There comes a time in every man's life when he decides he ought to stop abusing alcohol and start to appreciate it properly, and no drink lends itself to this yearning for sophistication like whisky.
Unfortunately, most of us skip the learning how to appreciate it part and kid ourselves that asking for a single malt and sipping on it Humphrey Bogart-style is all it takes.
In fact, by observing some simple rules and applying a little considered reflection, any one can begin to understand the complexity of whisky without turining into a bar stool bore.
But don't take it from us. Take it from John MacDonald, manager of the Balblair distillery which has been making whisky since 1790. Here are his beginner tips to understanding Scotland's nectar.
1 | When you take the first sip of a whisky, ask yourself, is it sweet, is it sharp? Does it coat your mouth, is it creamy? Once it gets to the back – is it hot, sweet, or spicy? And then comes the finish – does the taste linger in your mouth?
2 | Avoid drinking coffee or eating spicy food before you have a whisky – you want to keep your palette fresh to become good at tasting.
3 | You'll find the flavours in a whisky with practice. People might say they can’t smell anything – it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they can’t translate what they’re smelling into words. The more you do it the more you’ll detect things like citrus and vanillas.
4 | Other big notes in whisky are fresh fruits, like apples, pears and pineapple – things that are around you all the time anyway. You can try and embed those smells in your memory by really focusing when you’re eating them – bury the aroma in your head as a reference point to re-call.
5 | Don’t worry too much about colour. People put a lot of store by it, but other than what cask it was matured in, it doesn’t mean much. It's certainly not an indicator of quality.
6 | You can tell if a whisky is young because it'll be sharp on the nose – the alcohol is very prominent. As you go through maturation, the prickle from the booze subsides a bit.
7 | Scotch whisky is made from purely malted barley, water and yeast. It's matured in an oak cask for at least three years, in a Scottish warehouse. Bourbons can be made with other grains like rye or corn, and are matured in a fresh wood casks, which gives a more hard-hitting, bitter flavour.
8 | Before going on to the very expensive stuff, I would give a beginner a malt whisky, about 10 to 12 years old. And avoid smokey flavours until you're more used to the drink – they can be pretty divisive and put people off.
9 | Something like a 1989 vintage should be nosed for a long time. Smell it, smell it again, and the scent will keep on developing – that’s the sign of a great whisky.
10 | Pairing food and whisky is becoming more popular, but it takes a great chef and a good palette to do it properly. You can pair it with chocolate or cheese for example, but I wouldn’t recommend a beginner trying to do it themselves.
11 | You'll only get better at whisky if you try different varieties. There’s a make and vintage for everyone – just because you don’t like one doesn’t mean you don’t like them all.
12 | I wouldn't mix up a Balblair whisky in a cocktail. I'd recommend drinking it on its own as the sole flavour – you don’t want to dilute it.