It was about as pleasant as being kicked in the throat by a mule. As he took that deep two-shot swig of the 16-year-old Lagavulin, you could almost see the hairs growing on his chest. It was a stupid idea to start with a dram like that. But how could he have known, when all the guys from work were drinking it like the Patriots down Gatorade at the Super Bowl. It was his first sip of single malt Scotch. It was also likely his last.
Most men want to appear intelligent when partaking in a dram of whisky with friends. They want to have some valuable information they can share during the discussion. For the novice whisky drinker, that can be the biggest downfall. If you’re just starting to get interested in whisky, forget all about the textbook differences between the various styles because you aren’t going to be able to identify them yet, short of reading the back of the bottle.
To begin to learn about Scotch, you need to start by drinking it.
Just because you read a book about learning karate doesn’t mean you’re ready to spar. It’s one thing to know the technical information but a whole other thing to experience it. With whisky, the best way to get started is to learn how to drink it. Then actually drink it and follow that, begin to learn about how it’s made, why it’s called a single malt and why a water source is so coveted by the distilleries.
In the end, if you’re in a room with guys who enjoy whisky and you begin talking details, it’s going to come out pretty quick that you’re trying to fight without knowing how to punch.
By now, if you haven’t already Googled it, you’re probably wondering what in the world a “dram” is. Traditionally, a dram is a term used to describe 1/8 of a fluid ounce. Today, it’s no more than a colloquialism amongst whisky drinkers and just means ‘give me a glass of Scotch.’
We know your friends picked the Lagavulin. Some likely because they appreciate it, and others because they succumbed to the baffling theory that drinking a stiff whisky is a sign of masculinity. It’s not.
For the average neophyte, a sip of Lagavulin is going to taste like you drank it from the tail end of a dead skunk. It will coat your palate like the burn of boiling coffee and render all other impressions mute. Unless you enjoy the pungent taste of an animal left with tire tracks etched into its brain, you will likely take a single deep sniff of the dram, perhaps a taste, and immediately write it off as the worst tasting and most medicinal bucket of swill you’ve ever tried. How the hell do guys drink this stuff?!!?
There are some men who do enjoy these stronger whiskeys the first time out. But, for most of them, they followed the advice I’m about to impart to you.
First, don’t be afraid to start slow
It doesn’t matter if you choose a gentle whisky like Auchentoshan or a peat monster like, well, the Peat Monster. It’s that experience we discussed earlier that will determine whether you will learn to appreciate and love whisky, or whether you’ll skip the bar next time in favor of a root canal. Start slow. Learn to crawl before you walk.
Second, select your glass
Believe it or not, the rumors are true. The glass you enjoy whisky in can have a huge impact on the experience. Leave the tumblers for the guys who still think there is such a thing as double malt Scotch. Ask for a Copita nosing glass, a Glencairn or the trending Norlan whisky glass which provides the benefits of the Copita and Glencairn with the social grace of the tumbler by preventing the drinker from having to tilt their head back and break eye contact with your fellow man.
The design, quality of materials and shape of the glass are engineered with whisky in mind. For professional tastings, most of us opt for the Copita nosing glass. It allows the whisky to perfectly swirl around the walls, and the opening of the glass helps to increase the surface-to-air ratio, which encourages the ethanol content in the spirit to evaporate. As the rate of oxidation increases, the aromas and flavors of the dram start to express themselves like a symphony.
The strong medicinal taste many complain of transforms into aromas of dark woods, sun-soaked leather and a breath of baked apples. The aromas of the whisky show their personalities and change like a stormy sea. Thanks to the rise and flare of the walls, the aromatics drift to the nose without striking it head on as you get from an old fashioned glass. This, in conjunction with the height and diameter of the aperture, helps to deflect the ethanol away from the nostrils, which is as critical in preventing whisky burn as moving through the stages of a tasting gracefully and methodically.
The result is an experience where you can now taste the whisky without the discomfort. As you take a first sip that sprawling sea hits you with one wave of flavor after another that lingers on and slowly trails off as the storm is swallowed into the night.
This is precisely what we look for when reviewing whisky. A range of captivating aromas and flavors that show the character of the whisky and illustrate why Scotland’s whisky is so revered.
Instead of taking the time to savor and drink Scotch properly, the greenhorn orders it in a tumbler. The walls push the ethanol into the nostrils like a freight train in a tunnel. The intensity singes the nose, and since most of what we presume is flavor is actually aroma, we basically light the marshmallow on fire instead of toasting it.
It’s at this point many will ask for ice. Not because they think whisky should be consumed cold. If that were the case, we’d keep it in the fridge. They put that iceberg in the glass because it drops the temperature of the whisky, which flatlines the impressions and dulls the aromas. What you end up doing is ruining a whisky that has likely spent at least a decade being orchestrated by a master distiller who’s dedicated a lifetime to the dram. In a fleeting moment, you took that Picasso, opened the finger paints and let your inner-toddler run wild. If you do like it this way, you likely have no idea what it’s supposed to taste like. Stop going for the strong stuff your friends are downing. Take a seat in a comfy recliner and pour a gentle- to medium-strength dram into the proper glass.
Tasting Your First Dram
The first actual step in tasting whisky is to examine it with your eyes. Even though at this stage you won’t be able to discern what the clarity, color and legs indicate, it will still give you a basis to go on as you visually examine your next dram and the one after that. Over time you’ll begin noticing the nuances that will open the whisky up like a book so you can begin to appreciate its story. Since it’s likely your first—or should be your first—time trying a dram, take all the time in the world to look at it, but focus on its smell and taste.
Nosing the Dram
Lift the glass to chin level and slowly begin breathing in through your mouth and your nose.
This technique is going to introduce the aroma of the whisky without sucker punching you in the face with a brick. As soon as it feels a little too strong, pull back a bit. You may find it helps to inhale slightly more through the mouth than your nose.
The purpose of what we call “nosing” is to analyze the various aromas present in the whisky. Each dram will be different with some commonalities based on the region, the water source, and a few other factors.
During this process, try to pick out the various aromatics. Do you smell honey, spice, vanilla, cinnamon? Is it moss? Do you notice any fruits? Are they fresh? Baked? Dried?
Once you get comfortable with its scents, slowly guide it as high as the lips
Gently move the glass from one side of your jaw to the other and begin to take more in through your nose and less with your mouth. If it’s a slow climb with the expression opening up like a blooming flower you’re in good shape. If it smelled like flowers, but you just hit a skunk with your truck, back up and try again.
Raise the glass to your nose and steadily inhale the perfume of the whisky
Once the tip of your nose has pierced the rim of the glass, and you are fully engulfed in its aromatics, you’re ready to move from nosing the whisky, to tasting it.
Tasting the Dram
Bring the glass to your lips.
While many gentlemen enjoy a cigar or snack with whisky, I recommend cleansing your palate instead. Eat a plain piece of bread before the journey begins. Sip a glass of water, so the only thing you taste is the Scotch.
Let a drop of the whisky trickle over your lips and into your mouth
At the time of the first taste, many whisky enthusiasts will add a drop of room temperature distilled water, which opens up the dram by bringing the ABV level down. Most critics will argue that Scotch is not intended to be consumed without the rivulets of water into the glass. However, I encourage you to try it untouched and then add a drop of water to appreciate the difference. If the whisky is too intense, take a break and start over once you’ve re-cleansed your palate.
Chew the whisky
This is the process of allowing it to cascade around your mouth. Let it move around, so it coats your mouth and allows your palate to begin differentiating one flavor profile from the next. As you do this, inhale fresh air through your nose and let the experience take flight.
Finishing the Whisky
Swallow the whisky
As you begin to swallow the whisky, try to notice what we call the “finish.” How the profile changes as it leaves your mouth.
Is there a lingering finish that slowly drifts away? Does it change from perhaps a sweet flavor into a spicy burst of pepper?
The real beauty of whisky is that, like wine or cigars, no two are the same—and that just as a child’s taste buds will grow with age and foods that once seemed disgusting are now favored, your whisky palate will become more refined as well.
The biggest tip I can offer is to devour all the information you can after you’ve determined whether Scotch is a spirit you even enjoy. The second tip is to keep a journal of your experiences. There are many templates online to help guide you through a tasting. In the end, all the knowledge in the world about regions, distilleries, age statements and technical jargon isn’t going to make a difference in how your first few drams will taste. That stuff comes later and will soon become a valuable tool in what will almost certainly become a lifelong journey in the pursuit of the perfect dram.
Recommended First Few Drams:
The Dalwhinnie 15-Year or the Auchentoshan Three Wood to start, followed by The Dalmore 12 or The Balvenie Doublewood.
Editor’s note: I have to agree with J.A.—these are fabulous Scotches to start with! – Kyle
Note: some the Amazon links above are affiliate links, meaning if you buy something I get a small commission (at no extra charge to you). But I would recommend these products regardless.