Think whisky: what does it conjure up? A middle-aged man slowly napping in the corner of some crumbling, once-opulent country house? Another tweed-clad codger puffing away on his cigar, dangerously close to dropping pungent ash on to the lavish carpet of his members-only dinner club?
Until recently, I thought the same. Hard liquor, I imagined; unfathomable and most certainly for men much posher, richer, and reams more doddery, than me.
But now? I love it. Absolutely, completely, lip-smackingly, love it. It’s warming, succulent, powerful, and the perfect complement to darkening days and chilly nights.
But if whisky to you seems more of the musty than the modern, I understand. My transition from fruity vodka cocktails to straight-up Scotch is even more surprising given that I was practically tee-total two years ago. Seriously, I did all three years of university without ever once drinking enough to get more than mildly tipsy (yep, honestly. Yes, I know).
In nary a few months, I’ve gone from someone without any real interest in any alcohol at all, to quaffing on cocktails, to genuinely loving liquor’s varied nuances, and gaining a previously-untapped ability to witter on like the most-practised and pretentious wine taster about nose and fruits and lingering aftertastes.
I still don’t even like drinking all that much – I can make one glass of wine last an entire three-course meal, and I find myself quite content to stop at two cocktails maximum, even on a big night out. So believe me, if I can grow to love whisky, there’s hope for everyone.
Whisky’s image problem
I’m not the only one coming round to this apparently traditionally stuffy, masculine drink. As her name would suggest, blogger Miss Whisky tweets and writes about all things whisky, and even wrote a piece for new women’s magazine Libertine explaining the different kinds available, dispelling the myth that it’s just an old man’s drink.
Because there is still a somewhat patronising belief among advertisers that women prefer “floral” whiskies, she explained, and would leave the proper, traditional smoky stuff to the codgers in drawing rooms and three-piece suits.
Well, I’ve got news for them – not only do I love whisky; I love the smokiest, oldest, most leathery of the lot. Got a lemon-coloured, light thing that will run down the side of the glass in seconds, and taste of raisins and oranges? Sorry, allow me to return to my deep, shining dram of years-aged caramel-coloured nectar, which runs down the glass in its own good time, and tastes like bonfires, autumn days, thick coffee and melting chocolate, beginning in an alcoholic haze before coating your tongue in sweetness and hugging your throat and chest in one, long, smooth, warm caress.
Whisky from, um, Wales?
My first encounter with the stuff came not, as you might imagine, in Scotland, but in Wales, about nine months ago, when an experimental trip to the country’s only distillery – for want, largely, of anything else to do that day ‒ introduced me to something I never knew I was missing.
Penderyn, tucked away in the Breacon Beacons, just north of Aberdare, is a haven and shrine to the golden-coloured stuff, managing to pack and incredible amount of knowledge, history and know-how into what is effectively just a done-up shed.
Upon our arrival, a video explained the history and the importance of good-quality spring water, while a “tour” involved a guide basically pointing out key bits of the process through panes of glass in the distillery itself, showing the creation from start to finish, including grinding the grain, adding the water, and finally, leaving it to mature in an array of barrels, which themselves have an enormous effect on the final flavour, whether light, peaty, smoky or not.
A chance to taste a few different flavours in the small but aromatic bar – surrounded by barrels ‒ made me realise that this wasn’t just a drink for my boyfriend. I could love it too.
Edinburgh’s whisky tour, which I experienced a couple of months ago, increased my understanding further. Granted, it is far more theme-park than rural tour (it’s right next to the tourist-magnet of Edinburgh Castle, and the first thing you see on the tour is a fairground-ride style carriage that whisks you around a comedy-esque video explaining the various manufacturing stages), but it only served to enhance my love of the old, stuffy liquid.
Because, as you may have gathered, whisky isn’t just whisky. Depending on where it’s from and how it’s matured (the extremely enthusiastic, young woman on our Scottish tour explained) whisky can be everything from fruity, light and drinkable, to smoky, peaty, caramel-ly and chocolate-y.
Four main regions underpin most whiskies from Scotland: the Lowlands (light, dry, mellow and fruity), the Highlands (relatively light, with a hint of peat, smoke and spice), Speyside (tiny, but with over half the country’s distilleries, producing sweet, slightly smoky whiskies) and Islay (very smoky, darker, home to famous brand Laphroig, and pronounced “Eye-lah”, interestingly).
There is also Campbelltown (similar to Islay, but with more salt and peat) and the Islands (similar to the Highlands) although these tend not to be considered separate regions.
Sticking to the single malt
There are also, we were told, many blended whiskies. I have to say though, personally, I don’t really see the point of those. Maybe it’s because, having grown up in France and with a father and uncle who really appreciate wine, I’m prejudiced by the maxim that a single grape must equal a better glass. And so, I imagine it must go with whisky – despite people saying that a blend brings out more interesting flavours. Rightly or wrongly, for pretentious gits like me, it’s all about the single malt.
With the Edinburgh tour giving us a chance to have a taste of all four regions (could have been problematic), I quickly decided I preferred the smoky depths of the Islay variety, and haven’t looked back. My favourite kind so far is the Bowmore 15, a rich, brass-coloured version from Islay, which, as the name suggests, is made up of single malt whisky that has matured for at least 15 years.
Far be it that I would say only one kind will do for all, however. Despite whisky’s slightly intimidating reputation, I strongly recommend that you have a try yourself, to figure out what you like, as the differences between them can be striking and various.
You can get quite a few different kinds in mini-bottles, to save you having to choose one big bottle straight off, but it might be more practical – and wallet friendly – to just try a different one each time you go out, depending on what appeals (light and fruity, or dark and smoky), and go on from there. You amy even find your tastes change as you get more attuned to the stuff.
Personally, I started with a mini-bottle of Penderyn, in “Madeira” style – quite light and refreshing, with a strong alcohol hit, whereas the aforementioned Bowmore, and the even-deeper Ardbeg, is about as smoky as you can get.
And it’s not a case of fruity = girly: my craft-beer loving, extremely non-sweet-toothed boyfriend actually prefers fruitier, less imposing varieties.
I still love my fruit cocktails as much (more, probably, I’m making up for lost cocktail time) than the next girl, and can happily sit for hours with a strawberry vodka number, but nothing warms my cockles and cuts through a big evening meal quite like a few tastes of the hard stuff.
Move over blokes and cigars; this is a million miles away from a tartan-clad members club.
For maximum ponciness – and, ultimately, to discover what you really like ‒ I recommend this four-step technique (similar to wine tasting, really):
1. Hold up the glass to the light, and see how dark the whisky is. Different varieties have different shades of gold and caramel, and the look is as much part of the experience as the taste
2. Swill it round the glass, and see how quickly the drops take to fall down. Lighter whiskies will trickle down with ease, heavier ones will take a bit longer
3. Smell it – this bit is key. You want to push past the strong alcohol cloud – which can threaten to overwhelm the initial flavours, as whisky can vary from around 40% to as much as 60% proof ‒ and get down to the actual tastes at play. Move the glass back and forth under your nose rather than taking one big sniff
4. With your nose still full of the smell, take a reasonable gulp, and let it coat your tongue, before swallowing slowly. This will give you the chance to really taste the flavours and again, ensure that the initial alcohol hit doesn’t obscure the rest