Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Milk of the Irish, or: How I Learned Everything I Never Thought I Wanted to Know About Whiskey

photos by Jonathan Coveney

The tables were spread with an aesthetic arrangement of six whiskeys ranging in hue from light amber to deep honey, and complicated flavor diagrams and timelines lay in front of us. After an extensive description of whiskey's history, production, and politics - Ireland and Kentucky, pot stills and column stills, moonshine and prohibition - we got down to the tasting. We were informed, not without a definite sense of superiority, that whiskey possesses orders of magnitude more flavor profiles than wine - when you smell whiskey (learned: don't swirl or you're alcohol will evaporate) you are smelling 1000s of smells. The motions are similar to those of wine; don't swirl, but hold by the bottom and tip the glass back over your mouth and nose and inhale to catch all the smells, then taste, and perhaps circulate - all sides, tongue, throat - and aerate your sip on the palate, swallow, and judge. What kinds of smells are there? Depth of flavor? Does the flavor linger or just disappear? (Learned: Finish is important!) How do you know what you're tasting and if it's 'good' or not?

Whiskey #1: Irish Whiskey; yeasty, toasty, floral, sweet, smooth, clean, fades off the palate, weak, unassuming Learned: women smell more things than men, they can taste more and pick up more flavor notes.

Whiskey #2: Single Malt Scotch (Glenlivet; Dad would be proud); light, sweet, simple, strong but clean finish Learned: The Glenlivet distillery used to be protected by armed guards / 100% pot still distillation therefore no two batches are alike - single malts are variable and seasonal / water is critical to the flavor profile: the limestone in the Scottish highlands give Glenlivet it's prized flavor.

Whiskey #3: Blended bourbon (Crown Royal); sweet, gentle molasses - a blend of bourbon, single malt, and grain alcohols Learned: not all Canadian whiskeys are rye / Crown Royal was blended for the queen. Bourbon takes three years to make.

Whiskey #4: Single Malt Blend (Johnny Walker/Chivas Regal); sour, smoky, peppery, harsh, bite lingers. Learned: the longer a whiskey is barrel-aged the more concentrated - higher proof - it becomes / the greater the proof, the higher the tax

Whiskey #5: Single Malt (Bruichladdich); iodine, tangy, spicy, not so sweet, salty, salt caramel, ocean, smells like nausea. Learned: Before WWII there was no Single Malt to speak of in the U.S. It came from Europe. It tastes like the ocean because the distillery is on the ocean; environment influences flavor!

Whiskey #6: Bourbon (corn) (Wild Turkey); butterscotch, cinnamon, cloves, caramel corn, robust, 100 proof. Learned: Bourbon needs a higher proof because it needs more flavor. All whiskeys and red wines have acetone in them.

(Surprise!) Whiskey #7: Single Malt (Bushmills 21); tangerine, caramel, citrusy, fruity, strong beginning, smooth end. Learned: That burn? Not alcohol, but rye. Single malt is over 1000 years old, distillation originated in the Middle East (alembic) and eventually got to Scotland via monks (and presumably some other people).

The following statements are up for debate but were the gospel by which the class was taught:
Do not add ice or water: whiskey has to be full proof or else you're robbing it of its soul.
Whiskey is artisanal; it reflects a particular tradition, history, and place, and is one of the last true artisanal spirits.
There is not a bad whsikey in the world; there are some that are better than others.

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