There are few drinks in life enjoyed as simply and purely as a glass of Scotch - and equally as few that have as much history and as many opinions contained in a single glass.
But is there a proper way to drink your whisky?
The perfect pour: "preferably more than a gnat could consume and less than an elephant would. "
With so many claims of right and wrong surrounding the beloved drink, we went straight to the Scottish experts to make sure we’re drinking whisky as perfectly as possible.
And the one thing we learned straightaway is that throwing out your rule book is a perfect place to begin.
No perfect pour
For starters, there isn’t even a standard pour. Most experts recommend between one and two ounces should be served to you or a guest, but there are no hard and fast rules.
“A dram of whisky - the measurement we use to describe a pour - is an amount of whisky that the person pouring is happy to share from their bottle, and the person receiving is grateful to be given,” Nicholas Pollacchi, the founder of Whisky Dog and the whisky category director for Anchor Distilling Company says.
David Cox, the rare malts director for The Edrington Group - which includes The Macallan and Highland Park - concurs. His estimation is that you should pour, “preferably more than a gnat could consume and less than an elephant would,” but he does note that whatever you pour there should be head space in the glass for the whisky to breathe.
Don’t compromise on the glassware
There’s a common misconception that whisky should go in a rocks glass - or worse, in a shot glass. But the most commonly agreed upon vessel is the nosing glass. The tulip shaped glass help to concentrate the aromas in one point.
“Alcohol rises from the glass at different times,” Pollacchi explains. “They have weight to them, so the lighter, floral and sweeter notes will rise first, followed by heavier, darker and richer aromas. By using a glass that pulls these aromas to one point, you can fully appreciate the complexities within each dram.”
But Carl Reavey, from Bruichladdich Scotch whisky, maintains that for social drinking, you can use a wine glass or brandy balloon because “it is essential to have the ability to swirl the spirit in the glass and for the glass to have a bowl capable of retaining the aroma.”
Neat and water are okay, but no rocks
Once you have your whisky in hand - with the right glassware - there is agreement that whisky should probably be enjoyed without the rocks, since it dulls flavors.
Most recommend starting with it neat (without any additions) and then slowly adding water. The Balvenie distillery's David Laird explains that this “is essential for detecting aromas as well as flavor on the pallet. This will allow you to open up the whisky and enjoy all of the flavor and aromas.”
Cox concurs, noting that “spring water at room temperature is the best accompaniment to allow the character to shine through, reducing some of the stronger alcoholic volatiles on the nose.”
But unlike glassware, this is an area that all the whisky-lovers admit needs to be a personal choice. Pollacchi insists that despite expert preferences it’s important to not be precious about how to drink whisky. It should instead be about, “allowing every person to find a path that allows them to find the most enjoyment from every whisky they try.”
But whether you’re defying the experts by adding ice or slowly adding water, it’s important that when it comes to drinking you take your time and whatever choice of Scotch you’ve made.
Sipping in steps
If you want to truly appreciate a great whisky - the process can involve many steps.
For example, when Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan tastes, he starts by looking at the color, swirling and then looking at the legs on the glass. He looks at the color again, swirls, and then noses again followed by a first taste, usually by dipping a finger in. Then after another taste he adds some water carefully down the side of the glass, swirls and tastes again.
“You are looking for flavor and aromas, not alcohol. Introducing your nose to the whisky gradually will allow you to judge the perfect distance from the glass you prefer, so that you savor the most aromas without the alcohol desensitizing your senses,” Laird explains.
No matter the routine, all the experts stress that the key is in taking your time and enjoying when you have a great whisky in your hand without a feeling that there is a specific routine that must be followed.
“I have sometimes sat with a glass and just enjoyed intermittently nosing it for 5 to 10 minutes, savoring the complexities before rewarding myself with an eventual sip,” Pollacchi says.
Cox concurs noting that tasting your whisky is inexact, and should take long “enough for the aromas and flavors to envelope you.”
And if you’re sharing whisky with friends, don’t forget to toast.
The Scottish phrase Slàinte Mhath - Gaelic for ‘good health’ - is traditional, but just ensuring that the moment is savored is essential.
If you’re drinking a great whisky whose tradition has been honed over decades and aged to perfection the key element is to take your time and enjoy. And, as Cox points out, to stay upright.