Considering whisky has two main ingredients—spring water and a grain—it can really run the gamut of flavour. You might get vanilla notes, waves of warm, Christmas-y spices, coconut or even the botanical smokiness of a cigar.
Those flavours change depending on variables in the distillation process. If it is a barley whisky, say, the barley will go through quite a journey to become that glass of potent amber nectar after the initial drying and wetting (to kick the fermentation process off) of the grain. If whisky is made with a peated grain—again, let's say barley—you will be starting the flavour off on a completely different tangent right at the beginning. Smoking barley over some good peat adds a serious punch. Fire and decaying matter will do that to a grain.
Variables in flavour also occur in the casks the whisky is stored in and, obviously, for how long. A non-peated whisky, for example, might be stored in a cask that had been previously burnt out, in order to impart subtler smoky notes than a good dose of bog would do. If the cask had something like sherry in it previously, the end product will be a lot sweeter. Sweeter still if it is left longer. As a general rule, whiskies will become easier, warmer, richer and more pleasurable to drink with age, but the spirit is still, blissfully, largely clouded with a sense of mystery. No two bottles, due to all the naturally occurring variables, will ever be the same.
One hardy perennial in the whisky world, though, is snobbery. Opinions on the spirit are like assholes—everyone has one, and some of them stink. Aficionados (read: sniffy barmen) love to tell you how to drink a great whisky, mentally clubbing you round the ear with a set of bagpipes for daring to put a drop of water anywhere near it. As I found out talking to Andrew Brown (affectionately known locally as The Mick Jagger of Whisky), Distillery Manager at Bunnahabhain, a highly-prized distillery on the Inner Hebridean Island of Islay, though, it transpires that there's no right way to drink whisky.
MUNCHIES: So, Andrew, how do you drink yours? Andrew Brown: If I'm drinking whisky, I put the whisky in the glass. Or a wee spot of water. I know that there's people out there who will put Coca-Cola with a £2000 bottle of whisky, but if that's there personal choice, leave them to it.
What would you do if you saw someone slosh Irn-Bru into a dram? Rugby tackle them to the ground? I'd let them get on with it. At the end of the day, it's personal preference. I prefer my single malts with water. I know some folk like a bit of ginger beer or Irn-Bru in theirs and that's fine. It's definitely an area you could be snobbish with— people spend a lot of money on whisky. Personally, the only one I'd say is a bit questionable to put Coca-Cola with it is our Bunnahabhain 40-year-old. It's been maturing for forty years. Ultimately, though, whisky is made to be drunk whatever way you like it.
Do you think people might find it surprising that you think that? Aye, I do. A woman once visited the distillery with her son. They were from Wales, and the son says, "Tell the man how you drink your whisky." I said, "If you're about to tell me you drink it with Coca-Cola then there's nothing wrong with that." The son was standing there with his mouth gaping open. "But you run the distillery—you should tell us you only drink it with water!" "No no," I said. "You drink it how you like it."
So, technically, what is the right way to drink it? Like, technically. Technically? There's not really an such thing or an exact science. The right way is the way you like it! I've seen people from Scandinavia who come over with a wee pipette to put in one drop of water into each dram. One. But I would always try whisky straight and then decide, does it need water? If it's the middle of summer I'll have one measure of whisky and top up the glass with ginger beer. How you drink it depends on the time of year and where you are.
How do you feel about adding ice to whisky, like Don Draper? I've dropped a couple of cubes in a dram and only tasted freezer. You don't want to be putting ice in it, really. If your freezer smells of fish and you put ice cubes in your whisky, you'll taste the fish. Personally, I think ice shuts the body of the whisky down. Water opens the aromas up. Ice cools it down and makes them shut down. So, personally, I'm not a fan of ice, I don't put it in any drink—even if it's just a glass of lemonade.
If I had never tasted whisky before, what should I be looking for? Something you enjoy drinking, bottom line. Whisky is very personal to taste. I tell folk to compare whisky to having an Indian meal.
OK. Some folk want a mild korma, some folk want a vindaloo, you know? You can only know what you want from tasting a few variations.
Of course. What are the whiskies that might pack a bigger punch, though? The peated expressions have a strong, smoky flavour due to their heating, which I actually think goes nicely with a ginger beer. Others will have a definite sweetness from the sherry cask and won't need helping along.
Can you cook with whisky? I actually make brown bread and whisky ice-cream, which is pretty sloppy.
Sloppy? Aye, it's sloppy because the ice crystals can't form. The alcohol prevents it.
Oh, I see. You don't even need an ice cream maker. If you have a peated whisky, it's actually great with steak. For a simple sauce, chop an onion and some mushrooms, cook in a big knob of good butter, splash a good glug of whisky in there, take a match to it and burn off the alcohol, and serve it alongside a grilled steak. Folks up here [in Islay] use it for all sorts of things—they might have it neat on a raw oyster, cook mussels in it or mix into crab. You can even have it on your porridge in the morning.
I don't think I'd have a very productive day if I did that, but thank you!