Live To Drink: Whisk(e)y Etiquette

I’m no doctor, but it seems to me that there is hardly anything more relaxing than sitting at a bar with a full glass of whiskey and some high quality company. I call it whiskey therapy. Ever since my first sip in a Nicaraguan nightclub (I was 19 years old), I knew there was poetry to be found in this spirit. I took a taxi back to the hotel with my friends that night in a haze, sitting in the front seat, my arm out the window, trying to catch a breeze. I was properly drunk for the first time. It wasn’t until years later that I realized there was an entire world beyond Johnnie Walker Red to be had, more complexities to get to know, and what a journey it would be exploring them.

I’m going to tell you how to drink it like a pro, so the next time you’re in a decent bar you can show your date you’re a bit more than meets the eye. By the way, guys, if you’re wearing sandals on this hypothetical date, you can’t be helped – think Draper. And if you aren’t, you’re already ahead, so let’s go!

1. Choose the appropriate whisky, or whiskey.

Whiskey with an “e” means it was produced in Ireland, while Whisky without the “e” means it comes from Scotland, France, Australia, Japan, or any other country making the spirit. There isn’t much logic to this rule, but it’s an impressive bit of trivia to know and aficionados of the beverage care deeply about this distinction.

The three different types of Scotch whiskies are malt, grain, and blended. Go with a malt whisky to impress because it’s made of 100% malted barley. Then you have another choice to make between single malt and blended malt whisky (single means the drink comes from one distillery, and blended means it’s made from a combo of more than one distillery). Either one will provide lots to talk about in terms of the experience of the senses. For single malts, I like Yamazaki, Oban, or Lagavulin. For blended malts, go with Johnnie Walker Green Label or Sheep Dip.

The Johnny Walker fam

2. Don’t drink your whisky neat. Or do.

Remember that drinking it straight up doesn’t make you a badass. Straight up whisky will go down harsh, and rocking a grimace is not what we’re after. This is a matter of preference, of course. On the other hand, since the key to enjoying your whisky is mainly taste, it’s a waste to dilute the flavors with lots of ice. Whisky stones are frozen soapstone cubes that solve the dilution problem. Some swanky bars also offer ice balls, which have a large surface area and won’t melt as fast. They also look cool. If the bar has neither, order it straight up with a glass of water on the side. Now you can dilute your whisky slightly by adding a few drops at a time to bring out the flavors.

Neve Luxury Ice

3. Talk about what you smell and taste.

Start with your sense of smell and really take a good sniff of it before adding water. Then swirl it around and do the same. Now describe it. All the lingo you need you already know. Does it smell like wood, smoke, perfume, herbs, or fruit? Maybe it’s citrusy and light. You can’t be wrong, so take your time and enjoy comparing notes with your companion. Repeat the description process with taste, but drink it undiluted at first. Then put a few drops of room temp water and try to notice a difference. There will also be a difference in the first taste and the way it finishes, so take note of both. For example, of Tomintoul 16 Year Old Speyside Glenlivet, I was taken by the light, elegant smell of fruit. Then the taste, honey sweet and perfumey, though it faded quickly. And this is where you can get into some poetry and go wild with your description. I normally go with a smokey, peaty whisky because I like the smell of earth, but this one won me over with its light hand and sophisticated flavors.

The more whiskies you taste, the more you’ll get comfortable talking about them and forming your own preferences for flavor. If you really want to get good at this stuff, try going to a few tastings, which will show you how to taste whisky more formally than I’ve shown here. A whisky tasting is also a wonderful date. Another way to get better at it is to join a whisky club. I’m in one that sends me five different small bottles to try a quarter. They come unlabeled so I can do my own tastings and take unbiased notes. Again, also a good date. Now have fun diving in.


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