I like the idea of whiskey, and the smell, but for years I didn’t like the taste.
I like the idea of being the guy who knows his whiskeys and can sip one and know what tastes good. But truth be told, that wasn’t me: if I had a nearly empty bottle on my bar that I wanted to get rid of to make room for something else, I’d tip some into my coffee as the only way I could drink it.
What changed was when I went with some friends to a local whiskey lounge. It’s a small lounge on the 28th floor of a hotel with amazing views of the city, big arm chairs, a knowledgeable bartender, and sometimes a piano. Oh, and a bunch of dead animals on the wall, which I’m indifferent about.
Knowing nothing about whiskey, I asked for help and the bartender was really helpful. Since then I’ve come to love whiskey (not too much, don’t worry!) and enjoy it much more frequently.
Here are the 5 things I started doing differently to change my attitude about whiskey:
1. KNOW YOUR TASTE PREFERENCES
Like a total newbie, I assumed all whiskeys tasted basically the same. I figured there were subtle variations between each type but I didn’t know where to start. I learned that there are various flavor profiles and I found that I preferred some and not others.
These flavor profiles might be described in different ways but basically it’s stuff like “smoke”, “citrus”, “peat”, “wood”, etc. There’s a bunch and they vary and you can find a lot of this stuff online. If you google “whiskey flavor profiles” or “whiskey flavor map” you’ll get a lot of good info as a great starting point. Here’s a great single malt whiskey flavor map that shows four types of whiskeys (light and floral, fruity and spicy, rich and rounded, full bodied and smoky) and where they fall on an X/Y graph measuring smokey versus delicate and light versus rich. You’ll need to indicate that you’re drinking age to view this graphic but if you only look at one graphic, this is the one to look at).
For extra research, check out this graphic that shows the differences between a bunch of whiskeys measured against twelve components of flavor. This is a great example to show how these whiskeys vary, sometimes subtly.
In general I’ve seen about half a dozen broad flavor profiles and I tend to like two of them and dislike two of them and feel indifferent about two of them. Figuring out your preferred flavor profile might not be easy but perhaps you can consider what kind of other drinks you like (your beer and wine preferences might help you here) but it might come down to doing what I did: Go to a whiskey bar and asking for one from each of the profiles and doing a taste test.
There are a lot of whiskeys in the world and knowing this will help you narrows down your whiskey choices dramatically.
2. DON’T SCRIMP
I should know this already from my experience with wine but there is a huge difference between the cheap whiskey you can buy for a few bucks and the one that costs a TON of cash. Don’t scrimp on your whiskey. You’re not in high school anymore and looking to get blitzed on a $3.00 box of wine. Whiskey is a sipping drink for an adult. Spend the money, sip a small amount at a time, and you’ll be glad you did.
3. MAKE IT AN EVENT
Good food and drink should be consumed in an event. Most of us just shovel food down our gullet in front of the TV, and it’s primarily for subsistence. Sure, we know when we enjoy something but most of the time we’re eating to live. But what do you do when you want to really enjoy the food or drink? You make it into an event.
Do you remember what you ate last Tuesday for lunch? Probably not. Do you remember what you ate when you had friends over for the big game or when you went to a restaurant? You more likely remember those events.
I started enjoying whiskey WAY more when I stopped trying to drink cheap whiskey while I answered emails in the evening and instead started dressing up nice and going to the whiskey lounge with friends.
I don’t mean that you have to go out… you just have to make it an event. Dress up, have a couple of friends over, put on some great music. Sit in your living room and open up a couple of bottles of nice whiskey and sip them. That will have a huge impact on your enjoyment level.
4. DRINK YOUR WHISKEY WITH A BIT OF WATER
This was a gamechanger for me and if you only take one piece of advice, take this one.
How do you usually think of whiskey? You see people on TV ordering it “on the rocks” (with ice) but, in my opinion, that is the absolute worst way to drink whiskey.
When I decided to study whiskey and figure out how I could like it, I tried the same whiskey in three different ways and I suggest you do the same:
I first drank it neat.
Then I tried it with a bit of ice.
Then I tried it with a bit of water.
What a difference. Neat is okay. When you drink whiskey with ice, it basically heightens the alcohol “scent”/sensation and it feels like you’re sipping very expensive rubbing alcohol. When you drink whiskey with water (just a couple of drops per ounce — not very much) it “opens up” the flavor of the whiskey in a way that I never could have imagined.
Try it out. Chances are, it will change how you drink whiskey. I now always order whiskey neat with water on the side. I take the first couple of sips neat and then I add water and my whiskey experience is amazing.
Never ever drink whiskey on the rocks again.
5. TREAT IT LIKE WINE
Last, treat your whiskey drinking like you treat your wine drinking. All good alcohol, no matter what it is, should be sipped. It’s not just the flavor you’re after but the flavor experience over time that makes the beverage good. (As I said before, you’re not in high school anymore).
So treat your whiskey drinking like the way you drink wine: Look at the color, smell it, take a sip and swish it around in your mouth so that it hits all the different parts of your tongue. Swallow and notice what happens to the flavor — what flavors do you get at the beginning, middle, and end of the mouthful and what lingers afterward?
My wife and I have done an in-depth study of wine to understand it better and to know what we like… to the point where we know EXACTLY what kind of wine we like (Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region in New Zealand — other wines are hit-or-miss for us but 99% of the time we LOVE these specific wines from this specific region). Whiskey is exactly the same. Take the time up-front to study whiskey as you would study wine and your enjoyment of whiskey will improve. Even if you take the time to study wine, you’ll still boost your enjoyment of whiskey.
WHISKEY IS ONE OF THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE
Way back in your youth, it was something cheap you choked down for the social currency and courage. But now you’re all grown up and it’s time to switch what you think of whiskey. Just like all those other things you outgrew from your youth, it’s now time to step up to good whiskey that can be appreciated and savored as a work of art.