What you need to know about drinking Scotch Whisky, according to an expert
By Sam Wylie-Harris
Bestowed with the revered title of Master of the Quaich by Keepers of the Quaich (the global Scotch whisky society) for his "exceptional contribution" to whisky, Ian Wisnieski is back with his latest book, The Whisky Dictionary.
It's a comprehensive A-Z of whisky, from history and heritage to distilling and drinking. "I'm very inquisitive," Wisniewski writes. "As a whisky writer, I'm continually asking: 'Why do you do it like that?'"
We caught up with Wisnieski to ask a few 'whisky whys' ourselves...
What's your first memory of drinking whisky?
"It's a very special memory, as this began my love of whisky. I had a tasting of The Balvenie after touring the distillery, which was my first time in a malt whisky distillery. The Balvenie was so elegant, with honey and vanilla notes, that I immediately asked, 'Where do those flavours come from?' And this led to my fascination with the production process."
Out of all the dark spirits, what do you think makes whisky so special? Compared to rum say or Cognac?
"Whisky has been the most innovative category, particularly Scottish malts, over the past 20 years. Scotch whisky has an extraordinary range of flavours, with the extra option of peated styles that offer smoky, earthy, peaty, barbecue notes, which rum and Cognac don't have."
What sets Scotch apart from Irish, American bourbon or Japanese whisky?
"Scotch whisky has a particular mystique, though whisky from each country has its own specific appeal and status. Production regulations vary in each country which means different opportunities for each style of whisky, and it's fascinating to see how distillers innovate within the rules. Scotland's dramatic, romantic landscapes also provide a very special home for Scotch whisky."
When tasting Scotch whisky, what should we look for?
"Enjoyment and a great experience. Analysing the palate to identify flavours and trying to work out how they were created can be very rewarding, but so is sitting back and just letting the whisky take you to a special place."
What's the difference between a blended whisky and single malt, and which should we try first?
"A single malt is the product of one single distillery, which it is usually named after. Blended Scotch combines malt whisky (distilled from malted barley) and grain whisky (distilled from corn or wheat) from various distilleries.
"Blends are typically mellower, and malts more intense, so they offer different experiences. Where you begin depends on your preferences, but as blends and malts complement each other, it's worth exploring both."
How do you take your whisky? Neat, on the rocks or with a mixer?
"I usually drink whisky neat as I want to know the flavour of the whisky, but everyone should drink however they prefer. One reason I don't add water is that I prefer the intensity of undiluted whisky, which also showcases the mouthfeel.
"This is an important part of a whisky's character, as the mouthfeel varies from soft and delicate to silky, velvety, creamy and juicy. However, I also like to experiment and see how adding water or ice changes a whisky's character."
Are cocktails a good way to experiment? And which would you recommend?
"Definitely, cocktails create a natural sense of occasion, as does opening a bottle of whisky, so this is a great combination. Cocktails are a stylish way to enjoy whisky in another format, and I love the freshness of a mint julep and the richness of a Manhattan."
What is a Master of the Quaich and what does it mean to you?
"It means an enormous amount because this is awarded by a special committee, based on what you've done in the Scotch whisky world over a 10 year period, so it's a fantastic endorsement from Scotch whisky peers. Receiving my medallion at a banquet in Scotland was a highlight of my career."
If money was no option, which whisky would you drink?
"I would like to try everything, ideally on location at the distillery of origin, and in the company of the master distiller who produced it."