Saturday, 30 November 2013

Whisky Tasting

I subscribe to the magazine New Scientist, and in July this year they ran a competition for subscribers where you had a chance to win 12 sciency books. Since entering involved no more effort than providing them with my email address, I did so, and promptly forgot about it. I never win anything, and after 30 years of buying Lotto tickets with no success, I am completely immune to disappointment.

Months later I got an e-mail from them telling me I'd won, and could I please provide the delivery address. I couldn't even remember what the books were. When they arrived about a week later I discovered a very mixed bunch: one on the search for the Higgs boson was probably the most demanding, but it was also the sort of book that gets overrun with new discoveries; on the other hand, some were keepers, such as this one:

This book is a useful reference on all things alcumohol, but I was particularly struck by Page 40:

As some of you may know, I splosh some water in my whisky, but I had no idea you were supposed to do that; I do it because I enjoy the whisky more with a little water softening.

So, purely in the spirit of scientific endeavour, I grabbed my bottle of Johnny Walker Red and some measuring things and set to work. The standard Andrew serve of ice, two fingers and a splosh of water in a tumbler didn't sound much like the description above, so I placed ice in a tumbler, added my whisky and then immediately tipped the whisky into a measuring vessel. Result: 60ml (more or less).

So I pour myself a double shot with each glassful, which means I'm a soak but I already knew that. Next I got myself a small glass and, using an eyedropper, I put the recommended 6 drops of water in the glass. I could barely see it. So I doubled the number of drops, to match my standard double-shot issue of whisky, and I discovered the water made a very thin film in the bottom of the glass. This is not surprising, because 12 drops is only about 0.6ml.

So I think the correct technique is to wet the interior of a glass, shake out all the water that is not filming the glass surface, add 30ml (1 shot) of whisky, agitate to let the water get at the fatty acid molecules, then enjoy.

At which point I discovered that if you want fatty acid molecules you need a whisky that has them; Johnnie Walker Red Label doesn't very much because it is chill filtered to remove them. And why do they do that? Because Johnnie Walker Red Label, a blend of 35 different whiskies from both the east and west coasts of Scotland, is designed as a mixer base, and has been for decades, long before the company now known as Diageo bought the brand.

I also discovered via research on the Interwebs that I was using the wrong glass if I was going to start whisky tasting. So I went and bought some more appropriately shaped and sized glasses (not actual whisky tasting glasses as used by distillers, because they were stupid expensive) and I am now prepared to repeat the 'add a weetle bit of water' exercise with a non-chill filtered single malt. However, since it is presently 10:00am I will defer the exercise to a more appropriate time. As far as I am concerned, when whisky tasting you sip, swill and spit back into the glass, not into a spittoon, and when you've finished writing up your notes you consume the whisky. I may be a soak, but even I don't drink whisky at 10:00am.


  1. So.... it's been over a month since you posted this - inquiring minds want to know the outcome of your scientific experimentation. Your silence suggests you may have found such a fabulous new way to consume whiskey that you are in a sozzled heap somewhere with a dripping tap and a new bottle of single malt....

  2. Well ... err ... umm ... it's like this... err ... it's been a hectic few weeks, what with Christmas and New Year and all, and there hasn't actually been any whisky tasting yet. However, please note sp.: 'whisky' is Scottish, 'whiskey' is Irish and North American. At present the house is bereft of a non-chill-filtered single malt, but this will be rectified soon.

  3. Thanks for explaining the diff between whisky/key. I had no idea, never having been a connoisseur (oh poop, I probably got that wrong as well!) of the stuff. And what is it that makes 'bourbon whiskey' whiskey? Why does it taste so different?

  4. Sue, there are several reasons for the difference in taste, but in order that this doesn't turn into a lecture, here's the skinny: Scotch Whisky is made from malted barley almost exclusively, although some blended whiskys include a portion of grain whisky (made from any grain except barley). Bourbon is made from a corn mash that has to be 51% corn by law; it is made in a continuous column still whereas Scotch whisky is made in pot stills; and bourbon (and other American whiskeys) may contain neutral grain spirit (to lift the alcohol content) whereas Scotch whisky never does. The biggest difference is the corn base vs malted barley base, but those other factors are significant too.

  5. May 2014 be incredibly kind to you, Andrew.

  6. My spouse and i think it is bad, however, many people feel it style bitter. Folks never drink bourbon with the flavor, but for the results on their mind.

    Posted by brucewilliam | Whisky Tasting