Welcome to the final installment of the beginner’s guide to single malt whisky. The first part of this guide introduced the concept of whisky and touched on the members of the whisky family tree before narrowing our focus to single malt Scotch whisky. The second part pulled back the curtain on the process of making single malt Scotch whisky and discussed the various parts of the process that impart flavor to the finished product. Part three rolled open the map and surveyed Scotland’s whisky regions before changing gears and providing a cheat sheet for reading the often-complicated whisky labels.
This last chapter covers the process – or should I say a process – for enjoying single malt whisky. Let’s get this caveat out of the way now: There is no single, correct way to enjoy single malts. You should drink it whatever way best suits you, whether that’s neat, on the rocks, cut in half with water, or mixed with some other liquid. The ultimate goal is the same for all of us: enjoyment.
I enjoy single malt whisky because, well, it’s delicious, but also because it triggers all of the senses – a visceral and thrilling experience – when approached in the manner I’m about to expound upon. Bring a neutral palate – you don’t want old flavors and aromas clouding the experience. So grab your bottle of single malt or order up a dram at the bar. Let’s begin.
Step 1: Listen
Ease the cork out of the bottle. There should be a nice squeaky pop as the cork slides out of the bottle neck. It’s somehow different than removing a wine cork. The squeak is sharper, the pop is more resonant. I skipped this step for years until a visit to Dalwhinnie Distillery last spring when the manager pointed it out to me. The sound of the bottle opening sets the stage for the experience to come.
Grab a glass, but not any old glass. You need a glass that will condense the aromas and aid in the nosing process, like a Glencairn or small tulip glass. Pour an ounce of whisky and listen to the sound of the liquid falling into the glass. It’s music beckoning you on, but be patient. Replace the cork in the bottle and catch the quick squeak-snap as it sets in place.
Step 2: Look
Grab the glass at the bottom and hold the whisky up to the light. Don’t let your hands cup the part of the glass holding the whisky – you don’t want to heat it up. Room temperature is preferred. Notice the color of the whisky, whether it’s a straw-colored fluid or a rich, earthy brown. Maybe you can see glimmers of red and amber. What does it remind you of? Syrup? Lemon water? Crystallized ginger?
The color of the whisky is your first hint about what to expect in the nose and on the palate. Lightly-tinted whiskies that appear blonde or soft gold usually indicate aging in ex-Bourbon barrels, which points toward honey, vanilla, citrus, and oaky aromas and flavors. Dark, opaque whiskies have probably spent time in ex-Sherry butts where the pigments of the previous liquid have added some color to the whisky. Flavors center around red ripe fruits, spices, chocolate, tobacco, and polished wood. It’s not always this simple, however, as the presence of smoke is invisible and some distilleries ashamedly add artificial coloring to their product.
Swirl the glass a few times so the whisky jumps up the sides. Watch as the spirit dribbles to the bottom of the glass. “Tears” form at the top and turn into “legs” as the liquid drains down. This process gives you information about the body or mouthfeel of the whisky. If a whisky is young, the legs will form quickly and close together, and run down the glass quickly. Older whiskies, which might have a higher alcohol content (and therefore a lower water content), develop bigger legs that are further apart and take longer to run. Whiskies that have spent time in ex-Sherry butts also tend to have bigger, slower legs as they’re a bit stickier.
Step 3: Smell
Let the whisky sit for at least 10 minutes before nosing it. This allows oxygenation of the whisky, which “opens up” the flavor and aroma compounds. Whisky continually develops when exposed to the air, but a good 10-15 minute wait makes it easier to pick out specific aromas during nosing.
Pass the lip of the glass an inch beneath your nose and inhale normally. You don’t need to jam your nose in the glass and snort. Do this a couple of times while your lips are pursed so your mouth is open; this helps bring in aromas more clearly. What do you smell? For me, it requires a lot of concentration because my sense of smell is not fantastic. It’s fine if your first thoughts are “sweet” or “smokey,” but try to dig deeper. Do you smell fresh pineapple or wet dock? Maybe you notice heather or cough drops. Whatever you smell, you aren’t wrong. A Paris perfumery once identified 28 unique aromas in one dram of single malt whisky. Don’t be discouraged if you’re having trouble – we can only name aromas we’ve smelled in the past. This just gives you an excuse to get out in the world and get smelling. 🙂
After you’ve had a taste of the single malt neat, you’ll want to return to this step and nose the whisky again after adding some water. A few drops will do, though experts often add one part water to three parts whisky. The water breaks the surface tension of the whisky and further “loosens” the flavor compounds. You might find nosing more enlightening after adding some water.
Step 4: Taste (and Touch)
By this point you can see that single malt whisky isn’t just about the act of drinking it. Take a small sip and let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds (if you let it sit too long you risk numbing your taste buds). Chew the liquid so it spreads around your tongue. Suck in some air over your palate. Breathe in through your nose with your lips pursed. These actions increase the ease of identifying flavors. Some people slurp the whisky in their mouths to aerate it. Swallow.
What do you taste? Is it sweet, salty, smokey, or bitter? Does it mirror what you smelled? You might simply taste alcohol during your first couple of drams, but stick with it. The flavors are waiting behind the burn. Pay attention to the texture of the whisky, whether it’s oily, creamy, or watery. This is the malt’s mouthfeel, which plays a big part in my enjoyment of particular whiskies.
Is it hot or smooth? “Hot” whiskies are often young or high in alcohol. Focus on the finish after you’ve swallowed. Is there a lingering flavor that develops? Does the dram stick with you or disappear quickly. You aren’t looking for a certain constellation of “things” but rather the experience of noticing them.
Now add some water and perform steps 3 and 4 again. How is the experience different?
Sidebar: Water, Ice, & Mixers – My Recommendations
Single malt whisky is a treasure for the senses, and if you’re not considerate about what you add to it you might be throwing away your hard-earned dollars.
A small amount of water is a wise thing to add to single malts. Water helps open up aromas and flavors and take the edge off any burn that might be present. A small amount means literally three drops or a teaspoon full, not one ounce. Then you’ve just got watery whisky.
I consider adding ice to single malt whisky a big no-no. Ice chills the whisky and “closes” the flavor compounds, making it harder to discern specific aromas and flavors. The continuous melting of ice into the whisky also changes each taste, which makes it doubly hard to determine what you think about the dram in your glass. I say add all the ice you want to blended whiskies as they generally lack the flavor nuances of single malts.
What’s the point of adding juice, soda, or other mixers to a good single malt? They blot out the malt’s delicate flavors. Add mixers only to blended whiskies.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of articles. Who knows, maybe I’ll roll out the connoisseur’s guide to single malt whisky someday!