Whisky Drinking Tips for Wine Drinkers

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto

When writing about whisky for Spotlight Toronto, I make the assumption that many readers are predominantly wine drinkers who are whisky-curious. These are some tips I picked up along the way that can help in the appreciation of whisky:

1. Swirling is unnecessary

Although swirling any liquid inside the glass is fun, this isn’t necessary when it comes to whisky. In the case of wine, you swirl to produce more aroma because of the slow rate of evaporation and to encourage oxidation. In the case of whisky, it needs no oxidation and it is already evaporating at a quicker pace. There should be plenty on the nose without the swirl since whisky needs no additional encouragement to evaporate.

2. When nosing a glass, don’t take a deep breath

With wine you nose aggressively, but if you do so with whisky you’ll just get hit with the sting of alcohol. People ask me how I get ‘caramel’ nosing a 60% drink, but the trick is to take the barest whiff. The best thing to do is to hold your glass close to your nose, and let the aroma come to you. Breath in slowly, naturally, and let your sense of smell do the rest. Whisky is a strong drink; you need a gentle nose to get the full range of smells and flavours.

3. Warming the whisky makes it milder

As they say, the right way to drink whisky is whatever way it taste best for you. However, I suggest that instead of using ice, next time try simply holding the glass for five or ten minutes with the whisky already poured. Let your body temperature naturally warm the liquid. It’ll take the edge off of a young whisky, and open up additional flavours. Between warming and icing a glass of whisky, warming will make it milder without losing any flavour from dilution. Taste the whisky every little bit to see how the flavour changes, because if it’s too warm it might take too much edge off. There’s a reason why whisky drinkers take their time with a good drink. In this way, each drink will be different, and have an ideal temperature for your preferences.

4. Shorter sips are best

The higher the alcohol content, the shorter your sips should be. You don’t need to add water to your drink since saliva will naturally dilute the alcohol in your mouth. However, if you take even a half-size gulp (compared to wine) no amount of saliva will save you from a cask strength drink. Take shorter sips, and let the whisky wash over your tongue. The saying goes (though I’m far too impatient to follow this), keep the drink in your mouth one second for every year it has been aged.

5. Have the right glass

Although whisky can be enjoyed in any glass, the best glasses to appreciate the full flavour range of whisky is in ‘tulip’ shaped glasses. These narrow off at the top reducing the evaporation and concentrating the aroma. Glencairn glasses are the favourites amongst Scotch drinkers. Villeroy & Boch also produce a single malt whisky glass that takes more of the shape of a stemless wine glass, but is thinner and narrower at the top. Even a small wine glass will do. You’ll usually get whisky in a straight tumbler style glass in a restaurant, and that’s fine for casual enjoying, but switch to a tulip shaped glass when enjoying a drink at home.

Doing the Math on Whisky Pricing

When people talk about scotch, one of the main barriers frequently mentioned is the high price point. While a $40 bottle of Scotch is not too expensive, once you get in the $80 and $140 range things start adding up fairly quick. But the question is -  is $80 for a bottle actually expensive?

The thing to remember about scotch is that there’s no fermentation process within the bottle, and while Scotch will lose its flavour if left in a glass for hours, it will remain quite stable within the bottle. Your first and last glass of scotch will taste relatively the same, and a good bottle can sit on the shelf for years. (Sidenote: rarely do they last more than a few months at my home.)

A typical bottle is 750mL (though there are some that are 700mL) which has approximately 25 ounces of Scotch. Depending on your pour size (commonly between 1 to 1.5 ounces), you’ll get between 16 and 25 servings of scotch per bottle. This is compared to wine, which generally has just over four servings and lasts only for a few days once uncorked.

Being generous and using a 1.5 ounce pour as a basis, a bottle of scotch will give you four times the number of servings as a bottle of wine. Based purely on consumption, if you’re comfortable purchasing a $20 bottle of wine (or about $5 per serving), spending $80 for scotch is well within your range (the same price – $5 a serving). A thrifty 1 ounce pour brings you up to a $125 bottle of scotch equivalent in drinks.

So my advise is this: if you’re looking to expand your whisky cabinet, consider buying scotch that’s four to six times more than your usual wine purchase price, and adjust accordingly based on whether it will be a ‘special’ bottle of scotch or one that is more for every day drinking.

As we explore in the Whisky Cabinet series, for $60 you have a choice of excellent drinks and there are certainly finds for under that amount that are quite enjoyable. We’ll be looking at blended scotches that are in the $30 range and make for nice day-to-day drinks in future postings.

Note: Originally posted on Spotlight Toronto