Malt Does More Than Milton Can

Topic: Hugh Hancock asks What’s So Good About Whisky, Then?

“I like the little things. The way a glass feels in your hand, a good glass – thick, with a heavy base. I love the sound an ice cube makes when you drop it from just the right height. Too high, and it will chip when you drop it. Chip the ice and it will melt too fast in the Scotch…” – Leo McGarry, The West Wing, “Bartlet For America

This is by way of being a preface to a few other essays that I intend to write, in response to several people’s requests about whisky. If I’m going to spend time talking about whisky, I should probably set out my own stall first, as it were. And yeah, I should imagine a few of my friends are looking at that talk of ice in whisky with some horror. I’ll come back to that later.

Whisky ticks a number of boxes for me. Firstly, and most importantly, I love the taste. I love big flavours – red wines, onions, garlic, dark chocolate, butter, cream, coffee, red meat, cigars. (Yes, I am going to die of heart failure. I have made my peace with this.) Whisky, even a comparatively light, floral variety (and they do exist) is a big, big, flavour.

Secondly, there’s probably very little point in pretending it doesn’t also tick my “geek” box. Specialist knowledge? A certain amount of collector mentality? Sign me up!

And lastly, it’s an intoxicant. Let’s be honest here: I like to get drunk on occasion (for occasion read: “at any reasonable excuse, like, say, weekends”). So do any number of people. I especially like to do this in good company. Whisky is practically self-selecting for similar people.

Like McGarry, above, there is a ritual element to it that appeals to me. I like to have the right glass, somthing that varies with my mood – sometimes it’s a good cut glass tumbler, sometimes, like tonight, it’s a proper nosing glass – the common thread, as Leo says, is a good heavy base, a bit of reassuring weight in the hand. I like the pop as the cork leave the bottle, the gentle sloshing sound of the pour, holding the drink to the light to admire the colour, that first sniff of the marvellous smell, and then that first magic sip, rolling the liquid around my mouth…

Which brings me back to taste. And, while I’m here, smell. Let us, for the sake of an example, talk about what I am drinking right now, which is the last of my bottle of Compass Box’s superb blend Spice Tree.

Held up to the light, it’s quick a clear yellow-amber colour, and on first sniff, there’s a sweetness to it, a light sweetness, more like a honey than say, toffee. Going back again there’s strong element of spice to the sweetness, festive spices like clove and cinnamon. Sipping it, and rolling it around the mouth, it’s rich and sweet, with hints of fruit to start with, and it finishes long, and very dry, almost to the point of being astringent. There’s no way you could drink this and not notice that you were drinking something of character. You might not like it, and that’d be fine, because then I could have yours, but there’s no way you could fail to notice the shift in mouthfeel, and the changing range of tastes that come together like liquid magic.

I could write that amount about any of the whiskies in my collection. (By the standards of some people I know, I don’t keep a huge collection – after finishing this Spice Tree, I only have five different bottles on the go at the moment.) And were I to do so, you’d be able to understand the differences between them. Even just in text form, there’d be no mistaking one for another. Now part of that’s the specialist knowledge I was talking about earlier, but part of it just is the sheer variety that’s available. I love the fact that there’s such a range, that every new whisky I try will be different from the others.

My friend Andrew, in his very fine book, Eat Britain, makes the point about whisky that it feels like an elite club, that it requires special training to understand and appreciate. I don’t think it does, but I can understand why it feels that way. I’ve met a few people who get terribly snobby about “wasting good whisky on people who won’t appreciate it”. The technical term for these people is “arseholes”. On a similar subject, I said I’d come back to McGarry’s remark about ice. Firstly, it should be borne in mind that McGarry was talking about Johnnie Walker, a whisky that is more popular in America than anywhere else, a drink that is made with the American palette in mind. And one of the things that’s expected is that it will be drunk over ice, because that’s the normal way to drink whisky in the States. So it’s quite likely that the ice will suit the drink. And secondly: the only correct way to drink whisky is the way that tastes best to you. If you prefer it with ice, have it with ice. If you actually prefer the taste of your 70 year old single malt with coke in it, and have found that a scotch and coke made with a cheap blend just isn’t as good as one with something criminally expensive in it, well, fine by me. As long as you feel you’re getting your money’s worth out of what you’re drinking. Anyone who claims anything else is just wrong.

I don’t feel that I’ve had special training, and I don’t think does take any training beyond maybe sampling a few different whiskies, just to find out what you like. A basic understanding of the differences takes less time than you’d think – in any reasonably well stocked pub, I could sit you down with four or five whiskies, and take you on a quick tour of malts that, even if you’d never tasted a whisky before in your life, would all taste distinct and different. They’d unquestionably have something in common – that huge, rich, explosive taste, but I promise you, you’d be able to tell the difference. And you could probably find a preference, and a place to start exploring for yourself from. That’s what I did, after all. You don’t need to try everything to find something you like, and there’s no shame in finding something you like and sticking with it. Whisky may seem elitist, but actually, it’s open to anyone who is willing to buy a bottle or two, and share it with friends. If you’re enjoying what you’re drinking, it can’t possibly be a waste.

And it really is such an enjoyable drink.

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