We know that whisky is better when shared. But what’s the best way to initiate a newcomer into the world of cask strength, single cask malts? Here’s our advice on converting a whisky sceptic into a single cask disciple?
ADD MORE THAN WATER
One approach is to help people get over any reluctance to drinking whisky ‘straight’ by pairing a dram up with some food.
“At a recent company whisky tasting event in London I had a group of three who had a fear of big whisky, and had the idea they just didn’t like whisky,” says SMWS master brand ambassador John McCheyne. “I invited them to try a little piece of dark chocolate in the mouth, let it melt a bit, and then pour the whisky through it. The reaction was off the scale – with ‘delicious’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’ among the feedback.
“I then did the same thing with a smoky Islay whisky and some blue cheese, and got the same reaction: ‘OMG! Who would have thought that?’
“By taking this route, a newcomer gets used to the idea of complementary or contrasting flavours, and will likely go on to appreciate the whisky on its own, once that ‘fear’ is conquered.”
Euan Campbell, spirits manager at the SMWS, agrees with John’s approach of combining a tasting with food.
“It can be a bit of an eye opener,” he says. “Chocolate matches very well with all styles of whisky, and can help to accentuate the fruit and vanilla flavours found in most whiskies. It can also make the texture a little more manageable for people who aren’t used to taking high strength drinks.”
Many non-whisky drinkers may have had an off-putting experience with a “cooking” whisky earlier in their life and as a result have lumped all whisky into the same category as cheap, nasty and a little dangerous.
In that case, the best approach can be to demonstrate the diversity of the Society’s bottlings, with a flight of vastly different drams.
“Pour the reluctant whisky drinker three glasses of Society whisky: one grain, one ex-bourbon and one sherry-casked,” says Matt Bailey, SMWS ambassador, Australia.
“Don’t get too wrapped up in the differences yet, just focus on flavour and what they like. Start with the grain cask. Add a few heaped teaspoons of water to the dram and wait a moment for that inner-sweetness to blossom. Then ask them to have a nose and a small lip-coating taste. Talk about the unique white-sugar-like sweetness a great grain often exhibits, still focusing on the flavour, but not on the details yet.
“Do the same for the ex-bourbon cask now, but if possible try using a slightly spirit-heavy dram like something from distilleries 48, 76 or 85. Then again with the sherry-casked whisky. Don’t talk about the cask types yet, don’t talk about the distilleries, and don’t worry about details at this point. Work out which dram sits best for them, which flavour profiles they most like from those, and go from there.”
Euan agrees that offering a range of whiskies with different characters can help a newcomer find the flavour profile that works for them.
“Finding out what other drinks people enjoy is always a good place to start,” says Euan. “By selecting an active first fill barrel for a bourbon drinker, you are already in familiar territory for the new Scotch drinker. Perhaps a heavily sherried whisky might go down well with a spiced rum drinker, with its flavours of fruitcake, cinnamon and cloves. Once you notice the similarities between matured spirits it becomes easier to try new things and discover whole categories of previously uncharted enjoyment.”
FOCUS ON FLAVOUR
Although you might have a wealth of information to share about whisky, it might also be best to put that to one side and simply concentrate on the aromas and flavours coming out of the glass, without drowning your newbie in knowledge.
“I find the best approach is to ask a newcomer to nose the whisky blind and focus entirely on the flavour – most people will be pleasantly taken aback,” says John McCheyne. “Sometimes, a simple sniff of a single cask whisky – maybe something with a whiff of dark chocolate in a summer meadow, or a stormy harbour on an island – can be enough to get the olfactory glands going and cause a reaction of surprise or even astonishment.”
Encourage them to narrow down the aromas from something generally fruity to a more specific description – or encourage them to make the connections between whatever they’re smelling and a particularly evocative place or time that the aromas provoke.
Once you’re off and running with your novice, there’s only one more natural step to take – by introducing them to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and a lifetime’s worth of whisky adventures and companionship.
If you refer a new member to the Society now, they’ll receive 20 per cent off their membership and you’ll get a £20 e-voucher once their membership is confirmed. Click here to share your Society love.
Here’s SMWS ambassador Alan Wood, explaining why membership to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the perfect Christmas gift.