I blame John Wayne for America’s desire to waste good whiskey by slamming it down the gullet from a tiny glass or even straight from the bottle as proof of manliness. How many great cowboy movies or World War II flicks offer up images of heroic men hitting the hard stuff before running off to face a hail of bullets? Or maybe those old-timey bartenders should be held responsible. I mean, was there ever a scene when the Duke sauntered up the bar and ordered a whiskey only to be asked, “How do you want that? Neat, rocks or a splash of water?” Then again, I don’t recall the iconic tough guy ever taking a quiet moment to admire the floral notes wafting off of a glass of anything, either.
So if you’re one of those take-it-in-the-jaw tough guys, content to mix it up in biker bars, with zero inclination of actually enjoying the flavors of a fine aged whiskey then move along. Nothing to see here. If, however, you have secretly suspected that sipping surpasses slamming, allow me to bolster your confidence and remind you that real men aren’t afraid of tasting their whiskey.
Let’s say you’ve mistakenly entered a classy establishment (defined as one where prison tattoos are covered up, fights rarely break out and both men and women have groomed their facial hair). At first, you might feel paranoid and out of place because everyone is staring at your rugged manliness, but have no fear. It’s just like any other bar. Well, it might be a little cleaner, but all the same rules apply. Walk up the bar and order a whiskey. Don’t order that bottom shelf crap either. It’s for mixed drinks.
The bartender will ask you how you want it. Don’t panic. Keep it simple. There are three options. The first is “neat.” If you must stay true to your leather-clad roots, you can say “straight.” It’s the same thing. Just remember to sip slowly and swallow slowly. Too much like doing a shot, minus the usual convulsions? Well, then wave over your friendly bartender and ask for a splash of bottled water. Yes, the bottled part is important. Avoid that six-in-one hose if you can and definitely don’t hit the tap behind the bar. Have some respect for yourself. Use the cleanest water available unless you absolutely love the taste of chlorine and various heavy metals.
Your first thought might be that we’ve just watered down a damn fine drink, and you’d be right. We water it down to make it a damn finer drink. There’s chemistry going on here – important chemistry. In liquors with a high alcohol content, the ethanol tends to trap these little chemical chains called “esters” which are the compounds that give fruits and flowers their smells. By adding water, the ethanol loses its grip and the esters escape into the air, sharing their wonderful aromas with our nose. Think about honey and vanilla as well as those floral scents when you when take that slow sip. Side note: experiment with the amount of water, from an eyedropper to a 50/50 water/whiskey mix.
The third option is “rocks.” These are not the same rocks your friend Jimmy sells behind the biker bar. And stop hanging around with Jimmy. He’s trouble. Anyway, whiskey on the rocks is kind of like adding a splash of water, but now we’re mixing thermodynamics into our chemistry. The slow infusion of ice melting into water will still release those fabulous esters, but the changing temperature will hide other flavors produced by the phenols in the alcohol, such as wood and smokiness from the barrel or the peat moss in Scotch. But taste is king so experiment here as well. Some people like those earthy, smoky flavors.
Anyway, my point is that whiskey (or whisky if you’re partial to Scotland) is not drain-cleaner grade alcohol designed to disinfect your tongue and scorch the hairs of your nose. Its lovingly designed recipes have been crafted and perfected over hundreds of years so why waste your favorite whiskey by throwing it to the back of your throat? Man up a little. Take a moment to enjoy the flavors in your glass – even if your biker buddies are watching.
Canadian Club Sherry Cask Whiskey (retails around $25) – matured in sherry casks from Spain, strong vanilla, honey and toffee flavors with subtle floral aromas. Don’t waste it on mixed drinks. Enjoy it for what it is. 4 out of 5 stars.
Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch (retails around $20) – blended whisky with a big barrel flavor, not much on sweetness but a fair bit of smoky peat and hint of saltiness. Good for sipping with a game of video golf. 2 ½ out of 5 stars.