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A Lesson In Drinking Scotch

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A Lesson In Drinking Scotch

By: Sharp Staff|September 25, 2014
Tagged With: Featured

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How do you read a Scotch bottle?



One of the nice things about whisky is that there’s a lot of information on the front label. It can tell you the region of Scotland the Scotch comes from, which is important. There are essentially three ingredients in single malt: malted barley, water and yeast. Knowing a little bit about the region usually tells you a little bit about the style. Not always, but usually.



Typically, when you look at a label from Speyside, that whisky is non-peated and lighter in flavour, whereas if you come across a whisky from Isla, you can usually assume that it’s not only peated, but heavily peated, because the peat they have on Isla is different from elsewhere in Scotland. You get this real briny character, which some people love. It tends to divide the room. I call it my “early morning whisky,” and I’ll have it at three or four in the morning [laughs], as my last drink of the day.


The alcohol level is also important. It doesn’t tell you whether it’ll be good or bad, but it does give you an idea of how heavy that whisky might be. Sometimes there’s also an indication of age—again, not that an older whisky is better, but it can inform you a bit.


Sometimes there’s reference to the type of wood the whisky is aged in. Often when it’s bourbon barrels, they won’t say because that’s pretty common (90 per cent of whiskies are aged in ex bourbon barrels), but quite often it’ll give an indication if they finished it in port wood or sherry casks, which impart their own set of flavours.

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How do you feel about Scotch cocktails?



It depends on the occasion. Quite often when we do events, we’ll have a formal sit-down tasting where people will get to try all of their whiskies on their own, add water or ice if they want to, but we’ll start with a cocktail. Something simple like a whisky sour with Scotch works well. An old fashioned is also great with Scotch. Sometimes I just add a little bit of ginger beer: one part whisky, two parts ginger beer, ice and lime. It’s nice and refreshing, and helps to cleanse the palate before you get into tasting straight whisky.

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Decanters are badass and look awesome. But are there any rules for using them?



Whisky is a lot different than wine and you’re probably not going to finish a bottle of whisky in one night, unless you have a lot of friends over. The one thing you have to be wary of when leaving whisky, or any liquid for that matter, for a long period of time in a decanter is whether it’s made out of lead crystal. With time (we’re talking about six months to a year) the liquid will actually absorb some of that lead. It can dangerous, but shorter periods, it’s fine.



The reason decanters were made out of lead back in the day was to help the wine open up when they had an uneven edge. Whiskies don’t really need that acceleration, so to speak.

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What are the guidelines for adding water?


I always encourage people to try the whisky first. It’s like adding salt to your food before you taste it: always try it first and then, when adding water, do so sparingly. A drop or two (I usually bring eyedroppers to a tasting) will break down the alcohol molecules and open the whisky up a bit. You can always add more, but you can’t take it away once it’s in.


Are there particular notes that want that water?



I think it’s specific to the whisky, how it’s bottled and your preference, so I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. Personally, I don’t add water to any Scotch I drink. The only exception is one they don’t make anymore, the Macallan Cask Strength, which was bottled at 58 to 61 per cent alcohol. That needed more than a drop or two of water; it needed a good, healthy splash!

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What foods pair well with Scotch?



Again, it depends on the whisky, but smoked salmon is a classic match. It’s very versatile and goes well with many whiskies. Stronger cheeses like Roqueforte or sharp cheddar, which have a lot of depth of flavour, also do well with something like Sienna, for example, which is another of Macallan’s whiskies that has a little more structure to it.

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What makes a good whisky glass?



A lot of it (again) comes down to subjectivity. I have friends who really enjoy drinking out of their etched, crystal rocks glass. There are glasses designed specifically for whisky. I like Riedel, the Austrian wine-glass company…they have a nice single-malt whisky glass that they’ve designed. The only company that do whisky glasses exclusively is a Scotish company called Glencairn. They make a really great whisky glass that’s a little bit more dishwasher-friendly, I’ve found. [laughs.] The Riedel single-malt glasses usually have to be set aside and washed by hand the next day.


Are some Scotches better at certain times of day?



It comes down to a few things: your mood, the time of year, the company your with. But generally speaking, there are some characteristics that dictate when, in the course of a day, a whisky is best enjoyed. Lighter, crisper whiskeys are more suited for daytime—like when you get off the golf course on a sunny afternoon and are looking for something refreshing—whereas the older, heavier, richer whiskies are sometimes better for sipping after dinner. But really it comes down to your mood…and often the time of year.


In the wintertime I trend to drink smokier, peated whiskies, whereas in the summertime I prefer less peated whiskies. Right now, it’s just starting to cool down here in Vancouver, so something like Amber from The Macallan is perfect.

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