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What is the correct way to drink whisky?

As a distillery owner, I’m often asked…… “What’s the correct way to drink whisky?”… “Should I add water?”… “Do you drink your Scotch on the rocks?” … “Is it OK to add cola, soda, lemonade, green tea, etc.?”. The honest (if trite) answer is that people should drink whisky in the way that pleases them most. If someone wants to spend a lot of money on a bottle of Man O’ Words or Man O’ Sword and then add cola, that’s their prerogative and I’m definitely not precious about them doing so, although I never would. Each to their own!

However, as the above response is neither helpful nor satisfactory, I usually end up telling people how I choose to drink my whisky……so here goes:

My great preference is to buy Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky, non-chill filtered and at cask strength.

“Why Single Cask?” Because every cask matures whisky differently and I really enjoy the sensory variety (and sometimes the surprise) that this delivers. Personally, I see very little point in buying regular Single Malts where cask differences are blended-out to deliver uniformity. Surely, uniformity is for Blended Scotch whiskies and not malts! Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the blender’s art, but I believe that any blend benefits from the addition of grain whisky to open out and balance the flavour. Yes – I do enjoy Blended Scotch Whisky, but only those that are blended to create a well-integrated and balanced flavour with real depth, rather than one that’s blended for cheapness.

“Why cask strength?” Simply because I like to add my own water to taste! I never drink my whisky at cask strength because the alcohol makes it too pungent for me to enjoy, so I carefully add water in small amounts, sometimes using a dropper. It’s a matter of trial and error, so I add the water judiciously …sipping and adding until it’s just right for me. Whisky is quite unusual as adding water (up to a certain point) will often intensify the flavour. This happens because many of the flavour components are preferentially soluble in alcohol rather than water, so adding water brings them out of solution and into the headspace above the whisky (known as partitioning) where they can have much greater impact on the sense of smell. In my opinion, there’s a ‘sweet spot’ where the flavour peaks just before the point when any more water would make it taste thin and watery. My best guess is that I usually end-up somewhere around 35% ABV.

“Why non-chill filtered?” I fully appreciate that unless chill filtered, whiskies at 43% or 40% ABV would become slightly turbid, especially when chilled with ice, and this could be off-putting, especially when the whisky is displayed on-shelf (see my technical note on chill filtering). However, when adding water to taste (as above) and drinking it there and then, I don’t think it matters if my whisky is turbid. In fact, once I see my whisky going streaky, I know that I’m getting close to that ‘sweet spot’.

I don’t like to drink my whisky at room temperature, especially in a hot climate. It has to feel slightly cool on my tongue but never cold. This usually means that before adding water to my whisky, I chill the water by pouring it into a small jug, adding a small amount of ice to cool it. Tap water is usually OK in Scotland but elsewhere, I generally use low mineral content bottled water. I occasionally add ice directly into my whisky but usually very little and only enough to cool it to the desired temperature and, when it’s melted, to dilute it to my desired %ABV. In warmer climes I have on many occasions asked a barman to cut a cube of ice in half or even into quarters, so as to obtain the correct level of cooling and dilution. Some barmen ‘get it’, others just stare at me askance! Adding too much ice simply chills the whisky to the point where it anaesthetises the palate and eventually over-dilutes it. Pouring good quality whisky over one of these huge round ice balls that almost fills the entire tumbler is just bonkers in my opinion…but each to their own! Whisky stones (usually granite) provide a great way of cooling whisky without over-diluting it. And yes…I do have a digital thermometer! Why not? Good quality Single Cask, Single Malt Scotch Whisky is expensive so why not take the time and trouble to get it just right for you! It also adds a little theatre. Don’t worry if all of this sounds like too much of a palaver or a bit of a faff! With practice it becomes second nature.

And now, my final confession. My favourite way to drink whisky is drawn straight from the cask in one of Annandale Distillery’s bonded warehouses. The whisky is always cool, as is the water. I dilute it to taste, sample the whisky and take notes. This is part of our routine quality control process for monitoring maturation, and also the method we use to select casks for our Founders’ Selection bottlings. Yes – I really do taste every single one and Teresa (co-owner and my wife) always sniffs the final selection (she’s tea total). No – I don’t spit it out, although I only take a small sip and allow it to warm-up in my mouth before swallowing! Yes – I do have someone to drive me home afterwards…usually Teresa!

Sip, savour and enjoy!

Slainte Mhath

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