I keep hearing the same thing over and over again. Someone tries whiskey once, doesn’t like it, and decides that whiskey just isn’t their thing. And they decide this after one or two tries. When I hear this I know the person was either on their own or being guided by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. If you’ve been curious about whiskey and want to try it and see what all the fuss is about, here are some suggestions:
- Drink it neat. That means room temperature without ice. If you like whiskey on ice or in cocktails, WONDERFUL. I’m happy for you. But if you want to taste whiskey and learn to appreciate it, you can’t water it down or mix it with things. You have to drink it straight.
- You won’t like straight whiskey the first time you try it. No one does. And if they say they like it, they’re probably lying. Look, alcohol is poison. Your unconscious notices the dangerous and intense flavors of distilled alcohol and sounds a warning. So when you first try whiskey, you taste only the harsh and dangerous flavors along with the burn of the alcohol. It takes some time for your brain to settle down and quit sounding a warning.
- You need a guide. You need someone who knows more about whiskey than you do to assist you. That person can help you select some first whiskeys to try and steer you away from whiskeys you’re not ready for. You didn’t drink espresso right when you first started drinking coffee, did you? Of course not. Your guide can help you avoid getting in over your head.
- Sip your whiskey. You want maybe 1/4 of an ounce or so. A teaspoon or so. Just enough so that you can hold it on top of your tongue for a few seconds. Any more than that and you’ll overwhelm your mouth. And swallowing more than that will burn your throat.
- Don’t rely on bartenders to teach you about whiskey. Bartenders may or may not know much about whiskey. Some do, but most don’t know that much. However, they have a professional duty to at least pretend they know something. Frequently they fall into the trap of recommending “good whiskeys” based on what they have been told or based on what they want to sell you. It’s a bit of a conflict of interest.
- Ignore the tasting notes and fancy stuff you read about in online reviews. You aren’t going to smell or taste things like allspice, stone fruit, and dark chocolate when you begin. Your brain has to settle down before you’ll be able to notice subtle things. (See rule #1) Concentrate mostly on mouth feel at first. Can you tolerate the initial flavor when you first sip the whiskey? Notice I didn’t say like it. Can you live with it? And can you learn to enjoy the burn that comes when you swallow?
- Whiskeys fall along a continuum from easy and accessible to complex and challenging. You need the easy stuff. Start with Irish whiskey. It’s typically pretty smooth and simple. Blended scotches are also easy to drink and will give you a hint of the smoke that scotch is famous for. Johnnie Walker black is a great one to start with. You probably won’t want to drink it a year from now, but when you’re beginning, it’s perfect.
- The only definition of good whiskey is whiskey you like. Ignore anyone who says otherwise. Drink what you like and make no apologies for it.
- Keep trying. I cannot stress this enough. A whiskey you didn’t like in January you might love in October. Your mouth chemistry, the time of day, your mood, and a number of other factors influence how you experience whiskey. And as you drink whiskey your palette will grow more sophisticated. So don’t give up on a whiskey. If a lot of people think it’s good, there’s probably something there. Circle back and give it a try again after a few months or a year.
- Understand that there is something ancient and archetypal about whiskey. That’s all I’m going to say about that. But rest assured, there is a reason so many of us are passionate about it. Stick with it. It’s worth your time.
- Finally, go to tasting events. Especially if you have a kind hearted whiskey expert who loves helping newcomers find their way. You’ll learn a lot quicker if you can compare whiskeys and have some help and suggestions.
That’s it for now.
Sláinte is a word literally translating as “health” in several Gaelic languages and is commonly used as a drinking toast in Ireland and Scotland. (Wikipedia)