As I write this, I’m sitting in my armchair. I often write to you from this spot.
About five feet to my right, there’s a wooden globe, mounted on a wheeled pedestal. The surface is emblazoned with a reproduction fifteenth-century world map, and on top, there’s a small handle. If you take hold of it and pull, the upper hemisphere tilts upwards and backwards, revealing a collection of bottles, orbited by lead-crystal glasses.
There’s no finer substance than single malt whisky.
If you’d told that to my teenage self - and some people probably did - he’d have at first scoffed (before he was sixteen or so), then shuddered (a year or two later). Whisky was the stuff you drank if there was absolutely no other option available in your parents’ drinks cabinet, on the rare occasion you had the house to yourself. I’m ashamed to say that I put myself completely off the stuff for almost ten years because of foolish adolescent indulgence.
You live and learn.
A number of years later, here I am: a globe of fine single malts nearby, a cabinet full of more in the kitchen, and yet more lined up rigidly in rows down in the basement, standing at eternal attention in buried darkness, like the Terracotta Army.
Whisky, like any non-clear spirit, is an acquired taste - and I mean acquired in the same way that we acquire wealth, or possessions: it takes work. You have to actually decide that you’re going to drink it. That’s the first step.
The next step is that you do drink it, and then usually you wish you hadn’t. Whisky doesn’t taste “nice” - or so you naively think in your formative weeks or months of discovery. How wrong you are, but your feelings are at least normal.
In time, your palate shifts. Your senses open out, and where once there was just astringency, a blast of ethanol, and a sense of cosmic wrongness, you’ll discover a plateau - perhaps the kind that’s high up in Tibet, or in the depths of a South American rainforest, filled with wonders that the rank and file of so-called civilisation haven’t yet begun to dream of.
You’ll discover subtlety, layers of flavours and aromas, and the fact that drinking whisky is a multivalent experience with several different components. Whisky is complex, nuanced, and rewards a sense of considered exploration.
It begins with your nose.
Whisky is to be smelled. You don’t just chuck the stuff down your throat; no. Instead, get your nose stuck right into the glass, and - carefully - inhale. You’ll want to avoid snorting too deeply, or the alcohol content will partially anaesthetise your scent receptors, which is entirely counterproductive.
At the first sniff, you’ll probably get mostly alcohol. Remove your nose, exhale, and give it a few moments. Repeat. You’ll start to get some of the character of the stuff, now; a broad sense of where it’s from, what it’s got to offer, and how it might say hello when it crosses your lips. Remove your nose. Exhale. Give it a few moments.
Now jam your nose back in there, and get a good lot of the vapours into you. You’ll have moved past the spirit content by this point, and some of the mysteries should be shimmering into view. Bonfires. Diesel. Floor-cleaner. Honey. Rubber. Cotton. Rhubarb. Car wax. Puff candy. Ocean waves, and cherry pie, and burnt electrical insulation, and green grass on a Summer’s day.
The list is endless, and different for each whisky. It’ll also be different for you than it is for me, and it’ll expand with practice. That’s the thing about drinking whisky: practice is its own reward.
You’ll be ready to have a taste now. Whisky is not to be glugged, slurped, mixed, or - horror of horrors - swallowed straight over. Behave yourself.
Take a decent sip: enough to sit comfortably down inside your lower teeth, lapping up around the edges of your tongue, the alcohol nipping at your taste buds. Roll it around. It’ll be oily, perhaps, and it likely has teeth of its own. Let it move; you want to coat every part of your very sensitive tasting apparatus.
You’ll notice that there are multiple experiences here. You’ve already had the nose, and now you’ve got a few more: the tongue, the sides of the mouth, the roof, and back there at the top of your throat. All different, and all contributing to the overall unique experience of this whisky.
Give it time. It should move from the glass to your mouth in small amounts, and you shouldn’t even think of swallowing for at least a good ten seconds or more. Yes, there may be pain at first; persevere.
Notice how, perhaps, the taste is very different from the nose. Maybe it smelled sweet, but it’s dark and alkaline to the tongue. Maybe the nose was pure ethanol, but inside your cheeks it’s all citrus. Maybe the liquorice candy aroma turned into a swimming pool full of chlorine once it hit your mouth. That’s all normal. Savour it.
Now go ahead and swallow. The first checkpoint is the top of your throat: you’ll probably get the alcohol here. That tingly hit, like you accidentally swallowed your mouthwash, but considerably more prickly. You’ll get deeper tones of some of the rougher flavours, most likely, and maybe some fireworks. It’ll get your saliva flowing, to be sure.
Then there’s the slide down. It may be unremarkable - just like water. Or, you may be drinking something that gives a burn from top to bottom, like an elevator that’s on fire, and the cables were just cut. For my money, that’s the best outcome. Wait for it to hit your sternum, and boom - heat spreads out through your chest. Feel free to vocalise, as if you’ve been doing this all your life.
But wait: put the glass down for a minute, or at least go and stand at the window, looking thoughtfully out into the night.
Don’t follow one sip of whisky with another. Certainly don’t follow it with any other drink, ye gods - but mainly, don’t rush. You have to wait for the aftertaste. Give yourself twenty to thirty seconds, then just swallow again, with an empty mouth: there’s the last component of the flavour.
Some whiskies have none; some have the lion’s share of their flavour only once they’ve gone down. For most, it’s somewhere in between, and you’ll always find something new. Maybe something metallic, or dewy, or intensely sweet. Who knows? You’ll have to try.
I’d leave the ice in the freezer; it’ll only shut down the aromas and flavours. It’s your drink, granted, but at my house, we’ll skip the rocks. Water in its liquid form, though, can be OK - at room temperature. Just a drop or two, and I mean that literally. No-one will bat an eyelid if you bring a pipette. Indeed, at a quality establishment, the (very small) water container really ought to have one sitting in it already.
A couple of drops will open out some of the nose, and develop some of the lighter, richer tones of the taste too. Just be very cautious, and start with a single drop. You can always add more, but you can’t take it back out.
There’s enormous pleasure in a fine glass of single malt whisky. It’s not the pleasure of a new iPhone, or a car, or a fine meal - though it’s just as carefully made. No, it’s more like that satisfaction of managing to play the most difficult passage of the concerto you’ve been working on. Or finding the perfect phrase to prompt a tear from the reader’s eye. Or finally killing that end-of-level boss, I suppose.
It’s an earned pleasure. You’ve worked for it. Practice, practice, practice.
Months of preparation, training, reconnaissance, and just waiting for the weather. Then the arduous trek over harsh terrain. An unforeseen barrier - perhaps a dizzying canyon, with white rapids so far below - and a lengthy detour around.
But then, finally, with one last branch hacked from your way, you set eyes upon it, and stand there. Silent and still. Perhaps you raise a hand, feeling time-worn stone beneath your fingertips. A dream, finally made solid. You’ve come so far, and now, at last, you’re here.
Whisky is a journey, my friends, and most people will give up almost before they’ve begun.
For those that stay the course, there are wonders to be found.
Note that Scotch whisky has no ‘e’, and the plural is “whiskies”.
This piece was written for my members, a month ago.