As the Ambassador for what I regard as the world’s most incredible whisky club, I’m constantly blown away by the amount of newcomers to the category of great whisky, and even long-timers, who love learning more and more about the remarkable dark spirit. I’m still learning every day new things, new malts, new distilleries working with the Society, new adventures in other spirits etc.
When hosting tastings and introducing newcomers to Society single casks, I’m invariably asked a range of questions from “do I add ice?” to “how do you become a whisky ambassador?!” (a tale for another time) and everything in-between. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 tips on getting the most out of your whisky adventure, in no particular order:
1. TAKE YOUR TIME
More and more I see some newcomers, some new Society members, really wanting to ‘try them all’ and feel like they have to almost ‘catch up’ to some imaginary benchmark with whisky and dark spirits in general. Almost like if you haven’t tasted Port Ellen yet, you’re not a real whisky connoisseur, or if your friend has 20 x bottles of whisky, you need to have 25. Slow it all right down. You don’t need to have tried a Port Ellen to appreciate whisky, and you don’t need to have the most bottles. Take your time, explore flavours, and take your time with each whisky (which is a topic our Cellarmaster wrote about exhaustively here). I’ve sometimes taken up to two hours on one whisky before just to explore everything going on in the glass. The same approach could be taken with every aspect in your whisky adventure. One of the best ways to truly learn about whisky is to visit a great whisky bar and talk with the staff. You’ll hear some fascinating tales and get to try a whole range of great drams without breaking the bank.
2. DISREGARD THE DIAMONDS
Truth be told, it’s been a fair while since I’ve spotted a bottling that has come out in a diamond-encrusted box with satin lining and coffin hinges that I’ve taken notice of. They still exist however, and my whisky tip here would be to tread with caution. Great whisky often carries a great story of the maturation, the distillery character, the flavour profile, and cask history and more. That great story need not be encapsulated in a box that cost more than the malt cost to make. So next time you see a really exciting whisky bottle in the many thousands of dollars per bottle sitting pretty in a led-light lit wooden box with hushed tones gasping as it leaps out of a diamond-encrusted coffin, do some due diligence. The focus should be what is inside the bottle, not the packaging.
3. KEEP A JOURNAL
I just recently found my first whisky tasting notes journal from 2004 and was a bit disheartened to find I stopped my notes around 2006 until starting again in 2008 or so. Huge gaps which I regret not writing on because I sure remember some amazing drams in 2007! Keeping notes is one of the best ways to track the flavour and experiences you have when sampling rare single casks or fascinating dark spirits. Your palate will change over time, your preferences will change, your palate will change. Over time things change and keeping a record is a great way to recall a dram, an experience, an evening, and great company.
4. DRINK IT HOW YOU LIKE
I honestly believe the best way to first enjoy a Society pour or any dark spirit really is to taste it neat, in a tulip or glencairn or Spiegelau, at the proof it was bottled at and as the distiller intended. Then I might add a drop of water, or let it sit for a while, or try a different glass etc. That said, once you’ve bought a bottle, you can do what you like with it and don’t let anyone discourage you otherwise. If you love your Lagavulin with Coca-Cola, do it. If you think your Highland Park mixes perfectly in your favourite cocktail, then go for it! Your bottle, drink it how you want. I do however just always encourage you to try it neat, at cask strength, first.
5. LET FLAVOUR ULTIMATELY BE YOUR GUIDE
One of the most striking elements of the Society is our attention to flavour and how it leads everything we do. So much so, we still rely on our 12 Flavour Profile approach for each cask and will be doing so even more with our new bottle design making it easier to find your flavour. Somewhat connected to point two above, but in an increasingly crowded marketplace of great distilleries, great bottlers, great casks: put flavour and not hype at the top of your pile. I don’t really care if your cask has sat in a Spanish bodega for the last 500 years before being carried by angels to the distillery before being blessed by the Pope. How does it taste? I’m all for fascinating history and storytelling, especially when something truly unique comes along, but let your nose and palate be the best guide.
National Ambassador, SMWS Australia