Whisky Galore!

Image: K Humphrey

 The world of Scotch whisky has enjoyed a massive renaissance in recent decades, especially with single malts (whisky from just one distillery). It’s gone from something best drowned in lemonade or ginger ale to something revered. Where gin is drunk by trendies and hipsters, single malt whisky is the drink of choice for aspirational 30- and 40-somethings. It comes with an ambience of quiet authority and specialist knowledge. In one sense, it’s all nonsense, of course: if you enjoy something, drink it, but any class of drinks that includes products smelling like a well-smoked disinfectant is going to take a little getting used to.

I was asked this morning how one goes about this getting used to it. The enquirer was Connor, young, hipster barista in my morning coffee shop. Over a sourdough bacon sandwich, he confessed to hating the smell and taste of whisky but also called to mind a time when he similarly wondered how any sane person could put an espresso to their lips for pleasure. I asked how he’d come to love coffee. “I kept trying it with milk or water and eventually started to notice the differences in roast or origin and how it affected the taste.” Familiarising yourself with whisky is exactly the same.

I’d always suggest starting with a well-known whisky, a distillery whose name you recognise. There’ll be a good reason for its popularity. Add a GENEROUS splash of water. Many malt drinkers would have you believe that you should only add the tiniest amount, as if a slip of the hand might result in the sky falling in. Water takes away the alcohol-burn and allows you to notice the different flavour sensations in the drink. The industry's professional tasters will add up to 50% of the drink’s volume in water, so start with a bit and keep adding until you find a level you like. The more used to it you get, the more concentrated you’re likely to want those flavours, but not always.

Next tip is to find yourself a friend who keeps several bottles open at once. Like young Connor and his coffee, you’ll start to enjoy whisky more as you notice the subtleties and differences between the distilleries. You might want to take part in a guided tasting, or just sample your way across the shelves of your favourite bar. Have at least two whiskies in front of you at once if you’re doing a tasting, so you can hold them up against each other to compare the colour; sniff at them and notice how their aroma differs; finally taste each one to compare the flavours, taking a sip of water between them. You might still dislike both, but if you can identify which you like more (or dislike less), you can ask to try something further down the same road next time.
A very welcoming sight indeed!

Image: K Humphrey

This weekend, Scotland remembers its national poet, Robert Burns. The occasion traditionally involves a hearty supper, at the centre of which is served haggis, the national dish celebrated in one of Burns’ most famous works. Over a few glasses of whisky, toasts are made to Scotland, to pretty girls and to Burns himself. I’m seeing Burns Night celebrations advertised all over these days, not just in Scotland and its diaspora. It could be your ideal opportunity to try a few single malts.

My own Burns Night menu rarely changes, and I love to serve a full flight of whiskies to compliment the food:- 

I’ll generally start with a light but flavoursome whisky such as Highland Park (from Orkney) or Talisker (from the Isle of Skye) as an aperitif. They’re both noticeably “coastal,” even if they’re not exactly salty. If guests prefer a cocktail, the popular blended whiskies would make a fine Old Fashioned or whisky sour.

With my starter of cock-a-leekie soup, I’ll serve a whisky with a heathery edge to it, such as Dalwhinnie, but if I’m serving smoked haddock soup (cullen skink), I’d go for a lowland malt such as Glenkinchie.

Delicious haggis, with potato cakes
Haggis is rich and spicy and needs a bit of weight behind it, or the whisky risks being overwhelmed. The dark, slightly spicy Blair Athol is a great foil to it. You could also look out for Glen Moray and Jura, both of which can be found in your local supermarket at reasonable prices.

The dryness of Scotch whisky doesn’t go well with dessert, so I’d probably simply serve water with the cream-and-oats richness of crannachan. However, the powerful smokiness of Islay malts like Caol Ila, Lagavullin or Ardbeg make them perfect for sipping after dinner as the night winds down.
Image: K Humphrey

Next time:  the fishy aperitif


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