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Whisky Etiquette 101: A Guide To Sipping In Style

Whisky kit

Let’s admit it. There’s something decidedly sophisticated about whisky. It’s not just a drink; it’s a ritual, a celebration of craftsmanship, and a symbol of the finer things in life. In a world of spirits, whisky stands as the epitome of a grown-up’s pour. While champagne exudes celebration and wine alludes to sophistication, whisky transcends both, offering a versatile and complex experience that can be savoured in various ways. Whether you’re sipping it neat, on the rocks, or exploring the realm of cocktails, here’s your guide to navigating the world of whisky with style and finesse. 

On the whisky spectrum

The world of whiskies is vast, spanning continents and cultures. From Ireland to the US, from Scotland to Canada and Japan, each region contributes to the rich tapestry of this spirit. The spellings may differ—whisky with an “e” in Ireland and the US, and without it in Scotland, Canada, and Japan—but the diversity doesn’t stop there. Bourbon, rye, and scotch offer a broad range of flavours, from sweet and smoky to spicy and smooth. To begin your whisky journey, let’s first learn what to order, how to order, and how to sound like a seasoned connoisseur while at it. 

whisky glass

For true whisky appreciation, connoisseurs recommend sipping from a Glencairn glass. This specially designed glass directs the aromas towards the drinker’s nose, emphasising the integral role of smell in the tasting experience. To enhance the release of aromas and flavours, a few drops of water can be added, unveiling hidden nuances in the whisky. 

Beyond tasting whisky straight, options like drinking it on the rocks add a layer of complexity. The ice chills the whisky, gradually diluting it as it melts. For those who wish to maintain the spirit’s integrity without dilution, whisky stones, and solid soapstone cubes stored in the freezer, provide a stylish solution. 

Navigating the first sip: For newcomers, that initial sip of strong whisky may induce a twitch. Yet, maintaining composure is key. Instead of an involuntary face, opt for a controlled inhale and a raised eyebrow. As you develop your palate, remember that challenges lie not in the whisky itself but in understanding and appreciating its complexities. 

Sipping, not shooting: Shooting fine whisky is considered a sin among enthusiasts. Premium whiskies are meant to be savoured, not gulped, as shooting eliminates the opportunity to detect the nuanced flavour notes. Sipping neat is the preferred method, allowing the drinker to savour the full spectrum of a well-crafted whisky. 

Sipping like a pro

With the social nuances covered, it’s time to delve into the art of whisky appreciation. Unlike the financial investment required for a single-malt scotch or a distillery tour, learning to drink whisky properly costs nothing and unlocks a lifetime of incredible experiences. Engage all your senses, nose the whisky, understand and describe the tasting notes, and know your vessel—these habits form the foundation of a profound whisky-drinking experience. 

Engaging all your senses: Drinking whisky is a sensory experience from the pop of the cork to the clink of the empty glass. The presentation, the sounds, and even the warmth from your hand – all contribute to the overall experience. The glass design, whether a tumbler or a Glencairn, influences the aroma and temperature of the drink. 

The first step: Nosing, or smelling, the whisky is a vital step in proper appreciation. Before taking that first sip, inhale deeply, allowing the aromas to awaken your sense of taste. Continue to nose the glass periodically, noting any changes in scent and flavour as you progress through the drink. 

Know thy vessel: To elevate your drinking experience, consider investing in a decanter and a set of glasses. A crystal-clear decanter enhances the presentation of the pour, allowing you to appreciate the colour and clarity of the whisky. This extra step adds an aesthetic dimension to the ritual of enjoying this iconic spirit. 

Playing it by the book

For those who seek more information, here are answers to frequently asked questions that will empower you with whisky knowledge sufficient to impress your drinking companions. 

pouring whisky

Whisky serving size: While a standard whisky serving size is technically 44.36 ml, variations exist, especially in a bar setting. If you’re serving or drinking whisky outside a commercial setting, consider using a jigger or measuring in your fingers. One finger is a common request among whisky aficionados. 

Pairing it right: For those who enjoy pairing their spirits with food, whisky offers a versatile range of options. From spicy bourbons with blue cheese to full-bodied small-batch bourbons with grilled steak, the possibilities are extensive. Experimenting with different pairings allows you to discover unique flavour combinations that enhance both the whisky and the culinary experience. 

Know your whisky 

Armed with the basics of whisky appreciation, it’s time to explore the vast universe of varieties. Whether you prefer ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’, understanding the differences and nuances of each type is the key to navigating the diverse world of this cherished spirit. 

For those new to the world of whisky, familiarising yourself with common varieties is a great starting point. Bourbon, with its sweetness and accessibility, is a favourite among Americans. Rye whisky, making a comeback now, offers a more challenging but equally delicious experience. Canadian whiskies tend to be lighter and smoother, while Scotch, synonymous with class and luxury, offers a range from bourbon-like to smoky and peaty notes. 

Irish whisky: Irish whisky, crafted in Ireland, provides yet another dimension to whisky exploration. From bold and full-bodied expressions to lighter and smoother options, Irish whisky has a delightful variety to explore. 

The best whisky on the rocks: While most enthusiasts prefer their fine spirits neat, some whiskies do well on the rocks. Now, this is a matter of personal preference and taste. But the popular opinion is that Bourbon, Irish, and Canadian whisky are commonly enjoyed with a glass stacked with ice cubes. Scotch on the rocks is another popular choice and it should be noted that blended Scotch is often preferred over single malt by most whisky connoisseurs. 

Whisky cocktails: For those easing into the world of whisky, cocktails provide a gateway to appreciating its nuanced flavours. Classics like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Whisky Sour, and Highball offer a balanced introduction to the complex world of whiskies. Experimenting with these cocktails can help develop a palate for the spirit before venturing into neat sipping.