Essays on Technology and Culture

Notes on a Whisky Tasting

For four years, I lived across the street from a bar that specialized in craft beers and in whiskies. [1] During their first Whiskey Week, and the assistance of Kevin and Brian, the regular bartenders, I developed an appreciation for Bourbon and Scotch that has only continued to develop. After all, whiskey is an intimidating thing to appreciate. Cheap whiskies can be harsh, good whiskies can be expensive. There’s many styles, many price levels, many whiskey cocktails, and a lot to learn. I don’t claim to be an expert on the stuff, but I know what I like, and am eager to try new whiskies.

So, when I was invited to take part on a scotch tasting sponsored by The Glenlivet, I jumped at the chance. Scotch whisky is a complicated drink, and the few I’ve had I’ve enjoyed—preferring the peaty Islay single-malts [2] to blended, or less peaty single malts, but free whiskey is free whisky. The event began with a bar pouring glasses of the 12-Year, which I drank neat. It was great to have after walking in from a cold, winter evening in Manhattan. After three glasses, we were taken in for a proper seated tasting. We were kept in suspense by a twenty or so minute presentation on the history of The Glenlivet, and an overview of Scotch whisky and how to drink it, including stuff about tasting and top notes.

Honestly, I don’t need to be told how to drink whiskey. Or whisky. I’d argue that most of the people in the room knew about the fruity, floral, spicy, and smokey notes common to Scotches, and since Glenlivet’s barley is unsmoked, it was almost a waste of time to discuss it. Besides which, describing the taste of a spirit is an exercise in subjectivity. If you’ve ever read a spirit review where someone talks about “notes of prunes, tannin, and burning rubber in the finish,” and another of the same one mentions a completely different set of flavors, you’d understand. Everyone tastes different things when they drink a whiskey.

In either case, after the talk ended, I got a chance to taste a dram each of the 12-Year, 15-Year, and 18-Year Whiskys, both with, and without water. [3] They were all good whiskys for Speyside whisky. Sadly, I added a little too much water when tasting the 15-Year, and it fell apart—exactly what the guy overseeing the tasting warned us about. Having had three glasses of the 12-Year already, I didn’t get any surprises from that. The 18-Year, however, brought a tear to my eye. Spicy on the front, smooth in the finish, and absolutely incredible. I didn’t get much of a difference when tasting the 18-Year with water, but I was suitably impressed.

With some of my favorite writers and podcasters waxing rhapsodic about Old-Fashioneds, I think it’s important to step back and enjoy the base spirit. Whiskey, in almost all its forms, is a wonderful substance to be savored and enjoyed. If you’re whiskey-curious, The Kitchn has a great, simple guide that’ll help you develop your palate for the stuff. Try as many styles as you can find and afford. There’s bound to be something up your alley.

  1. A note on spelling. From my understanding, “whiskey” is the proper spelling when referring to American, Irish, Canadian, and other whiskies, while Scotch is spelled whisky. Therefore, I’ll be writing “whiskey” when referring to non-Scotch “whisky”.  ↩

  2. My favorite Scotch is Laphroaig, and I have a bottle of the 18-year.  ↩

  3. It’s perfectly acceptable to drink whiskey with a little splash of water, as it binds to the oils and changes the flavor. I prefer mine neat, but drinking some of the whiskys with a little water definitely made for an interesting experience.  ↩