Last week I had the good fortune of attending WhiskyFest San Francisco: a three hour event featuring over 200 whiskies from around the globe. Given the event’s $110 price tag ($150 for a VIP pass), it’s a safe bet that your average attendee knew a thing or two about the products on display. And considering the fest has sold out on 25 straight occasions, it’s also safe to say they were impressed by what they saw.
But for a novice like myself, the options presented seemed a bit overwhelming. While I had previously attended similar beer-related events, the atmosphere at these gatherings was much more relaxed. By relaxed, I mean that by the end, one in three attendees had either vomited or urinated in a non-designated area. With a very few exceptions (me being one of them), WhiskyFest was not that kind of crowd.
A normal person could easily go a lifetime without sampling all WhiskyFest has to offer. But aside from the tastings, the event provides the opportunity for aficionados and novices alike to meet and mingle with industry bigwigs. Breakout sessions and seminars allow access to special guided tastings as well as a chance to pick the brains of experts in the field. I was able to corral a few of these individuals and arrange post-festival interviews. I was looking for advice on how the novice whisky drinker should approach not only an event like WhiskyFest, but also whisky drinking in general. Even among experts, there is not always a consensus on the best approach. Even so, the advice they provided should be enough to get your foot in the door of the wider world of whisky.
Don’t Be Intimidated
Larry Kass of Heaven Hill Distilleries attended the event with his company’s master distiller, Parker Beam of the legendary Beam Family. Kass says that when it comes to introducing someone to whisky, the biggest challenge is demystifying the ritual and inside knowledge associated with the spirit in order to make it seem less daunting. Another challenge is overcoming people’s preconceived notions.
“People have this idea of whisky as their father’s drink, or their grandfather’s drink,” Kass said. “Or maybe they had a bad experience with whisky in college when they weren’t really drinking it so much as throwing it back. There’s no better way to overcome this and raise your comfort level than by tasting.”
Take It Slow/Develop Your Tastes
While it’s important to try a wide variety of whiskies, it’s not a bad idea to cut your teeth on something that’s more approachable. Younger, lower proof whisky tends to be the better introductory choice. They have a lighter, smoother flavor than something like Rye, which tends to have harder, spicy flavors. When dealing with Scotch, those from the Highland or Speyside regions might be a better choice than Islay distilleries, which are known for their strong, peaty flavor. Again, this is not to discourage you from trying other varieties, and we’re certainly not saying that one type is better than the other. We’re simply saying that if you’re new to whisky, you might not appreciate the complexity of some of the stronger flavors right off the bat.
Judge By Taste, Not Age
A common misconception about whisky is that age is the most important factor. And while age certainly plays an important part, it is by no means the only indicator of a whisky’s quality or maturity. The location were the whisky is aged and the barrels used in the aging process also play a pivotal role.
Because heat rises, a barrel of whisky being stored on the top floor of an eight-story storage warehouse will not need to age as long as a barrel sitting on the first floor. A barrel being aged in a constant climate will reach maturity at a very different rate than a barrel sitting on a space heater in your mother’s basement. Regional climate variations also play an important factor, which partially explains the dramatic difference in styles, even in a country the size of Scotland.
So what should a beginner look for when tasting? Each brand is different, and brings it’s own unique flavors to the table. Ross Hendry of Glenrothes recommends you develop four major groups of flavor when sampling his company’s products; spice, fruit, vanilla and citrus.
“I try and get people new to whisky to identify these four flavor groups first before getting in to the more over indulgent flavors that one might taste,” Hendry said. “It is a difficult thing to grasp without experience and the look of joy that people have when they finally grasp all four flavor groups is one to behold.”
Hydrate Yourself, Not Necessarily Your Whisky
It’s always a good idea to keep hydrated while drinking, especially when extensively sampling at an event like WhiskyFest. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily water down your whisky.
Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with cutting your whisky with water, especially as a beginner. After all, it’s a matter of personal preference. As Gable Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits points out, a few drops of water added to a glass of room-temperature whisky can really help to bring out the complex flavors, and some find this to be the optimal way to experience the drink. But if you’re serious about developing your taste, Larry Kass of Heaven Hill recommends that you at least try the whisky neat. That way, when you add a few drops of water, you have something to compare. Even if you choose to add a substantial amount of water, tasting it straight before hand may help you to recognize flavors that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The same goes for ice. While whisky on the rocks can be refreshing, the colder temperature tends to contract the flavor. In the spirit of George Costanza, think of it as “whisky-shrinkage.”
Again, if you do feel the need to cut your whisky, go for it. Rick Edwards, who is now The Glenlivet Ambassador to the United States, began drinking whisky cut with soda or ginger-ale until he learned to appreciate it neat. Considering he currently enjoys drinking Glenlivet’s Nàdurra Cask Strength 16-year old, which he says is “as close as you’ll get to drinking whisky straight out of the barrel,” it’s safe to say his tastes have matured over time, as will yours.
Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
“Bernheim Whiskey is the first whiskey to use winter wheat as its primary grain creating a soft, sweet flavor and medium finish. In 2009, Bernheim was a Gold Medal Winner at the International Spirits Challenge and a Silver Medal Winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.”
Larry Kass – Heaven Hill
The Glenrothes Select Reserve
“An exceptional malt to begin your whisky journey. It exhibits an outstanding balance between the four flavor groups previously mentioned. An, as such, it is easy for novice whisky drinkers to establish what is going on across their palate.”
Ross Hendry – Glenrothes
The Glenlivet Single Malt (12 yr)
“As an introductory whisky, I recommend the 12-year Glenlivet Single Malt, or perhaps the Glenlivet 15-Year Old French Oak Finish if you want to go a little more complex.”
Rick Edwards – The Glenlivet
Tuthilltown White Dog
“I would absolutely recommend trying any White Dog you can get your hands on. White Dog is the term for whiskey before it goes into the barrel, and some of the small producers (including Tuthilltown) are selling this spirit for sipping and for mixing…a wonderful education in where whiskey comes from and what flavors come from the grain and which come from the barrel.”
Gable Erenzo – Tuthilltown Spirits
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve (15 Yr)
“Obviously, if I were to recommend any product it would be any of the Van Winkle line. My personal favorite being the 15yr Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve.”
Preston Van Winkle – Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
Photos Courtesy of Malt Advocate
Special thanks to Joan McGinley of Malt Advocat