A Passionate Affair with Whisky

07-11-2016 By Emily Stockden

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has stood at a Whisky Live Festival jealously eyeballing well-dressed sophisticates knowledgeably nosing their whisky before taking an educated sip. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. I can remember the day I first tasted a whisky properly. Like so many ‘just curious’ newcomers to whisky, I was at Whisky Live Festival and here is what I learnt.

Firstly, a connoisseur will always make sure his whisky is in the proper glass – a copita – and he will swirl it around almost absent-mindedly, fingers elegantly clasping the stem so as not to impact the temperature of the golden liquid as it coats the glass.

Then he will hold it up to the light to take in the colours: “Amber, a hint of rosewood and look at the legs!” he’ll exclaim. While I’m still trying to locate the impressive pair of legs among the fashionistas, he’s moved swiftly onto a key aspect of whisky appreciation: the nose.

Men nosing whisky

When drinking whisky, the experts tell us, enjoy it as you please: with ice or without, with a mixer or with water. When appreciating whisky, recommendations abound. Nosing is very important. The first time I attempted to nose whisky I stuck my nose deep into the glass and took a long, hard whiff. It felt like I’d swallowed a spoonful of Hot English Mustard. Spluttering and coughing ensued. I didn’t know to be a little less enthusiastic and sniff gingerly just above the lip of the glass so as not to inhale the alcohol fumes, but rather the scent of the whisky.

The real trick is to add a dash of water to release the flavours and dilute the alcohol by volume. Open your mouth and breathe through both your nose and your mouth to involve your taste buds. None other than South Africa’s Mr Whisky and Master of the Quaich, Pierre Meintjes, taught me this and suddenly a dram of Bunnahabhain 12-year old offered a stream of incredible fragrances that were previously unidentifiable to me.

Kilted gentleman at bar enjoying whisky

On nosing properly, I was able to identify 3 distinct scents: orange marmalade on buttery toast, my grandmother’s Christmas cake and leather boot polish. I kept quiet about the boot polish and felt rather cheated when someone in the group piped up, “distinctly leathery” and was rewarded with knowing nods from the other discerning drinkers. You see, it’s perfectly possible for whisky to smell like something you wouldn’t fancy eating (fresh cut grass or tropical vegetation, for example) because there will be other more traditionally appealing layers of scent to it too like vanilla pods or honey nougat.

That night, I grew bolder and approached as many kilted gentlemen and suited experts as possible, asking each connoisseur to teach me how to get the most from the whisky they were pouring. They answered with a myriad of instructions and questions: hold the whisky in your mouth long enough to coat it properly. Look for the mouthfeel – is it chewy? Drying? Oily? Mouthwatering? Where does the flavour really hit you – the centre of your tongue? Or the back of your palate? And what flavours can you identify – is it bold or spicy? Smoky and heavy or fresh and fruity?

And so began a lifelong love affair with whisky; a bold, multi-faceted, complex liquid attracting passionate people who love to tell stories and share their delight in each dram.