There’s just something totally boss about stepping up to the bar at your local watering hole and ordering a “Bourbon. Neat.” Instant street cred. And pretty much as manly as you could possibly get.
My fully stocked bar at home now includes over 10 different bourbons, whiskeys and scotches with different profiles, ages and varieties. There’s a different label for every occasion; like one rye whiskey for a rough day and a good 18-year scotch for a celebratory toast. So, while my daughter enjoys a few sips from her bottle, I kick back with a few sips from Daddy’s “special juice.”
Yeah, complete humblebrag, but whatevs.
Based off of the popularity of whiskeys and bourbons, I’m not the only one that’s enjoying the resurgence of a classic adult beverage – exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion in 2014 alone. Simply put, MERICA loves them some brown stuff.
Perhaps it’s the Mad Men and Donald Draper effect rubbing off on all of us.
Brown liquors come in so many nuanced varieties that figuring out how to get started with this craze can be complex … and downright daunting. So, for the novice trying to break into this stuff: Where the hell do you start?
Great question, my friends. But fear not … for we have the solution.
Sit back, relax and read up as our good friend and bourbon aficionado, Jason Schneider, takes you down the path towards putting away that fruit punch spiked crap you call a drink and to a new world of drinking like a real man. [FYI: My notes & comments in brackets]
Learn how to drink bourbon, whiskey and scotch
by Jason Schneider
I like whiskey*. I really, really like whiskey.
And I taught myself to like and then appreciate it. Which is a good thing because otherwise everything after this is kinda BS. Which is another point – if you don’t like whiskey, that’s fine. At one point in my admittedly immature life I didn’t like whiskey either. Then I got hair on my chest and my … back.
Basically my taste buds grew up and it also helped that my wallet got a bit thicker so I could afford the occasional tumbler or bottle of whiskey that wasn’t bottom shelf. After I figured out I liked whiskey it was a bit of a journey to appreciate the various expressions.
The challenge for our taste buds is that to really appreciate the nuances of whiskey we can’t be drinking Manhattans or Old Fashioneds or Bourbon-and-Gingers. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those drinks; but it’s the addition of bitters, soda water, ginger ale or whatever that hides the nuanced flavors of good whiskey.
Can you tell rye whiskey from a bourbon in a Manhattan? If the Manhattan is made correctly, then yes. Can you tell the difference between a great rye whiskey and a good rye whiskey in a Manhattan? No. And if you can, then turn your taste buds into some culinary school because you’re special. The rest of you are full of shit.
Before we get started in how to build a whiskey drinker, a few words on how to drink whiskey.**
Use a tumbler (AKA Old Fashioned glass). You don’t need a $500 20-pound crystal tumbler. If you’ve the AmEx Black to cover that, congrats, but it’s not going to make the whiskey taste any better. Crappy whiskey in an expensive glass is still crappy whiskey. I do recommend getting a fairly heavy glass tumbler. Why? Because a lot of mass will help the whiskey retain its temperature, the wide glass will let the whiskey breathe and let you smell it. And it just feels nice to drink liquor out of a heavy glass.
You can pick up sufficiently heavy and stumpy glassware at places like TJ Maxx or Marshalls without blowing the bank. Some people use Ball glass jars. While that’s certainly trendy, the ridges for the screw tops can make dribbling an issue. And if you’re drinking whiskey because it’s trendy please stop. First off, you’re driving up the prices for the rest of us and secondly … well secondly it’s a douchey thing to do. Go drink some vodka and talk about hair products and leave the whiskey to the rest of us.
Neat vs. Water vs. Rocks
I drink whiskey all three ways. Why? Because all three ways provide different benefits. Drinking whiskey neat (no water, no ice, no nothing – just whiskey in a glass) is the purest form of a fine, fine liquor. I only drink whiskey neat when I’m drinking a whiskey of fairly low proof – say 80 proof – because higher proofs effectively burn your taste buds and you can’t taste the more subtle flavors, or when I’m drinking a really, really aged whiskey in which the alcohol is so subtle that it’s almost not there (Johnny Walker Blue or most 20+ year old scotches). I also only drink it neat when I’m having a finger or two. Eventually even alcohol in lower proof whiskey retards your taste buds ability to, you know, taste.
Water or rocks is the usual the go-to for whiskey drinking. First off, some water helps tamp down the alcohol so my taste buds can pick up the background flavors and if I’m drinking whiskey in the summer I like it to be cold.
Some people don’t think you should drink whiskey cold. Those people have never sat on porch in 90-degree heat drinking whiskey. So two ways to do this: Put a splash (teaspoon or so) of DISTILLED water in your whiskey to just cut the alcohol enough or make a very large ice cube from DISTILLED water using one of the various molds available. (Yes, distilled water. Would you put pool water in your whiskey? Of course not.)
I really try to not use regular sized ice cubes – they melt too fast and water down the whiskey to the point where you’ll be drinking whiskey-flavored water fairly quickly – though if you’re drinking bad whiskey this may not be a bad thing. But then again why are you drinking bad whiskey? Good whiskey at a good price is another article for another time.
[Invest in a good jumbo ice mold/tray – the ice melts much slower and prevents the alcohol from watering down … it also looks pretty cool when you’re entertaining to show off the unique ice spheres or huge ice cubes]
So here’s the kicker on learning to appreciate and enjoy whiskey – it takes time to train your taste buds to find the nuances in different types of whiskey and it also takes time to learn how you like your whiskey. There really isn’t a “wrong” way to drink whiskey. Some ways are better than others but so long as you stick to a few guidelines, anyone can develop a whiskey palate. Here’s a few tips on how to build that palate:
Start with something approachable
Don’t order some peat bomb from Islay or some super smoked craft whiskey that is coming out some really good micro-distilleries in the U.S. That’s like getting your driver’s permit and getting behind the wheel of a race car. You’re only get yourself (or your taste buds) killed and you’ll probably never want to get behind the wheel again.
Don’t drop big money on an old whiskey because you can: A friend who is a sommelier admitted that unless you’re trained you probably can’t tell the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and $500 bottle of wine – and the vast majority of people (yes that means you) can’t tell the difference between a $50 bottle and $100 bottle after a few glasses. My sommelier friend can’t taste the difference between a $1,000 dollar bottle of wine and a $10,000 bottle of wine. And this is highly trained, professional drinker. Why? Because the human pallet isn’t that sensitive. Don’t spend a lot of money on the ‘hot’ label because you’ll regret it when you taste something a quarter of the price but you like just as much if not better.
Drink what you like – the rest is bullshit
Taste is in the eye of the beholder. Some of my favorite whiskeys aren’t the most expensive stuff. Learn what you like not what you think you like. If you don’t like brine-heavy scotch from the Scottish coast, that’s fine. There’s a lot of other styles that you probably will like. Don’t let some ad or some whiskey connoisseur convince you to like something you don’t. We all have that friend who married some woman because she was rich or hot or rich and hot but knew she really wasn’t the right one. Eventually you wake up and realize you’ve wasted your life drinking whiskey you didn’t really like. The horror.
[This is so true. My favorite bottle of bourbon is from Bulleit. It’s drinks well neat, makes a nice Manhattan and the price point is usually around $30-35]
So know that we’ve covered that, where do you start on your journey to whiskey appreciation. Well there’s a couple of levels of whiskey intensity. We’ll call these ‘Hair On Your Chest’ levels. Why? Because I’m writing this and you’re not. You want to call it something else then you find a friend with a blog and write your own whiskey article. Until then, it’s ‘Hair On Your Chest’ levels (And this is just my opinion/palate – yours may differ).
- Garth’s Pube’s: Canadian blended whiskey, Tennessee-style whiskey (Lincoln County Process), blended Irish whiskey, wheated bourbon
- The Average American Male: Bourbons, blended scotch whiskey, single-malt Irish whiskey
- Don Draper: single malt Scotch particularly from the Highlands or Lowlands, rye whiskey or high-rye bourbon, Japanese whiskey, heavily smoked American whiskey
- Sasquatch: Scottish “Peat Bombs” most frequently from the Islay region, anything “cask-strength’, moonshine.
[Special thanks again to Jason for chipping in here with his advice for breaking your bourbon cherry. Now it’s YOUR turn. What do you drink? What’s your favorite label and how did you break into the bourbon craze? Chime in below with your comments.]
*We’re gonna use the U.S. spelling of whiskey vs. the Scottish (proper?) spelling of whisky.
**I’m not a whiskey historian so I’m not gonna tell you about pre-prohibition whiskey vs. prohibition whiskey vs. post-prohibition whiskey. I’m also not gonna get into the economics of whiskey because that’s an entirely separate topic most likely better covered by whiskey historians or economists (but that won’t stop me from writing about it later because it’s kinda silly). This also isn’t about the differences between scotch, rye whiskey, bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and all the other minutiae of whiskey province (I will get into that later – assuming I’m invited back to write about whiskey).