Understanding the intricacies of whisky is about as difficult as understanding the intricacies of women. Yet we like both, so we pretend to understand even when it means it usually makes us look like a fool.
To give you the knowledge you need to be less fool and more savant, we met up with Whisky Ambassador Dan Volway. With over 20 years experience as a trained Sommelier, and the Canadian Brand Ambassador for The Macallan, Highland Park, Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, Dan is the guy to answer your whisky questions.
BRIEFED: What is Scotch? What makes it different from other whiskies?
DAN: Great Whisky is created in many countries including Ireland, Canada, Japan and The United States. But to be called Scotch, the whisky must be produced in Scotland and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years (in Scotland).
What is the difference between a single-?malt and blended Scotch whisky?
A Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley (100%) and is produced entirely by one Distillery (i.e. The Macallan or Highland Park). For the production of Blended Scotch Whisky (i.e. The Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark), these can contain grains other than malted barley (malted barley usually makes up 30-?40% of the back bone of Scotch Blends). Blended Scotch Whiskies usually contain Whisky from two or more distilleries.
How do you go about preparing, serving, mixing or otherwise enjoying Scotch whisky?
It’s all about preference when enjoying Scotch whisky. There is no “wrong way”. You can enjoy Scotch neat or straight up, on the rocks or as the base from a Whisky cocktail such as a Whisky Sour or Blood & Sand.
Here are some cocktail recipes that use Scotch Whisky:
Amber Apricot Sour
1 oz Macallan Amber
1?2 oz simple syrup
1?2 oz fresh lemon juice
3?4 oz Bols Apricot Brandy Stir and serve
Blood & Sand
3?4 oz Highland Park 10 Year Old
3?4 oz rosso vermouth
1?4 oz cherry brandy
Top up with orange juice
Is it wrong to include ice, water, or mix in my Whisky?
Again, there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to enjoy Scotch. Some people prefer to add a drop or two of water, which will open the whisky up. What I mean by that is the water will bring different nuances to the forefront. Ice tends to numb or close down the flavours of Whisky, and will also dilute the Whisky as it melts.
The decision to add water or ice might depend on the time of day, the season or the ambient temperature of the room. Some people prefer to add a splash of water to their Scotch when sipping in the afternoon or late at night. If you are not familiar with the Whisky you are drinking, I suggest tasting it first before adding water. If you are in a warm climate or enjoying the heat of a summer night, ice might make your whisky more refreshing.
Generally, I like to drink my Whisky at 18 degrees C (Scottish Room Temp), the same temperature that a full-?bodied red wine shows best at.
Do you taste Scotch like you taste wine?
Unlike wine, I encourage people not to swirl their glass when nosing Scotch. Most table wine is around 13% ABV, Scotch is bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and often much higher ABV. When you swirl your glass you release the alcohol and you may overwhelm your olfactory senses.
The best approach to nosing Whisky is to part your lips and gently draw some air into your mouth and nose. By doing so you will capture a greater depth of flavour while nosing your Whisky. When you are ready to take a sip, try to take a small sip at first and let the Whisky linger on your palate. This is also referred to a “chew the first drop”. Your tongue tastes different flavour components. Usually, sweetness is first at the tip of the tongue and acidity at the sides. You may feel the warmth of the alcohol as you swallow the Whisky. All of these components should be balanced in a good quality Whisky. A great quality Whisky will have a very long, lingering finish.
Which Scotch whiskies do you recommend starting with?
Starting out with a lighter Whisky can be easier on an immature palate. For example The Macallan Gold, or even a lighter Blend, such as Cutty Sark, is a great starting point to the Scotch category.
Choosing an unpeated Whisky, for example Single Malts from Speyside, such as The Macallan, is usually a good starter option, as the smokey flavours found in peated Scotch Whiskies, can be an acquired taste. That being said, if you are ready to try a peated Scotch, but not quiet ready for the full-?on-?smoke of an Islay Whisky, such as Bowmore or Laphroaig, then the smoky, sweet flavor of Highland Park is a great place to start.
What do you look for in a good Scotch?
The four things to look for in a Scotch are color, nose, palate, and finish. When looking at the colour you need to hold your glass up to natural light in order to get a true sense of the colour of the spirit. One thing to be aware of is that many Whisky producers add liquid caramel to make the Whisky look darker. Brands such as, The Macallan and Highland Park use 100% natural colour, which is achieved by aging the spirit in high quality oak casks, resulting in a purer Whisky. A trick to tell whether a Scotch has added caramel colouring is if you notice it losing its rich colour overtime.
The nose, palate and finish of a Scotch, comes down to preference. For example some prefer a nose that is aromatic, fruity, sweet, or peaty; or a palate that is dry, smooth, smoky or spicy; and a finish that lingers, is full, clean or light.
Experimenting with different Scotch Whiskies will allow you to get a better sense of what a great Scotch is for your unique palate, and more then likely this will mean you will enjoy different styles and brands. Brands I gravitate to include, The Macallan, Highland Park, Bowmore and Auchentoshan.
Does the age of a whisky mean it’s a better quality liquid?
Ultimately, it is not age itself that matters but cask quality and the flavour development, which are the key drivers in creating an exceptional whisky.
Older ages tell you that a whisky has been matured for a longer period of time. In the hands of a top quality distiller, such as The Macallan, this is an implicit guarantee that only those casks, which have continued to develop mature character as they have got older, have been used. However, not all whiskies in casks benefit from being left to age longer; some mature earlier, much like some people do. It is better to use casks at their optimum, rather than waiting for what could be a less satisfactory old age.
We heard that whiskies are only for old men in smoking jackets. Is this true, or can younger people (regardless of gender) get away with sipping a whisky these days?
The days of old men in smoking jackets huddled around a bottle are long gone. This is not to say that older generations do not still enjoy their whiskies, but in recent years there has been a huge demographic shift to a younger consumer. In addition, more women are getting into the whisky game and exploring the nuances, flavour and great quality of the whisky category.
What have been the biggest innovations in the Scotch whisky industry?
The biggest innovation in recent years to the Scotch Whisky category has come from the movement away from age statements.
The Macallan 1824 Series, launched last year, is a range of single malts showcasing the very best of The Macallan, built on the brands greatest strengths; particularly exceptional oak maturation casks and natural colour – two of the brand’s Six Pillars. The Macallan Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno, has created each of the expressions in this Series by identifying the natural colours formed during maturation in different cask types and putting them together to create the character informed by those colours. This approach is both innovative and forward-?looking in the Scotch whisky industry.
If I’m looking to impress a date, what is a good tasting whisky to order my date at the bar?
Personally, I’d go for The Macallan! The Macallan has an uncontested reputation as the producer of the world’s finest crafted whiskies. The 1824 Series has clean and crisp flavours without the peat that can sometimes be offsetting to a new whisky drinker. If your date is a new whisky drinker, start with The Macallan Gold, it is a lighter whisky with hints of citrus, vanilla and light oak. If your date is a whisky drinker, try Amber or Sienna, which have more robust flavours. If you and your date are having a REALLY great time, there is Ruby to end the night with sweet, rich flavours of dark chocolate lingering on your palate.