On Drinking and Tasting Scotch

I really like scotch. A lot. I have about 8 to 10 bottles right now in my scotch cabinet and – to my wife’s chagrin – I always think there’s room for more. A few things about drinking scotch:

  • Adding water is allowed and encouraged – If a whisky burns on your tongue it means the alcohol content is too high for your palate. Anyone who gives you a hard time for adding water is an idiot. By adding a bit of distilled water you’ll find the point where the burn goes away, the whisky opens up, and you get to experience all of its deliciousness.
  • Put the ice away – As Andrew says, ice in scotch pretty much constitutes heresy. The cold will draw the oils together and stop you from experiencing the flavours evenly. And, as the ice melts, it’ll over-dilute and ruin a perfectly good whisky.
  • Take your time – Smell it, let it sit on your tongue, and give yourself a moment to experience the finish after you’ve had a taste. There can be a great deal of complexity to a whisky so take the time to really savour it.

Now to scotch tastings. I love gathering good folks together and exploring new and different whiskies. It’s fun, social, and you get a wee bit drunk. From my experience:

  • Taste 5 to 6 scotches – This will give you about a three-hour tasting, won’t leave you completely drunk, and keeps the cost reasonable. Order them from lower alcohol content and peatiness to higher alcohol content and/or peatiness. A heavily-peated whisky is almost guaranteed to be the last thing you taste for the night so slot it in at the end.
  • Host 8 to 12 people – A tasting of about 10 people is small enough to be intimate but large enough to defray the cost. More than 12 could prove difficult to keep everyone involved and less than 8 could get pricey (or you could reduce the number of whiskies).
  • Buy cheap glasses – In an ideal world, I’d have a personal set of six $12-apiece Glencairn Glasses that I carry around in a felt-lined, wooden box. The reality is that the $1 two-packs of the tulip-shaped juice glasses from Dollarama are a convenient and cost-effective substitute. There are a few of us who have about 8 each and we bring them for everyone to use.
  • Have unsalted crackers – These are good to have as a palate cleanser between the whiskies. Stay away from salted crackers because they’ll influence how the scotches taste on your palate.
  • Have bottles of distilled water at room temperature – This will also help cleanse the palate between whiskies and won’t affect the flavour of those you choose to dilute.
  • Give people homework on the distilleries and tasting notes – This gets everyone involved and makes them part of the night. Plus it removes the pressure from you looking up everything and doing all the talking.
  • Have paper and pens available – Personally, I like writing notes about the nose, taste, and impressions of each whisky. Others also like to know the age, cost, and where each of the bottles was purchased.
  • Make food for during and after – Dishes without a lot of salt, pepper, or spices are a good idea during the tasting. After your last scotch, it won’t matter what you eat. Personally, I’ve made a spinach and artichoke dip which worked really well – though it was probably important that we paused the tasting to eat it.
  • Draw for the bottles – At the end of the night, draw names from all those in attendance. Each name drawn gets to pick the whisky they want to take home. Hopefully the last person likes the last bottle.

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