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Whiskey wasn’t always in the cards for me.
I remember my first taste of it, New Year’s Eve, naive. "Let’s take a shot of whiskey!" my friend said. Bleh. It was foul. Fast forward a few years, and I'd progressed to the beloved college standard: vodka and cranberry juice. And beer—not the good kind.
It wasn’t until after college, when I dove headfirst into Boston’s swing dancing community, that I truly started to discover brown liquor, the drink of choice for many lindy hoppers. I dipped a toe in and found a love for honey whiskey. It was sweet, easy-drinking, and interestingly dark. And though I held there for a while, my intrigue and developing taste buds eventually got the better of me. Honey whiskey turned into bourbon, which made its way to rye, dabbling in Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs along the way. Yet, eventually, the progression flat-lined.
The next reasonable step was whisky (a.k.a. Scotch, note the missing "e"), but I was overwhelmed. Each time I’d walk into the liquor store, I’d stare up at the shelves, unsure of where to start. There were so many choices! So much variation! I’d heard friends mention buzzwords and flavor profiles—peaty, woody, toffee. What did those mean? How did you know what each bottle—void of any description—would even taste like? How did you choose what to buy?
So I held off. I attended a few events with Women Who Whiskey in NYC, occasionally trying something new, but otherwise avoiding the topic. Until that is, I decided a vacation was overdue, and I made an impromptu call to take a solo trip to Scotland and Ireland. The goals? To see pretty green things, and to learn about (read: drink) whisky.
(Ireland, I know whiskey is your thing, too. I was even told it was the Irish that originally brought it over to Scotland. But for the sake of this particular discussion, I’m stickin’ with Scotch, sorry lads.)
The first step, and the one that had always scared me off, was to figure out what I liked. This had been intimidating enough in the States, and now I was confronted with even more options to choose from in Scotland! I’ve always heard the best way to learn is to taste, so off to The Bow Bar and its 300+ whiskies I went. If you find yourself in Edinburgh and in need of a dram, this is the place for you.
Feeling intimidated, overwhelmed, and shy—a dangerous combo—I saddled up to the busy bar where Paul, a knowledgeable bartender originally from Speyside, handed me the whisky book. All 30-some pages of it.
"What do you like to drink?"
"Hm, bourbon…?" my voice trailed off.
He pulled down a bottle, gave me a whiff, and I figured sure, why not! It tasted fine, but I wasn’t in love, and I couldn’t quite explain why. But I kept my ears open and listened to him mention descriptors like “fudginess” to a woman nearby. So when I was ready for the next dram, I was prepared: "Tell me more about this fudgy whisky!" Down came the next bottle, the BenRiach 15-year-old tawny port, a Speyside whisky finished in tawny port casks. This I could get behind, sweet-smelling and rich. Now we were getting somewhere—maybe I like port-finished whiskies? Maybe I like fudgy whiskies? What did it even mean for a whisky to be fudgy?
So it went—tasting, smelling, asking questions, befriending Paul, falling in love with Bow Bar. But the bar wasn't the only place to find Scots that knew their whisky. It’s a country that prides itself on sharing knowledge about its esteemed national drink, so I was off to the liquor store—Royal Mile Whiskies to be specific.
Once again, I was overwhelmed, this time replacing a book of whiskies with shelves of them. I had been in this situation before. So I wandered, shyly. I looked, I pondered, I chuckled to myself as I listened to the banter between the two men working the shop, and finally, the seal was broken and we started chatting. I mentioned the BenRiach I’d enjoyed the night before, and suddenly both men came to life. Bottles started appearing from hidden cabinets, ready for tasting, with them exclaiming: "Well, if you liked that you should taste this!"
From behind a desk came a no-age Glencadam, from a secret shelf a Glendronach Peated, from the back room a BenRiach Cask Strength: each different, each hard for my brain to describe, but all still providing me with some semblance of information as to what I did or didn’t enjoy. Tasting each one in succession also allowed me to compare them mentally, making unconscious notes often far more helpful than those I actually jotted down ("nice" tended to be a popular, though thoroughly unhelpful, word in my notebook).
I alternated back and forth between the shop and the bar a few times. Paul would suggest a whisky. I’d jot it down. If I enjoyed it enough, I’d eagerly skip on over to the gents at Royal Mile Whiskies, either in search of the bottle itself or armed with additional information for them, new criteria by which to narrow down my tastes for Scotch. They, in turn, would either give me a taste of something new or make a suggestion, that I’d then take back to Paul, now searching that no-longer-overwhelming book of whiskies for something specific. I’d entered a gloriously fun cycle.
My next discovery came at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS for short). To be honest, the prime reason I’d headed there was for the food, as I’d heard it was a low-cost way to enjoy a Michelin-star level meal. (Which was not wrong—if you’re in search of a stellar, fancier meal in Edinburgh and are on a budget, make a reservation.) I wasn’t sure if I was even allowed whisky: Until recently, the society was closed to the public, open only to members for a monthly fee of 122 pounds.
I sat in the empty dining room—yes, it was just me and my awkwardly attentive server, alone together, at 5:30 P.M.—curious and getting antsy. Could I ask for whisky? He would’ve brought a menu if I could, wouldn't he? Or at least mentioned it? By the time I finished my main course, I could no longer resist, so I cleared my throat and glanced up at him.
"So, am I allowed to have whisky?"
"Of course!" he exclaimed and, moments later, scurried back to the table with not just a dessert menu, but a fat bible of their whiskies, of which they bottle and sell single cask, single malt offerings from over 125 distilleries.
Each page of the book showcased one bottling, detailing the nose and flavor palates, suggested pairings, and every other detail I could possibly need. The system is designed for exploration, the SMWS citing it as "the greatest joy of Society membership, roaming the broad vistas of flavour and aroma represented.” After a week of somewhat blind tasting, this level of information was exactly what I required to bring everything together.
For my dessert, I chose a praline parfait with chocolate sorbet, flavors I thought might inspire a pairing I’d enjoy, and boy was I right. The waiter’s choice was Sweet, Fruity and Rich, number 30.74, and the caramel and praline in the dessert brought out all the right notes of the whisky. And what do you know, it was finished in port pipes, a quality I was starting to consistently enjoy!
Feeling inspired and excited, I headed upstairs to the bar. It was there that I learned about the society’s monthly Outturn, the approximately 20 new bottlings for the month, detailed in a brochure-like pamphlet, "representing a cross-section of ages, styles, and characters.” Those cross-sections are categorized by flavor profile, as opposed to the more traditional method of region, and they include:
- Young & Spritely
- Sweet, Fruity & Mellow
- Spicy & Sweet
- Spicy & Dry
- Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits
- Old & Dignified
- Light & Delicate
- Juicy, Oak & Vanilla
- Oily & Coastal
- Lightly Peated
- Heavily Peated
These groupings are by no means standard, they’re very much specific to the Society, but they’ve offered me a great set of words to frame my understanding. Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits evokes what I imagine could be those fudgy, rich, wine-finished whiskies. I like peat, but nothing too heavy—but there exist Lightly Peated whiskies! I generally don’t prefer dry drinks, but I do like spice—maybe I should try and find whiskies that are Spicy & Sweet! This has helped me to think about what exactly makes a whisky "dark," what a port finish contributes, and what’s the difference in flavor between an oak-barrel finish and the straight bourbon barrel.
My whisky voyage didn't end in Edinburgh. I spent the following week on Islay (an island of 2200, and the home of 7 distilleries, including Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin) for Feis Ile, the whisky festival, finally making my way to Glasgow, all the while continuing to explore Scotch. But I was no longer afraid or overwhelmed.
I had learned that the best way to learn really is to taste, supported by people that truly know their spirits and are excited to share knowledge and help provide guidance. By the time I’d arrived in Islay I was game to taste anything, and while I still wasn’t great with the descriptions, I was (and still am) starting to note what I do or don’t like and I can acknowledge a few characteristics and the flavors they contribute.
Most of all, though, I learned that I like a lot of different flavor profiles, of which there are many to choose from in whisky. And that what I like truly depends on my mood, the time of day, and the company I’m keeping. The brand ambassador guiding my tasting at Lagavulin put it best: "Rule #1 is there are no rules when it comes to whisky. You choose what you like at that time...it’s not about power, it’s about palate. And it’s about who you’re with, that’s what makes the whisky.”
Taste for yourself:
Handblown Whiskey Glass
Tell us your preferences: Whisky or whiskey? Neat or on the rocks?
First photo by Bobbi Lin, all others by the author, Micki Balder