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Tasting Whiskey

Tasting Whiskey

Beads of rain hit the train window, rivulets transforming the Scottish countryside into a stained glass facsimile. I’m on the train, hurtling between Edinburgh and Stirling, where I am to catch a bus on a typically dreich Scottish day.

I have a complicated relationship to trains. On the one hand, I have a romantic notion of rail travel, beautifully engineered metal snakes cutting their way through this green and pleasant land, offering unparalleled views, comfort, and convenience. This romance goes off the rails (if you’ll pardon the pun) having to commute into Canary Wharf twice a day, alongside the other disappointing realities of British Rail. I will not start on the price of train tickets these days.

I was going to the Deanston distillery. It’s arguably one of the most picturesque in Scotland, even in torrential rain. Situated within a Georgian cotton mill on the banks of the river Teith, Deanston makes a fruity, waxy and thoroughly under-appreciated spirit. The bus runs from Stirling train station to directly outside the front door of the distillery, marvellous. When I arrived I was informed that the distillery was in its down season, so tours weren’t available. Heartbroken. It felt like a wasted journey, but I optimistically asked if there was anything that could be done, the distillery host very kindly had one of the maintenance workers show me the still room in all its scaffolded glory safely from the doorway. The usual heady air of malt and ethanol fighting bitterly with notes of industrial cleaner and brasso. A wonderfully rare experience. I was then treated to a tasting.

There is an art to tasting whisky, and like all art it takes practice and dedication to get right. But why bother? Why not drink whisky the way you drink everything else: Open mouth, pour in and swallow. Well, most other drinks don’t take as long to make as whisky. Three years is a surprisingly long time, and thats just the legal minimum. Most whiskies you drink are older than that, and shouldn’t age demand respect? Personally, I also find taking a methodical and meditative approach to whisky deepens enjoyment and appreciation, as well as making an increasingly expensive drink last much longer.

Start with the right glass: You want something that has a wide bowl and narrow lip, allowing the ethanol to dissipate and the flavours concentrate. For these purposes I recommend a purpose made whisky glass, such as The Glencairn or 1920s Blenders Glass. If these aren’t to hand, a brandy snifter or dessert wine glass will suffice. Please try to avoid the classic tumbler, or rocks glass when drinking proper whisky: The wide and flat walls make capturing aromas far more difficult.

Now pour in your whisky. A generous (but still responsible) pour is recommended. Lift the glass towards your nose slowly. Stop when you can clearly smell the whisky, you don’t want the ethanol to burn your nostrils. Whisky is a minimum of 40% alcohol and most of the ones worth drinking are even stronger, so care must be taken. Ruminate on the aromas; what are you smelling? Smell is the sense most closely associated with memory. So for many people when they are trying to identify aromas they will relate it to past experiences. To give an example: For me, most Islay whiskies make me think of the fishing towns I grew up around in Cornwall, the salinity and mineral aromas commonly found remind me of seawalls, docks and fishing nets. The smokiness; the wood fires of home, and a pub after a cold winter walk.

For many, the smell of whisky is the most pleasant aspect, so don’t be afraid to take your time and enjoy.

Let us take it to the palate. Small sip and swallow first, your mouth needs to acclimatise to the alcohol. Then, a larger sip and hold it in your mouth. You may move it around a bit but don’t gargle or be too aggressive, we aren’t dealing with mouthwash. I was once told to hold it for as many seconds in the mouth as it spent years in the cask. This might be a tad excessive, but, it is a good reminder to let it settle, and savour. You almost have to chew some whiskies to make the most of their flavours. Again, begin picking out flavours and memories, you can really settle in and get to know the drink you are dedicating your time to.

N.B. whisky is a strong spirit. As previously mentioned, they are 40%+ alcohol. This takes a lot of getting used to, so please try not to be put off by the burning sensation. Embrace it as part of the experience. If you really cannot stand the burn then feel free to add water. Try to add it slowly and in small quantities as you can very easily wash out the whisky and make it taste watery, thin and overly woody.

The finish is important. It is the lasting impression that stays with you. A mediocre body can be saved with a long positive finish, enticing you to return again to your glass. Inversely the best body can be utterly ruined by a finish that is too short or acrid. Be mindful of the journey your drink takes you on. Is it a short but exciting trip? Or a long and scenic journey. Does it leave you longing to revisit or are you satisfied with your time spent. There is a huge range to be found in the flavours of whisky, and the search for the novel can be just as satisfying as returning to the familiar.  

Another point worth mentioning. There are a few, and increasingly more, whiskies that have been designed, blended and released for use in cocktails. These rarely shine on their own, but if you do end up with one of these bottles in your possession, please do make whisky cocktails with it, there are many out there and they are absolutely delicious and well worth exploring. I plan to write about some personal favourites and give recommendations in the future.

A formal and considered tasting was what got me to really appreciate Deanston’s whisky. I was honestly pretty ambivalent about them before visiting the distillery. However after being sat down and guided through their range I could understand the subtleties of their offering and ended up buying an absolutely phenomenal ( and not insignificantly priced) 1991 Deanston that had been aged in a port pipe. Thats where the beauty of mindful tasting lies though; not only can it turn you on to

new and excellent things, it also means you can justify spending money on whiskies that are really worth drinking.