How To Sound Like A Whisky Connoisseur
Happy hour is short. Use it wisely.
“Too much of anything is bad,” said Mark Twain, “but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
Like Twain and every other whisky aficionado throughout the ages will attest, it doesn’t get much better than warming your cockles with a perfectly aged, high-grade drop of liquid gold. Yet for all its modern popularity, whisky remains somewhat of a nebulous realm on the cocktail list: a special club with its own mythology, and its own unique language.
What even is whisky? Why are some spelled with a ‘y’ and others ‘ey’? How did this marvellous liquor come to form the Old Fashioned – one of the most popular cocktails of all time – and how should they be drunk?
The Water Of Life
Whiskey is what happens when a mash of grain – commonly barley, rye, corn, or wheat – is malted, fermented, and distilled, then aged in an oak barrel for years. Irish and Scottish monks were doing it for medicinal purposes as early as the 12 and 13th centuries. Soon, royals, and the general public, came to embrace the ‘life giving’ powers of this magical water – ‘whiskey’ is derived from uisge beatha: an Irish and Scottish Gaelic term for ‘water of life’.
Simpler times, of course. Today, a mere wink at a cocktail menu can have you swamped in a sea of bourbons, ryes, Tennessees, Scotches, Irishes, and Canadians: all waters of life, with their own unique flavour and production methods. For the most part, the difference comes down to the grain.
Scotch, for example, is made with malted barley, and made solely in Scotland.
Bourbon – an American product – uses corn (at least 51 percent), a sweeter taste to its precursor, rye whiskey, which swaps out the 51 percent for rye instead. If your whiskey looks, smells and tastes like whiskey and has ‘Made in Ireland’ on the label, meanwhile, it’s a fairly good sign you’ve got yourself an Irish one.
So far so good. But what’s the deal with the spelling difference? While ‘whiskey’ is the preferred name in America and Ireland, the Japanese, Canadians and Scots like ‘whisky’. Simple as that. (To remember this, TheKitchn reminds, countries with an ‘e’ in them have ‘e’ in the whiskey too; those that don’t, don’t’).
Maker’s Mark, however, is a bit of an anomaly: it spells ‘whisky’ without the ‘e’ in a nod to its Scottish-Irish heritage.
The Perfect Mix
As Matt Bax of Melbourne’s Bar Americano will tell you, any difference beyond that is a matter of quality and taste – and how you’re intending to drink the stuff.
While commonly enjoyed on its own, whiskey of every variety has been alchemised into an incredible array of mixed drinks over the years, to varying degrees of mastery. The king of them all is arguably the Old Fashioned: an early cocktail that came to the fore in America in the 1800s, a ‘simple’ whiskey drink that connoisseurs give serious attention to.
“The first step to a good Old Fashioned is definitely using good whiskey,” says bona fide ‘ey’ whiskey buff Jordan McMahon, Manager of Sydney’s premier prohibition era-style cocktail bar, Palmer & Co:
“If you have a good whiskey and know what your preferences are then everything should fall into place. Simply add 60ml to a mixing glass followed by 5ml of 1:1 sugar syrup (or to taste), then add three dashes of bitters. Add ice to your mixing glass and stir with a bar-spoon for 5-10 seconds until you have hit your preferred dilution.”
Here, you can’t go past Maker’s Mark, which has a smooth finish that makes it oh-so-easy to drink.
For Sharon Evans of Melbourne institution Campari House, you can’t have an Old Fashioned without the citrus rub:
“Sugar cube, splash of soda, Angostura bitters, quality bourbon, and an orange peel rubbed around the rim of the glass,” says Evans.
Bax’s take on the Old Fashioned, meanwhile, is amongst the best and most innovative: a righteous concoction that fuses rye, bourbon and a dash of Amaro.
“I love this drink so much, it’s the only way I drink them now.”
Getting Into The Game
All that might sit well for the whiskey bon vivants in the house, but what about the novices? How might newbies go about cruising their way into whiskey town?
“Start off by trying whiskey with water,” says McMahon. “If you begin to enjoy the flavour and can drink it smoothly in its least intense flavour, then move onto whiskey on the rocks, and finally, neat. When drinking neat, its perfect serve should be room temperature – adding a few drops of water will also open up the flavours, which is recommended for some varieties.”
Evans, on the contrary, suggests sticking to cocktails to get your palette up to speed.
“A favourite is the Devereaux, a highball glass on ice with whiskey, elderflower and lemon juice, topped with Prosecco.” Good for the warmer months, of course – but what about when the chill sets in?
“Add it to a hot chocolate.”
The Good Stuff
It’s no secret that there’s been an explosion of whiskey varieties onto the market in recent years. In this sea of choices, who’s making the good stuff?
“It seems almost everybody,” says Bax, confessing his penchant for the Japanese varieties.
Not known traditionally for whiskey, Japanese distilleries like Yamazaki and Hakushi have been wowing the malt-loving world over the past decade with their unique, Scotch-inspired offerings.
“Scotch is more challenging I think to mix with, but can deliver some exceptional drinks,” adds Bax.
Still, when it comes to classics like the Old Fashioned, most still look to the enduring favourites.
“Makers Mark was the first bourbon that I fell in love with and it is still my favourite,” says Evans, “as well as Booker small batch – my other favourite to sit and savour.”
McMahon agrees: “Maker’s Mark, so too Russel’s Reserve and Bookers.”
Above all, it really boils down to personal preference. “Let your tastebuds tell you what you like,” adds Bax. “Not the marketing or high price tag – premium whisky is often smoke and mirrors, though they often tell a wonderful story.”
As for the best time to enjoy a snifter, McMahon is fairly frank. “It depends whether we are drinking the whiskey to taste it or to relax – for taste, in the morning to early afternoon is best. After that, the palette begins to fatigue and won’t tell the full story.
One thing’s for sure: whiskey is a drink for all time. Good for summer, good for spring, good for winter and the autumn too, there’s little that whiskey cannot do.
The Irish perhaps had it best: “What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.”
Sound like a pro when ordering a Maker’s Mark at your after-work drinks. Practise your new lingo at participating venues including: J&M, Palmer & Co, Tank Stream Bar, Bopp & Tone, Doss House, Chica Bonita and many more.
(Lead image: Adam Wilson via Unsplash)
Published 07 June, 2019