This article was first published in sixoutoften in August 2014, when we were asked to provide an introduction to whisky for their readers.
George Bernard Shaw described whisky as “liquid sunshine” which is handy seeing as its homeland, where residents often seek solace in the knowledge that today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky, is not known for seeing much of the literal sort.
Yet, despite its ability to warm you and nourish you in a way that no other drink can, to soothe you, be your BFF and guide you smoothly through all of life’s little ups and downs whisky has, for most of its life, been predominantly marketed and drunk by men.
And yet, all this is changing.
Whether it is down to the emergence of a genuine cocktail culture, the appointment of Christina Hendricks as a Johnnie Walker brand ambassador, or Carrie Bradshaw proclaiming that she’d rather be “one man’s glass of whisky than everyone’s cup of tea” whisky is gradually gaining popularity amongst the fairer sex. In the last three years, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a relaxed and unpretentious members club has seen the proportion of women amongst its new members rise from 10% to 25%.
Where should I start?
Well, first you must choose your entry point. Many a wannabe whisky convert has given up in despair having inadvertently plunged head first into a tumbler of smoked peat firewater but if there is one thing that Scotch whisky does better than any other substance known to mankind, it is to show how the combination of three simple ingredients can create the broadest range of complex tastes imaginable.
Whisky can be all things to all people.
If you want to drink nothing but peaty and medicinal Islay whiskies you can, and you’ll find millions who do. If you want to drink floral, hay-like lowland whiskies you can do that instead; and if you want to just keep trying different drams until you find one you like, you should. There’s a whisky out there for everyone and if you think you don’t like whisky it just means you haven’t found yours yet.
In order to try and bring some meaning to this madness, drinkers and distillers have long categorised whiskies by the region they hail from. This distinction is becoming less useful as trends in the industry have led to an increase in experimental and atypical bottlings. But for the purposes of an introduction to whisky, the notion of four broadly distinct regions, each with their own character, is still of some use.
I want to drink a fruity whisky
Geographically the smallest, and yet home to over half of Scotland’s distilleries, Speyside is home to delicate and honey sweet whiskies which taste of vanilla and orchard fruits. Start with the Cragganmore 12 year old – it’s like eating peaches in a freshly mown hay field – and progress to The Macallan when you’re ready to add apple blossom and marmalade to your fruit salad.
I want to drink a floral whisky
The calm fields of the lowlands (from St Andrews down to the border) produce gentle, floral whiskies. They scorn the use of peat in the drying process and this allows light fruit and cereal notes to dominate. The delightfully named, and fun to say, Auchentoshan is like licking a vanilla ice cream in a grain store, and is the lowland dram to start with.
I want to drink a salty whisky
The rocky outcrops of Skye and Islay are said to produce whiskies like their native inhabitants: strong, saltwater washed and err, often peaty. An air of smoke, pepper and iodine abounds here which means that island malts are often decried as an unwelcoming introduction to whisky. Dip a toe in the peaty water with Talisker 10 (and look out for the seaweed and kippers), then progress to the Lagavulin 16, to drink Lapsang Souchong from an old TCP bottle, or Laphroaig 10, for a suck on an iodine soaked liquorice allsort.
I want to drink a mystery whisky
The large rugged Highland area borders each of the other three, so has absorbed characteristics from all its neighbours. As a result, highland whiskies can be smooth and floral with hints of cereal sweetness in the north, dry fruitiness in the south, and peat, smoke and saltwater in the west. A great starting point is the Dalwhinnie 15, like a bag of toffees in an orchard at spring, and after this, the Dalmore for a sherry-pickled chocolate orange.
Where should I go to get a good dram?
I recommend The Britannia, a welcoming pub near London Bridge with an impressive range for a pub south of the Tweed. Sit down, relax and order your usual drink of choice. Later, if the mood takes you, pick a name from their wall-sized blackboard of whiskies handily categorised by region.
Once presented with your dram, decide whether you want to add water or ice. There’s no wrong answer here but take a sip of the neat spirit first and then experiment. Adding water will open up new flavours, and ice will smooth the edges as the cold will dampen the efficiency of your taste buds.
When you do finally take a sip, hold the nectar in your mouth and relax. What do you taste? Limoncello? An ambulance brake pedal? Or liquid sunshine in a glass?
I’m not into neat whisky though…
For those not willing to make the leap just yet, one alternative is try this transitional recipe, the Talisker Peach Smash Cocktail:
1/2 ripe peach or nectarine, cut into chunks
15ml fresh lemon juice
50ml Islay whisky (Talisker 10)
15ml triple sec (Cointreau or Grand Marnier)
25ml simple syrup (equal parts granulated sugar and water)
Muddle the fruit and lemon juice in the bottom of a cocktail shaker, add the remaining ingredients and shake well with ice. Fine strain into a tumbler full of ice.