If you've never really explored it before, drinking whisky can be intimidating. Deciding what whisky to try first is a big decision. And once you decide, should you put in on ice? Drink it straight up? Try it with water? And how are you supposed to taste all these crazy flavours people keep saying you'll pick up when you sip on it?
Depending on who you talk to, you'll get a lot of different answers. Recently I chatted with Macallan's Manager of Brand Education, Charlie Whitfield on the "right" way to get started:
What to Drink
"It depends on how much money is in your wallet or purse as well as to which whisky you go for to try your first one," says Whitfield. "I've met some people who said the first whisky, scotch whisky, they ever tried was the Macallan 25 year old and at first I was impressed but then I was like 'Oh wow, you've kind of set yourself quite a high bar for all the future whisky you're drinking."
A fact that's probably true for most things: if you start with the expensive stuff, you might like it, but you're also setting yourself up for disappointment later on when someone gives you something a little less high end.
"Blended scotch is our more approachable in terms of price points," says Whitfield. "Single malt tends to be a little bit more, but obviously that shows you a single distillery character," he says.
Look at the Colour
"A lot of people will take the glass and just start drinking right away," says Whitfield. "I would always recommend that people first of all look at the colour of the whisky."
While many people will tell you the older the whisky, the darker it will be, Whitfield that's actually not always the case.
"That's actually not true. It depends on the type of oak that the cask has been made from," says Whitfield. "So if you see a slightly lighter colour in Macallan you would probably expect that whisky to have come from an American oak cask. American oak is less porous has less tannin which means there's less penetration of the whisky into the oak during maturation, therefore, less extraction of colour."
In terms of Macallan, the darker colour is indicative of a different cask.
"European oak on the other hand, which is dominant in our classic sherry oak style of Macallan which is our 12-year-old, 18-year-old, 25-year-old, European oak is much more porous and has more tannin in the oak. It allows more penetration of the whisky into the oak during maturation, therefore more extraction of colour, which is why if you notice the darker mahogany colour."
The first time you look at the colour of a whisky it's probably going to be pretty meaningless. Over time, after you look at a number of whiskeys, you'll start to be able to notice the differences.
The next big step is nosing, which is just a fancy way of saying "smell the whisky.'
'I'd always recommend not to put your nose straight down into the bottom of the glass like you might with a wine obviously because of the alcohol strength. When you do that you might sort of burn off all your nasal hairs, you probably won't be able to smell things for the rest of the day because you'll just feel that alcohol burn straight up your nose," Whitfield says.
To start, he recommends slowly bringing a glass to your nose and giving it a sniff, and then take it away and give your nose a rest. Then, gradually bringing it back to your nose, trying to pick up new aromas. He also recommends keeping your mouth open while you're sipping through your nose.
"It sounds crazy but it actually helps the circulation and makes it a little bit easier to pick out some of the aromas that perhaps the box or the bottle is suggesting they should be picking up, whether it's dried fruits or vanilla or honey or coconuts or whatever it is," he says.
If you still can't get any of the aromas you're supposed to, Whitfield recommends trying the hand trick I wrote about a few weeks ago, where you rub the whisky on your hand to a point you rub off all the alcohol.
How to Drink It
Whitfield says while there's definitely a lot of snobbery in the whisky industry about the "right" way to drink whisky, the perfect way to do it is to some extent how you enjoy it.
"A lot of people ask me how you should taste your whisky. Is it ok to drink it neat? Do you drink it with a bit of water? I'd always recommend to start with trying it in its purest form — neat, straight up," he says.
While you should start neat, that doesn't mean you need to stay that way.
"You'll notice these small little jugs on the bars in Scotland and they're actually jugs of water. Sounds crazy but all you need to do - if you add a couple of drops of water into your whisky, what it does is it unlocks flavour molecules in the whisky and makes it easier to understand and pick out and appreciate the flavours and aromas," he says.
He says adding water to your whisky makes it easier to get the flavours and aromas of the whisky. Ice, on the other hand, will numb some of the flavours of the whisky, which will make it harder to pick up some of those nuanced flavours, but also will make the whiskey more refreshing.
"If you're new to drinking scotch whisky, perhaps a cube of ice — ideally a large cube, or even better, a perfect sphere of ice is best because it's less surface area, it's going to chill the whisky without diluting it, so that's definitely a fine way," Whitfield says.
As far as how to actually drinking it, Whitfield recommends putting a little bit in your mouth, and then chewing.
"I know it sounds crazy, if you almost like chew it around your mouth. The reason being is your tongue has different receptors for sweet, citrus and sour at the front and the back and the sides of your tongue and if you give it a good chew for five or ten seconds, that allows your tongue to truly appreciate all the different flavours of the whisky," he says.
"There's another way that people will actually breathe in whilst they're drinking and then keep it on their tongue for a little bit and then they exhale out after they have swallowed the whisky as well, which I think is to reduce some of the burn of the whisky and that's a good tip for those people who are new to drinking scotch whisky as well."