The Whisky Doubter’s Quest Begins

Whisky Tasting Single Malt Female

Ok, I’ve got my Tastings Journal, I’ve got my Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion, I’ve got bags of enthusiasm. I want to begin my whisky quest.

But it’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon –  too early to start drinking. And I can’t even use the excuse that it’s raining because, for once, it isn’t.

There is no justification for partaking of whisky right now. And, honestly, I’m not really all that comfortable with stumbling around inebriated in the middle of the day anyway – in my own home or elsewhere.

So I opt to do some couch-based research instead. I open my laptop and read an article about a journalist who tried to learn to like whisky. She seems to have gone from whisky doubter to fan in the space of five drams. My experiment could start to get tasty far quicker than expected. I decide to use the Michael Jackson bible to investigate which whisky might be good for a novice to start with.

Trying to be a good student, I begin to read through the bit at the start of the book which describes the whisky making process. If I am honest, I find it a bit dull. I have never been good at retaining detail about processes if they contain either inanimate objects or people from long ago. I decide to skip that bit for now.

The most interesting part of the book is definitely the individual smell and flavour descriptors attributed to each whisky. I am astounded at the specificity and range. And the fact that anyone got to the tasting part of some of these malts.

Intriguing, yet not exactly mouthwatering, are the whiskies described as smelling of “cowshed”, “plastic bandage” and “an old Hornby train set”. Slightly more enticing is the idea of “plantains being cooked on a barbecue,” “a sliver of unripe plum” and “Parma Violets”. Wait! Parma Violets? I used to eat those when I was 8. They tasted like my Gran’s soap, yet I devoured them all the same. And leafing through the pages of this book it seems that quite a few confections of my childhood are represented: “Lemon Bon Bons, “Wine Gums, “Bubble Gum.” Wow! If whisky can taste like sweets then it could be ok. I start looking for Walls Vienetta and Wham Bars. Disappointingly, there is no mention.

Still, I am enthused. I definitely did not identify any of these exciting smells in any of the wound-wash scented whisky I was exposed to in the past.

I think that maybe, today, to get started, I could do some sniffing instead of drinking. In fact, I have a pack of miniatures in the kitchen that are begging to be tampered with. Yes, yes, sniffing it is.

Caribbean Cask Single Malt Female

I crack open the most exciting sounding bottle. It’s called Caribbean Cask. Now, I know from my “research” that this means the whisky has been stored in casks which previously held rum, so it should smell of rum and rum-related things: palm-fringed beaches, a sailor’s cabin, organised crime, etc.

I breathe in and take a deep, searching sniff.

Nothing. Just whisky.

I breathe in again. This time I’ll take anything: a coconut shy, banana Chewits, a Prada handbag.

Still nothing. It just smells like whisky to me. Pah!

I twist the cap off one of the other bottles – it’s more wooded, apparently – and again, my nose goes on the prowl. Searching, searching. But, nope, it also smells like whisky. Gosh, I thought I had a really good nose – I often smell things nobody else does. I clearly have a long way to go when it comes to whisky tasting.

***

In the evening, Mr Malt and I go out for a drink in our local hostelry, which happens to have a beautiful view of the sea. This is probably the closest I can get, at present, to feeling like I am drinking whisky in the great Scottish outdoors.

Starbank Inn Single Malt Female

I have no idea what to order. All I know is that I am not yet ready to drink any of the Islay whiskies. Those are the ones which are peaty, smoky and smell like the inside of a doctor’s bag. I need something a bit tamer and sweeter right now.

Mr Malt, old pro that he is, orders an Ardbeg 10 year old, and I, randomly, select an Oban 14 year old. I don’t know why. I just thought it might be my kind of thing, perhaps because I have been to Oban and had a nice lunch there. I could be going about this all the wrong way.

We sit down and I sniff my drink. The alcohol stings my eyes. This isn’t for the faint hearted, this whisky lark. But, singed retinas aside, it smells nice. Kind of like caramel and…er…caramel. I just can’t pinpoint any other smells. Damn. I wonder if I should have brought my Michael Jackson book to help me. No, no, I want to try and work this out myself. I can see later if my thought matches the master’s.

I take a sip of the whisky and try to notice how it feels in my mouth. Smooth comes to mind. Yes, it definitely feels smooth. I swallow, and the alcohol which startled my eyes, assaults my throat. I wonder if you get used to this.

In terms of taste, as I carry on sipping, I can’t get much besides caramel. I try to be clever and come up with permutations of caramel, but all I can think of is Toffee Crisp wrapper, Butterscotch Angel Delight and those yellow Quality Streets. And, to be honest, I can’t smell those things. I am just pulling confections out of my repertoire to try and be like Michael Jackson.

Oban 14 yr old Single Malt Female

I conclude, instead, that the whisky is “not bad”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like it. I do like experimenting with drinking it, trying to identify tastes, and how it makes me feel Scottish in a whole new way, but, enjoyment? Not quite yet.

I am conscious that I may be drinking whisky the wrong way. I am used to drinking wine which, when tasting, you swirl around in your mouth and mix with your saliva. Whisky, I think you are meant to just knock back, no messing. But I’m not sure. I note to check the facts on that one.

I sniff at Mr Malt’s whisky and compare it to mine. It smells very medicinal, as expected from an Islay malt. In some ways the smell is sort of comforting. Like the sight of Charlie from Casualty after falling off a step-ladder.

Mr Malt tells me he thinks his whisky tastes like a hospital ward. Is this a good thing, I wonder? He chose it, he likes whisky. If whisky aficionados give accolades like, “smells like a hospital ward” what hope is there for us novices?

We go back home and consult the Michael Jackson book for notes on what we’ve been drinking. Mr Malt is excited because in the book it says his whisky tastes of carbolic soap, which is used in hospitals, and he said that his whisky tasted of hospital wards. I appear to have got mine all wrong (I know, I know, it’s not a test). Oban 14 year old, apparently, smells of “pebbles on the beach,”  “a whiff of the sea” and “a touch of fresh peat”. Not to me it doesn’t. The body is “viscous” so I maybe get a point for saying it was smooth. I seem to have been a bit off with the flavour, though. The book describes the palate as “perfumey” with a “faint hint of fruity seaweed” then “lightly waxy” and “becoming smoky”. My palate needs fine tuning. I am crap at this. I clearly need to smell more pebbles and eat more fruity seaweed.

Can a Whisky Doubter Learn to Love Whisky?

IMG_2489Whisky – to some people it tastes like caramel, cinnamon and warm October evenings. To others it tastes like a glass of floor cleaner. But, whether you like it or loathe it, there’s no denying whisky is a complex and multi-faceted drink.

I have never been a whisky drinker. However, for a while now – and especially since I moved to Edinburgh, where it seems like every second shop sells the stuff – I have thought that it might be nice to enjoy drinking whisky. I want to smell smoky apple-orchards on the nose. I want to taste peat-infused bonfires on the palate. I want the Water of Life to be part of my life.

I am perhaps being carried away by romantic ideas. It is true to say that in my whisky dreams I’m reclined on an expensive leather couch, next to a roaring log fire, glass of malt in my hand, laughing wholeheartedly with a sexy, bestubbled man and having an altogether splendid time. The reality might turn out to be closer to a game of dominoes at a musty lock-in with some lobster-cheeked, bulbous-nosed gents. I don’t drink whisky, so I don’t know.

And, I will never know if I don’t try.

IMG_2672I have tried to like whisky before. But, like violin lessons when I was 8, I never really gave it my all. Often, after a night drinking wine, I would brazenly order a dram in the spirit of being adventurous (or a show off – I once ordered a Laphroaig simply because I could pronounce the word) then, after one antiseptic sip, gift it to someone who would appreciate it more. I wanted to like it, but it tasted just too awful for me to push on through. I didn’t have the staying power.

Now, however, I am older and stronger. I am tenacious and prepared to work for the things I want. And I want to know, if I get the right guidance, and if I really persevere, can I learn to like whisky?

So, for one year, I plan to immerse myself in the world of whisky to see if I can acquire a taste for the drink. I plan to visit distilleries, pubs, and whisky tasting events. I will read books about whisky, cook with whisky, and climb mountains and celebrate with a dram at the top. I even have a grand vision of hosting a whisky cocktail party. Basically, I will try all sorts of different ways to consume and learn about the beverage. Initially, I will limit myself to Scotch whisky, but, if things go well, I may promote my palate to more international flavours.

This escapade is not just about whether women can like whisky. It’s probably true that far fewer women drink it than do men, but a quick search of the web brings up details of women who are master blenders, whisky consultants and enthusiastic whisky bloggers: women who have broken through the taste barrier and found that their palates have adjusted and embraced this complex and often misunderstood drink. This, therefore, is about answering the question, can those who think they don’t like whisky – laddies or ladies –  learn to like it? IMG_2675

If, after several months, it looks like my palate is unconvinced, I fully plan to carry on anyway. I may never acquire a love of the malt, but I think the very least I can gain is an appreciation and an understanding. If, however, by July 2015, I am not a full-on whisky lover then I will accept that it is not meant to be.

There will be no criticism of whisky here – only recognition that it may not be for me. If things do not appeal to my palate, I have an enthusiastic human spittoon (let’s call him Mr Malt) who is on hand to tell me what my unfinished dram tastes like to the cultured palate.

It should also be noted that I am sponsored by no one and this is purely a self-motivated quest. I simply like a challenge and I love writing.

All business proposals and crates of Scotch will be considered, though.

The following are what I am starting with at the beginning of this quest. I like to think of these items as my Whisky Starter Kit.

Whisky Starter Kit

Whisky Starter Kit

A whisky tasting journal and pen

Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (not the Moonwalker, the whisky expert)

Some money for the bus to whisky drinking venues

Feel free to join me in this quest. I would love to hear other non-whisky lover’s stories.

 

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