An Advanced Course in Drinking

Mindfulness is one of today’s buzzwords. It translates into being aware of and then living in the moment, oh, and being compassionate when you are doing so. That last bit is the most important, by the way. Without wishing to trivialize what strikes me as an ideal model for life, this framework can apply to whisky. Being conscious of what flavors and serves will suit your mood at this moment will go some distance to ensuring you have a happy experience. Extend that to the people around you—guests in a bar, friends in the pub—and picking the right drink puts you and your friends in a better mood. Being in a good mood generates warm feelings, those feelings then manifest themselves in your behavior and you become, if only for that dram, a better person. And here’s you, thinking you were just pouring some booze.

In the Mood: when to drink what

The question is, what to choose? Here’s how I go about it in a bar with 100 bottles behind the stick. The human response to such choice mingles pleasure with blind panic, with the latter having the upper hand. Calm down and order a Highball. It cools (as you’ll be sweating, this is A Good Thing), it refreshes (your mouth will be dry), and calms (the heart rate returns to normal). Importantly, it buys me time to make my next selection. There’s another element; a whisky Highball is a fine drink.

I’ll also drink seasonally. In spring, I want a fresh and lively dram, floral and green-fruited in flavor, one as vibrant as the weather. In summer’s warmth, I want my whisky to soothe and cool, so I look for notes of vanilla and orchard fruits. Fall needs a dram to reflect the year’s turning: berry fruits, more sherry, a hint of wood smoke on the palate. By the time winter comes around I’m heading indoors to whiskies with flavors of mulled wine spices and dried fruits. I want to be murmured to and coddled.

Now think of the day the same as the year. That lunchtime dram needs to be perky and lively—springlike—pre-dinner requires something softer and gently fruited in the same way as you chose a summer whisky. Post-dinner, something a little more substantial can be taken, while the nightcap is richer, slower, contemplative; a winter dram. Whisky is attuned to time and season.

These are not rules. Never be bullied into drinking a whisky or a serve that you don’t want. If you want to add cola, that’s fine by me. If you want to have it neat, do so. We need to call time on the prescriptive era of ‘the right way’ to drink whisky. The diktats of ‘you cannot add water to scotch’ have done immense damage to the category. Whisky is a drink to be enjoyed, so find the flavors you like and the serve you like. It is your drink. That then means finding a place to drink it; and a person who understands these blindingly obvious facts.

Going Out: what makes a great whisky bar…and bartender

This is a trickier question than many people would think. A whisky bar is more than just a place with lots of bottles. It’s more than a dimly-lit lounge with jazz tinkling in the background. A great whisky bar can be a high-class joint, or it can be a pub (you call them dive bars). It can have a stellar range chronicled in leather-bound tome or a room with a few choice bottles. You see, it’s not about numbers. I’ve been to many whisky mausoleums with the same three-quarter empty bottles that they have been trying to sell for a decade.

A great whisky bar has a well-chosen range which has been selected to reflect the potential demands of the customer, not just the preferences of the owner. He might love smoky whiskies, but that doesn’t mean skewing the range to satisfy his taste. The selection, like life, is about balance. It is also about having staff who know what they are selling and who can take the customer on a journey. “You like Glenlivet? Excellent dram. Why don’t you also try Linkwood?”

The whole show is controlled by the bartender, and this is where mindfulness comes into play once more. There is a Japanese bartending concept called ichi-go ichi-e. It means you get the best drink the bartender can make at that particular moment, be it a glass of water, a beer, a cocktail, or a dram. All get the same care and attention. That means the bartender knowing the customer’s mood and pouring them the right drink to fit their feelings, the time of day, the company. It is about making that moment perfect and doing it in a way that enhances the whole experience. It is not, however, about ego. Bartending is customer-driven, it is drink-driven.

A great bartender reads the situation and presents the drink that she thinks works best at that moment. That means assessing and understanding the options open to them at that point in time. It’s not magic. It’s called training.

The Food Question

I don’t like “whisky dinners.” There, I’ve said it. They are contrived, put people on edge by making them either drink too much, or desperate for a glass of wine. Sure, there have been some amazing combinations created, but they’ve been crafted for one whisky. As that’s never an option for a restaurant, the successful pairing exists on a theoretical plan. Easier, surely, to show how various whisky styles are valid options at certain points in a meal.

How to get into that happy place and bring your friends with you? Try it with seafood. Peaty malts are an ideal accompaniment with fruits de mer: oysters, lobster, clams, mussels, scallops, etc. If it’s smoked, then go for something unpeated; balance again.

One of the scariest tastings I ever had to do was in Japan, matching scotch with sushi/sashimi, but it worked because whisky’s complexity was in tune with that of the dishes: the maritime hints in the seaweed, the sweet/sour balance to the rice, the maltiness of soy, the spice of wasabi and ginger, and the texture of the fish. Stick to low oak, non-sherried, fruity, spicy, or smoky drams and be prepared to dilute to balance.

Whisky works better with cheese than wine because its alcohol cuts through the fats, freeing the flavors and creating bridges, linking different aspects of grassiness, fermented notes, apple, minerality. Islay malts with their salty/mineral element work with blues, fruity malts pair well with soft sheep’s cheeses, while the acidic bite of cheddar styles can be calmed and given a new dimension by lighter, apple-accented drams.

The same applies to chocolate, which has flavors of vanilla, cocoa, black fruits, forest floor, and tobacco; all of which can be found in whisky. All of these are simple matches that should be tried in restaurants, but work as well at home.

The other option is to stick a bottle on the table, along with an ice bucket, choices of dilutant, small plates of food, and a convivial atmosphere. No one worries about pairing, people are relaxing and enjoying themselves. They are in the moment.

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