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Monday, 10 October 2011

Round Table Time

It's that time again. The Whisky Knights, a raggedy, disparate bunch were thrown together a little over a year ago - the premise being that the burning questions of the day from the whisky world would be discussed and debated with all the panache of Lancelot and his Camelot chums.

Well, something like that. In reality, it was the 12 most active whisky blogs, generally grumbling and drunkenly scratching their troublesome itches in public.

This month, it's time for Caskstrength to ask the question and we think it's a cracker:

Dave Broom wrote an interesting article recently on the most common myths surrounding drinking whisky, highlighting a lot of existing anxieties people associate with the spirit.

What myths have you encountered from your readers and how would you help demystify them to encourage a wider (and younger audience) to enjoy whisky?

Us – Caskstrength:

In our opinion, the biggest myth about whisky is that it’s a deeply challenging spirit, once the domain of the elderly gent, general drunk, whose palate is completely grizzled or, the true connoisseur. Of course there are lots of myths floating around whisky, water/ice/blends vs malts, but they probably all inter-relate with the big flavour question- that to the uninitiated, whisky will blow your goddamn head off.

In our recent experience (taking whiskies on the road to a totally new group of drinkers, including a high percentage of women) if you break down the preconceptions before the drinker has even had a sip and- pre warn them not to slug the thing right back, they usually find the enjoyment begins to unlock itself. Imagine if you don’t like oysters. The thought of knocking back something which looks like the contents of a tissue is never going to be appealing, but give it some context, some explanation and some guidance and the whole thing should become a lot more palatable. Well, I hope so, as I’ve yet to keep one down. But with any luck, the same principle applies.

Ruben- Whisky Notes:

One of the myths that I frequently run into, is the myth of whisky contamination and (rapid) deterioration. Some people are questioning reviews because they were based on a sample rather than a "real" bottle, and often we are advised to drink a bottle ASAP once it has fallen below a certain level. I'd like to mention three things.

Firstly, there's a big difference between simple "changes" and deterioration. Every whisky changes over time and perhaps the biggest change, whether you like it or not, is caused by simply opening a new bottle. I've experienced this several times: the first sip straight from a new bottle is slightly disappointing and not in line with reviews, but after a couple of days it shows the aromas you'd have expected. After that, it usually stays the same for a long time. So I'm not questioning change, it's just not necessarily a bad thing.

My second point is that I don't think our senses are suitable to track differences over time. The context will have changed, our mood is different, we tried the whisky in a different line-up, we ate different things before our tasting... and the differences will be too subtle to notice anyway. The only possible way would be to compare an open bottle to another bottle from the same batch that we have kept closed. Even then I'd like to remind you of my first remark... which of the two profiles is the "real" profile? The newly opened, air-tight profile or the aired, "normalized" profile?

As a last element, I'd like to tell you about my experiences. I have a dozen of bottles that I opened six years ago, levels are fairly low (under one third) and yet I find it difficult to spot differences. In any case none of them went "bad". They may have changed, but why should I care if I still appreciate them, perhaps even more than before? The same goes for samples, on several occasions I've compared a sample to a full bottle, and I never felt I was tasting different products.

My conclusion: of course whisky can change, but the differences will not be relevant and they will be due to changes in our assessment rather than changes to the product itself. Unless you're planning to keep bottles for 50 years or more, I don't think you need to worry about deterioration. Whisky, being one of the purest alcoholic drinks around, is probably one of the most stable as well.

Peter Lemon- The Casks:

I was going to write something contentious about the myth that pairing food and whisky is a good idea. Regardless of what people say, the amount of alcohol in whisky wipes out all but the strongest, simplest flavors. Sure, there are things that taste good with whisky, chocolate, strong cheese, bbq, but do not try to tell me that an Islay malt pairs well with poached oysters in a fennel-saffron reduction. One sip would wipe out all subtlety, all nuance, in the dish, it can't not - with whisky's high ABV, that's simply the way our palate's work. When you have chefs and sommeliers thinking that high alcohol wines (15%-18%) are too strong for food, that's proof enough that something 40%+ just isn't a wise choice. Aperitif, yes. Dessert, sure on occasion. After-dinner, definitely. Dinner, no. Whisky-paired dinners are fairly popular but they're just a way to get people in the door to drink whisky, which is fine, just don't buy into the myth that whisky shows off any kind of culinary delicacy.

But, then I thought, that's not so much of a myth that I've encountered as it is a misconception at best, or my petty opinion at the very least. Probably the myths I've encountered most are the same boring old "there's a right way to drink whisky" and "single malts are always better than blends" myths. As for the former, in the tastings I've lead, I've always stressed the only right way to drink whisky is the way you like it best; out of the freezer, mixed with coke, over ice cubes made with tomato juice, whatever floats your boat. Sure, some whisky-geek approved ways are going to show off the spirit better in an analytical way, but that really doesn't matter. Definitely don't worry about anyone "slapping" you if you don't enjoy your whisky the way an expert tells you to. As for the single malt vs blend thing...get over it, drink more varieties of each and you'll realize neither is better than the other, they're just different, wonderfully and purposefully so.

Jason Johnstone-Yellin - Guid Scotch Drink:

I encounter three myths on a very regular basis and I believe all three stand in the way of whisky reaching a wider audience (and I'm not even going to mention the myth that whisky is only for your Grandpa!):

1. Too many folk think you need to spend big money to experience good whisky. Come on! While entry level whiskies have steadily increased in price over the last decade (while the prices of other entry level spirits have remained pretty constant - or even decreased) spending $30 or $40 on a good entry level single malt represents a better investment over spending $15 or $20 on a cheaper whiskey. Years ago, when I founded the Single Malt Whisky Society of the Palouse my first goal was to educate on the value of price point. Within a few months of launching the society my members were telling me about spending an extra $10, $20, or even $30 on a bottle of whisky and how they were now enjoying what was in their glass so much more. What looks like a big price difference while standing in the liquor store makes for an immeasurable increase in overall enjoyment.

2. The issue of connoisseurship comes up all the time. "I don't have the palate to enjoy an expensive bottle," folk have said to me at a tasting event or in the comments of my blog. Rubbish! You might not have the vocabulary to describe what you're tasting in the glass but you sure as hell know whether or not you're enjoying it. Sit with friends and chat about the flavor profile and you're guaranteed to say something that makes others say, "that's EXACTLY what I'm getting!" And there's really no better feeling than sharing stories, throwing out a few informal tasting notes, and having a good old dram with friends and family whether it's a $40, $80, or $180 bottle of single malt. My advice is to not worry about what needs to be said but instead to have a dram, relax, and see what comes out your mouth!

3. Finally, and this made an appearance recently during the Round Table hosted by Pete at *The Casks*, is the myth that you shouldn't use good whisky as a mixer in a cocktail. Poppycock! When we're talking about drinks mixed by a highly qualified mixologist (I love that word!) we're not talking about Jack and Coke, your dad's Highballs, or other old school nonsense. We're talking cutting edge ingredients and flavors that allow us to see whisky in a new light. How is that not a wonderful thing and something that will increase the number of younger folk drinking good single malt?

Chris Bunting – Nonjatta:

I suppose the misconception I find myself butting up against most often is the idea that the cost of a whisky has a causative relationship to its taste. A whisky is not priced highly because it is delicious. Ignoring the complications of marketing strategies and deliberate attempts to target luxury niche markets, what you are paying for is rarity rather than how good it will taste (although a maker that sold something horrible for a large amount would be rather stupid, so you are also, I suppose, buying some sort of guarantee of drinkability for far more than you should be paying).

Certainly, there is some enjoyment in knowing you are one of the few people to be able to taste a given dram, but to restrict one`s whisky intake to expensive whiskies is a bit like refusing to eat crumbly, fresh cod because it is not as expensive as Fugu fish. This is a particular issue in Japanese whisky, where some rare, old whiskies from peripheral makers can be quite expensive and, at the same time, of quite phenomenal foulness.

Keith Wood – Whisky Emporium:

I can't say I have encountered any myths from my readers as such, but earlier this year I was perusing the shelves of a local whisky store when I was severely reminded of that good old adage "Age Matters", or not, as the case may be. Anyway, there I was when a woman entered the shop and also cast a glance across the shelves then looked at me and said "Oh dear, these almost all have 'ages', look 10 years old, 12 years old, 15 years old even 20 years old, but you know, it doesn't mean anything, they're all the same really."

My interest was now piqued "All the same?" I questioned. "Yes," she replied "age doesn't matter or mean anything. I visited a local distillery a few weeks ago and they explained to me that once a whisky reaches 3 years old it doesn't change any more. After three years old the 'age' doesn't mean anything"

Hmmm, I decided not to try and pursue this discussion further, but left her with her wisdom gained from the one local distillery in this corner of the world which bottles an annual edition of 3 year old whisky and nothing older...........!

Gal – Whisky Israel:

1.Single malt is "better" than Blended whisky. Most people who do not know much about whisky think that the single malt is the best, and a blend can never get close to it. The real truth is that there are nasty single malts and brilliant blends. All depends on the blender and quality of ingredients. I send people to try some of Compass Box's excellent blends, or even a high end Blend with a high Malt content such as Black Bull, or even Grant's 18/25 which are more available in duty frees.

2.Whisky should be drunk with a lot of ice, like in the movies. It's true that in Israel. a hot country we do need a bit of cooling down, but not that much... I usually tell people, try your whisky neat. Cool it down a bit with rocks (real ones) or in the fridge.

3.Older whisky is better. Always. People usually look at the age statement on the bottle and if it's 18 years old, it should be great. a 6 year old Port Charlotte? Can't be good right? Well, no sir! Age is not everything and cask selection is more important. Put a good whisky into a dead cask for 30 years, you get a bad whisky. I encourage people to try NAS and also advocate young age for peated malts... NAS is not the enemy.

4.I don't like whisky. Many people try cheap blends, and that's what they think whisky is. Bad whisky can really be a turn off , and I suggest experimentation. Try a lot, as many as you can. whisky is a big word, and no 2 whiskies are the same. Try all kinds of whisky you can get your hands on and see which one you like.

Matt & Karen - Whisky For Everyone:

There are numerous myths, preconceptions and stereotyped views about whisky and we encounter them everyday – some are extreme and some are more common, some are from the uneducated individual and some are from established people who are prominent in the whisky industry. As a whisky beginner or novice it is hard to separate fact from fiction – this is what we try to do on the Whisky For Everyone blog and website. The two most commonly asked questions that we get are …

Should I add water or ice?

There are those that will turn their noses up at you for even daring to mention adding anything to your dram of whisky (you can include mixers or cocktails in that as well!). A certain Master Blender has also been known to threaten to kill you for doing such a thing! However, the reality is that most whisky drinkers and people in the whisky industry take their whisky with varying amounts of water. This softens the sharpness of the alcohol and allows the full aromas and flavours to develop. It is especially necessary when tasting a whisky with a high ABV (for example, 48-50% ABV+). Most whisky, unless it is ‘cask strength’, has been watered down anyway to get it to the 40% ABV at which most popular brands begin their ranges. However, if you are a beginner even 40% ABV whisky can seem strong.

We recommend always tasting a whisky ‘neat’ first and then making your own mind up – if you find it too strong/alcoholic, then add a few drops of water. If it’s still too strong, add a few more drops and so on. Each persons taste is different, so there are no right or wrong answers. Adding ice is slightly different as this chills the whisky down very quickly, which inhibits the full aroma and flavour profile. You will only begin to get these once the whisky begins to warm up to room temperature, similar to if a white wine to chilled too much. What you will get is a cool, refreshing drink but without the full benefit of the whisky’s character.

Single malts are better than blends, right?

This has to be the most common myth of all. There is a firm belief that single malts are better than blends and this is the belief that we had when starting as beginners, albeit with no knowledge of the subject. Most of this can be attributed to good marketing, some voices within the hierarchy of the whisky industry and enough people who fit in to the ‘whisky snob’ category.

Historically, single malts are a modern invention with Glenfiddich pioneering the genre in the late 1960s. Many distilleries followed them and many more have only released their first single malts in the last 10-15 years, as the popularity of the genre has risen. Before that, single malts were very rare and almost all whisky was blended. All of the biggest names in the industry that we know today were founded on the back of the success of blended whisky. Sales of blended whisky still dwarf that of single malt by a ratio of 9:1.

Single malts play on their heritage and history, and are the essence of one singular place and time. They undergo more ageing that most other spirits. Some of the finest whiskies that we have tried to date are single malts but we have also sampled some average and disappointing ones. On the flip side, we have equally tried some excellent blended whiskies and some awful ones. As a consumer, you make up your own mind – if something tastes good to you and you enjoy it, then it’s a good whisky. It doesn’t matter if it is a single malt or a blend, as long as the individual enjoys drinking it.

The important thing with not just our two ‘myths’, but all the others mentioned in this month’s Round Table is – try them out for yourself, make up your own mind and most importantly of all, enjoy your whisky the way that you want to enjoy it.