Chances are you’ve been to a bar at least once in your life. And chances are that at that bar, you’ve witnessed someone sloshing their drink around in their mouth as if it was whiskey-flavored mouthwash. On quick glance, you might jump to the conclusion that this person either a) does in fact believe their drink is mouthwash, or b) is having an internal battle as to whether or not they want to swallow what they’ve just taken a sip of. But on closer observation, you’ll notice this person is just tasting what they are drinking, especially if what they’re drinking is single malt Scotch.
Single malt Scotch is a beautiful thing. It rare in the world of whiskies, and when you do come across a good one, it can be a life-altering experience. The liquid is carefully crafted, and while most of the time you will end up paying a pretty penny for that fine libation, the juice always ends up being worth the squeeze. A spirit like this deserves a lot of attention and dedication; it’s certainly not something that should be just be poured into a shot glass and quickly downed. Believe it or not, there’s a method to enjoying a quality single malt Scotch.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with David McNicoll, brand ambassador for Morrison-Bowmore Distillery. He graciously took me through the step-by-step process to really get the best experience out of your single malt. From glassware to how you can pair it with food, important decisions go into having a successful Scotch experience. Is this the be-all and end-all way to do things? Of course not. In fact, McNicoll made it clear that each step is fairly subjective; everyone enjoys drinking in their own way, and these rules are by no means set in stone. However, this serves as a perfectly good guidebook to start with, which gives us enough of a jumping off point to see what works best. Gather up your pens and notepads — it’s time for an education!
Step 1: Choose Your Glass
While this may seem a bit simple, it’s a very important step in tasting your single malt. The biggest no-no? Using a brandy snifter. The beauty of the snifter is that it is perfect for just that: brandy. As you hold it the proper way, you warm the brandy with your hand, enhancing the experience. Great for brandy, not for Scotch. Instead, you should be looking for a glass that has a large bowl-like opening at the top. This ensures the aromas reach your nose from the surface of the Scotch, and don’t get trapped in the glass. A tulip shape, or if you really want to be authentic, get your hands on a Glencairn glass. This Scottish company makes glasses for the sole purpose of drinking Scotch, so you know you’re getting a good product. Order them here (link).
Step 2: Sight
At this point, you’ve poured some single malt into your preferred glassware. Give yourself a pat on the back for getting your hands on such a nice bottle of Scotch, you classy devil. Now, pick up that glass. Swirl it around gently. Observe the liquid in this chalice of yours. What are you looking for in this process? Legs! Just like drinking wine, the legs of a Scotch tell you a lot about what you are about to drink. They indicate the viscosity, or weightiness, of your Scotch, which will tell you if this spirit is going to be on the lighter or heavier side. In most cases, your single malt will be fairly viscous, however if you were doing this test with a blended Scotch, the legs would be much runnier.
Step 3: Sniff
Now that you’ve determined the weight of your single malt, it’s time to take a whiff. You’ll be doing a series of sniffs, so listen close. Your first sniff will be a quick one. This is an introduction not only to the single malt, but the alcohol as a whole. You are preparing your olfactory sense to intake a different aroma, and giving it some prep time will make it all the more enjoyable. After this, you’ll take your second sniff. This sniff is slightly longer, in order to take in more of the aromas in the Scotch. Don’t linger too long on this one, or you’ll overpower your olfactory system and have to start all over again. Your third and final sniff is more of a personal covenant; you’ll smell more of the Scotch in this one, and start to appreciate what you’re about to drink. If your nose needs a break in between sniffs, it can be helpful to take both a sip and a sniff of still water. This gives your olfactory sense a clean slate, allowing you to go back to square one.
Step 4: Taste
Finally! It’s time to take a nice big swig of that Scotch that we’ve been staring at and sniffing on, right? Not exactly. Like the sniffing, you’ll want to break this down into a few steps first before you go into straight sipping and enjoying. Your first sip is going to be similar to your first sniff. It’s a quick sip, straight down the middle of your tongue. This is to prepare your body, again, for the alcohol that you’re about to intake. You’ll feel a nice warmth in your chest after about five seconds or so, and after that settles, you’re ready to really jump in. Your next sip is less a sip, and more a sizeable gulp. With this gulp you’ll want to swirl the liquid around in your mouth; let it roll on the tongue and underneath it. After you’ve done that for several seconds, you’ll want to swallow very slowly. During this second sip, you’re really taking in all the flavors and feelings of your single malt. Is it smoky? Are there notes of honey, lemon, or caramel? Only your palate will know for sure, so try and focus your senses during this time. Your third sip and every sip hereafter are for pure enjoyment. Sip and relax friends, it’s Scotch time.
Insider Tip: Whether you choose to support it or not, a few drops of water can be incredibly beneficial to your single malt drinking. Don’t water it down heavily; just a teaspoon and a quick swirl in the glass, and you are sure to get an entirely different and very pleasant drinking experience.
Step 5: Pairing
Like this entire process, pairing a single malt with food is entirely based on what you taste in your Scotch, and what you think those flavors will pair best with. During my tasting session with McNicoll, we posted up at an oyster bar and enjoyed our Scotch with some briny slurpers, which were a perfect pairing. However, this isn’t the only food group that works well with a sweet and smoky single malt. Cheese and chocolate are great choices, as are cold cuts, smoked salmon, and nuts. Alternately, if you would rather pair with something that isn’t food, a smooth and luxurious cigar is a perfect choice.
One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to enjoying your single malt, so let these steps be your guide and your Scotch enjoyment will be one for the books. Cheers, and as the Scottish say, Slainte mhath!
— Sara Kay, The Spir.it