It was a bright cold day in September, and the clocks were striking thirteen. The people at the splintered table had knives tucked into their socks and heavy words on their lips. Vulnerable in our tweed waistcoats, we’d come to learn conformity.
We wanted to know how to shape our words and use our noses and our pallets like the Scots around us. We’d started drinking whisky a few months ago and were ‘wee bairns’. The fact that we’d both been asked for ID when we bought our tickets hadn’t helped our creditability. We wanted to drink whisky like the men who sunk into Chesterfields and knew every step of the whisky dance.
Learning to taste whisky was the main reason we came to the Highland Games in Edinburgh and it wasn’t just Scots who paid their £20 to sit at the tables that were caked in layers of wet mud. Thankfully, we’d taken our friend’s advice and not hired kilts. The Americans who sat with their legs uncomfortably crossed and talked about their Scottish ancestry were dunk on the icy Edinburgh air and oblivious to the chortles of the men whose hirsute legs blended into their faded tartan. We kept our mouths shut. The objective of the day was to learn how to drink like everyone else. We wanted to know how to goad our senses into fully appreciating the complexities and facets of whisky.
We knew it’d been £20 well spent as soon as a man who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson lifted his glass.
The statue at the William Wallace Monument in Sterling was modelled after Mel Gibson and, regularly vandalised, was locked in cage at the visitor’s centre for its protection. It was a bit like putting a child molester in a solitary confinement.
Where does the whisky go? (besides in your mouth)
Oddly enough, the first thing to know about tasting whisky isn’t about the whisky or the taste, it’s about the glass. We had all been given a Glencairn before the lecture began. It isn’t the end of the world to drink from a tumbler, but the shape of your glassware can improve your whisky tasting experience. The Glencairn is the gold standard in our opinion. You should aim for a snifter, which looks a bit like a wine glass if the stem were stubbier and the opening were more narrow. Top Whiskies Tip: When you order a whisky in a bar and you can see the bartender reaching for a tumbler, ask if you can have it in a brandy glass instead. The wide base allows you to swirl the whiskey around while the narrow opening concentrates the aromas into a soup. Put simply: Glencairn glass > brandy glass > wine glass > tumbler > shot glass > a straw
What does the whisky look like?
Hold up the glass up against a neutral background. Colour gives clues about the age of the whisky and its cask. Before it was put in the cask, the spirit was clear as ice waiting to be sculpted. The colour comes from the whisky sitting in the cask over years, ebbing and flowing in and out of the wood. Looks matter. Swirl the whisky around the glass, coating its sides thoroughly. Then wait and watch, as the liquid runs back down the side of the glass. That’s the whisky’s legs. If the legs are thin and run quickly, then it may be a younger or lighter whisky. If the legs are slow and thick, then it may be a heavier or older whisky. When you judge a whisky’s appearance, you can be prosaic: ‘it’s Claude Debussy’s Girl With Flaxen Hair bathed in October’s sun and walking down in the French countryside’. Or more practical: ‘it’s a gold wedding ring.’ The American, who had uncrossed his legs making the rest if us uncomfortable, held his whisky aloft and confidently pronounced that it looked like whisky. The Scots weren’t impressed.
How does whisky smell?
The man who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson put just the tip of his nose into his Glencairn glass and breathed slowly. Unlike wine, you shouldn’t jam your nose into a whiskey snifter, or you could singe your sinuses. Swirl your whisky around a little and carefully whiff the scent at the top of your glass. The man who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson said the tasting is simply to confirm what your nose has already told you. We could think of other reasons to taste the whisky, but there was time for that later. This might sound crazy and undignified, but cover the top of your glass with hand and let a put of whisky splash onto your palm. Rub your hands together and bury your face in your hands. By warming the whisky you can taste more. Don’t try to pick out specific smells, but let nostalgia wash over you. Smells are often linked to memories: your grandmother’s closet (leather, wool, age, must), your kitchen at Christmas (baked meats, dried fruits, sultanas, port), your beach barbeque (salt, smoke, seaweed).
How does the whisky taste?
Wait! Stop! Not yet! The man who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson grabbed the American’s hand. You’ve got to hold the whisky for a bit before you take your first sip. Just keep the glass in your hand and the heat of anticipation will warm the whisky. You’ll get more tastes if you let the temperature go up a bit. If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The Yank looked like he was going to pull his plastic knife out of his sock and stab guy who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson in the eye. But it’s worth the wait. When you finally sip the whisky, let it lie on your tongue and coat the sides of your mouth. Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) said you should hold the whisky in your mouth for as many seconds as it spent years in the barrel. It’s a sign of respect. So, if it is a 12-year-old whisky, roll it around your mouth for at least 12 seconds so it comes into contact with all your taste buds, sweetness at the tip of the tongue, saltiness along the sides, dryness and bitterness at the back. The flavours will develop, evolve and unfold in your mouth.
How do you finish?
That burning feeling? That’s called the finish. Is it long, stunted, satisfying, or nasty? It could be any of these, but that’s not what we’re getting at. We think that finishing your tasting means doing it again, but with a few drops of water. Some sanctimonious people say never to any water, but whisky isn’t sacrosanct and water is one of its key ingredients. Water unlocks a whisky, revealing its secrets and the intricate workings of its flavour. We strongly recommend adding water if you’re doing a proper tasting because sniffing and sipping a few high ABV whiskies will numb your nose and dull your palate.
After we finished our tasting we thanked the man who looked suspiciously like Mel Gibson for inducting us into the tasting society. Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. In life, it’s wonderful to be an individual and do things your way. In whisky, there is something special about the pageantry and tasting process that connects you to whisky drinkers past and future. It means you belong.