I’ve searched around to determine why aromas/flavours are released when water is added, and have found a couple of answers: some say the water reduces the surface tension, allowing aromas to escape, while others claim there is a chemical reaction that heats up and unravels chemical bonds to release esters (floral and fruity aromas).
Enjoyed with full pleasure, a dram can last well over half an hour, depending on the volume dispensed.
I’ve got a lot more sampling to do, but below are a few modestly priced (less than $100) scotches I’ve enjoyed:
Dalwhinnie, 15 yr. (Highlands region). Toffee, fruit, floral, subtle smokiness, nutty, a light touch of spice ($95 in B.C. liquor stores). Light and easy to drink.
Glenmorangie, Nectar D’or (Northern Highlands region. Extra matured in Sauternes Casks). Citrus, honey, vanilla and nutty ($90 in B.C. liquor stores). The original, 10 yr. Glenmorangie, is also quite nice, at a price that may more easily fit the budget ($70 in B.C. liquor stores).
Balvenie Doublewood 12 yr. (Highlands region: traditional oak, then Spanish sherry casks). Subtle, floral, fruity, vanilla and honey ($80 in B.C. liquor stores)
Laphroaig, Quarter Cask (Islay region; transferred from large casks to age further in small oak casks). This is a hearty, full-bodied scotch. Laphroaig has a medicinal (salty, seaweed) and peat flavour with smoky, sweet fruitiness ($75 in B.C. liquor stores). This is a lovely scotch in this price-range, but the peat flavour and salt-heartiness is not for everybody.
Glendronach, 12 yr (Speyside region: double matured; first in sherry casks, then in first-fill American Oak). Full-bodied, sweet sherry notes with creamy vanilla, nutty ($67 in B.C. liquor stores).
Arberlour 12 yr. Double Cask (Speyside region: aged in both traditional oak and sherry casks). Medium-bodied, fruity, subtle pepper and smoke ($60 in B.C. liquor stores).
And, for the Irish blood in me, I’d like to include an Emerald Isle whiskey:
Redbreast, 12 year (pure, single-pot Irish whiskey). Smooth. Sweet with subtle ginger: a slight spicy kick ($56 in B.C. liquor stores). This isn’t scotch: it’s produced in Ireland, but it’s a lovely Irish whiskey at a budget price (Writers Tears is also quite nice, and about the same price).