Tuesday 8 April 2014

Professor Thomas, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Cocktail

Now that we’ve clarified that Prohibition did considerably more harm than good, we can trace the evolution of mixed drinks and bartending techniques back even further.
Drink-makers from the late 1700’s until the 1830’s had to work with fairly archaic tools, serving punches, nogs, slings, and the like using hot pokers, toddy sticks, and tumblers or mugs. Ice was not only scarce but difficult to work with, so hot water was a more common mixer. Fruits were common in cities and rare in the country, and conversely the country had readily available dairy and clean water. Single-serving Punch became all the rage by the turn of the 19th century, as did the Julep and the Cock-Tail, though the quality of your drink was very dependent on where in the country you were ordering it.

In the 1830’s, ice became a much more regular commodity, changing drinking habits forever. Cold drinks became expected, straws became popular, and bartenders had to learn ice-handling skills and tools. This included the invention of the barspoon, with which to stir the ice, and the shaker to shake it. By the 1880’s, the drinks themselves had become as fancy as the bartender’s tools, including fruit, bitters, liqueurs and cordials, wines, and more readily available spirits. Presentation become paramount to the craft. 
“Professor” Jerry Thomas is not confirmed to be the ‘best’ bartender at the time, but he was well-known and mixed drinks in many cities across the U.S. for thirty years, at one point supposedly having a higher income than the President (at the time ~$100 per week). Why he is important is mostly because he wrote what is considered the first comprehensive book on bartending and mixing drinks, aptly titled “How To Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion” in 1862. It contained information on tools of the trade, techniques, and a wealth of recipes. With the turn of the 20th century being the summit of cocktail culture’s popularity, and arguably no better book on bartending being published until the 1930’s, this makes Jerry Thomas the most important bartender of all time.

As bartenders today, we have to understand how drinks were made when they were made best. This is not just geeking-out on history; the more drinks you make the more you realize how important the details are. The quality of ice, the proper tools, the right balance in taste, and the best products possible are the keys to making the best drinks, just as they were 150 years ago. Bartenders need to understand why these things are important before trying to push the envelope, reinvent the wheel, or some other suitable cliche.

For those of us most interested in classic cocktails, the story stops in that time period. We believe bartenders had it right before Prohibition. We are most interested in the drinks from that period and have no desire for the aforementioned cliches. We also believe that the greatest challenge is to make a perfectly balanced but incredibly simple drink.

Lastly, enjoying and making a classic cocktail is the excitement of tapping into the history of that time. Personally, this is why I find bartending so rewarding. Well… that and alcohol is awesome.

Saturday 5 April 2014

Prohibition Killed The Cocktail

It is a common misconception that American Prohibition created the cocktail. I hear this working behind the bar, reading blog posts and books, and have even encountered it during historical walking tours. This inaccurate tale is usually told like so:

Once alcohol was criminalized, bathtub gin and watered-down, bootlegged spirits became the unavoidable drinks of choice. This booze was such poor quality that drinkers started to mask the flavours with juices, liqueurs, and herbs - the inception of what we know today as classic cocktails. There are such stories of specific drinks as well - the Southside, for example. In the 1920’s, Chicago was split into two zones (South and North) ruled by two different gangs (Al Capone in the south and Dean O’Banion in the north). The North Side Gang, being closer to Canada, cornered the market on bootlegged whisky, forcing the South Side Gang to rely more on the sale of bathtub gin. This gin tasted so awful, adding citrus and mint to it was the only way to make it palatable.

Unfortunately, almost none of this is true.

The mixed drink actually dates back hundreds of years before Prohibition in the form of punch, which constituted simply a large volume mixture of liquor or wine with fruits, juices, or dairy, and ice if it was handy. The “Cock-tail” as a singular drink (containing spirit, bitters, sugar, and water) dates to sometime in the 18th century, still almost 200 years earlier than the 18th Amendment. The “Golden Age of Cocktails,” the name given to the heyday of the saloon from about 1860-1919, saw the evolution of the single-serving punch and the original “Cock-tail.” This is essentially the true birth of what we know today as classic cocktails. Most of the popular, old drinks we still enjoy today come from this time period (Manhattan, Sazerac, Martini, Martinez, Negroni, Old Fashioned, and so on).

So what exactly did Prohibition do to cocktail culture? It actually had the reverse effect of what many seem to think. American Prohibition, for all intensive purposes, destroyed classic bartending. It wiped recipes, techniques, and ingredients from existence. It took previously high-standards of drinking culture and flushed them down the proverbial toilet. It raised an entire generation on bad-quality liquor and trained them to expect nothing more (a tradition proudly carried through the 1970’s-90’s).

Once alcohol was outlawed, many producers either went out of business, sold their remaining stock and evolved, or in the case of European companies, simply stopped supplying any product to the U.S. Many popular ingredients disappeared, only to be resurrected over the last ten years during the classic bartending revival (e.g. creme de violette, Boker’s bitters, Abbott’s bitters, amari, etc).

By the turn of the century, bartending techniques and tools were perfected, and the finest establishments and hotels had access to good-quality ice. During Prohibition, the only bars were speakeasies, hidden in back rooms and basements with no refrigeration, tools, or even bartenders most of the time, making cocktails next to impossible to actually make. (Keep in mind, no refrigeration meant no juice).

Bartenders, who were in the 19th century both respected and revered, either had to completely change careers (many became soda jerks) or flee to Europe to continue their craft. It is in Paris and London through the 1920’s and 30’s that bartending does continue its story, no thanks to anything that was happening in the U.S.

After the repeal in 1933, bartending returned slowly but (arguably) never to the same level of quality and seemingly without the same sense of history. With the improvement of technology bringing us the blender, ice machines, and column stills to mass-produce liquor, the focus on profit margin and bad taste became too much to bear by the 1950’s, and classic cocktails were all but forgotten. (Another misconception is that the 50’s and 60’s were great eras for the cocktail, when in fact they were the decades when it finally withered away and passed quietly in the night while old purists watched in sorrow.)

So as you can see, we can blame Prohibition for killing the cocktail, not creating it. Today, as so many bars are returning bartending to its 19th century form, where do we find inspiration and technique? Stay tuned...

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Lost & Found: The Seelbach Cocktail

Every hotel, bar, or restaurant used to have a signature drink. In fact, for a few hundred years from the peak of punch through the heyday of plain and fancy drinks in the mid 19th century, all alcoholic beverages were named after either their ingredients or the establishment that created them. Some famous examples include the Manhattan, Brooklyn, Clover Club, Pegu Club, and Sazerac. One of the many sad consequences of U.S. Prohibition was that any business relying on selling alcohol had to be shut down, and often with it went an interesting history and a signature drink.

The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, is a great example. Built in 1905 by the Seelbach brothers, this hotel was an attempt to recreate the beauty and decadence of western Europe. Located within was The Rathskeller, a 400-seat capacity nightspot whose menu claimed that “every essential, artistic detail is a reproduction of the underground drinking and council hall of one of the famous castles on the Rhine.” Most impressively, this was one of the very first air-conditioned rooms ever built, requiring forty tons of steam-produced refrigeration every twenty-four hours to maintain at least a ten degree cooler temperature than the hot Kentucky air outside.

Theatre-goers and socialites spent evenings here, likely enjoying the signature cocktail, The Seelbach – a light, spicy mixture of bourbon, Cointreau, Champagne, and a hefty dose of both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Though unconfirmed (as most of these stories are), the tale of its inception involves a bartender opening a foaming bottle of Champagne and grabbing a nearby customer’s Manhattan to catch the spill. This patron enjoyed the combination and a new drink was born.

Most famously, the Seelbach Hotel was frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who at the time was writing “The Great Gatsby,” and supposedly based some of the novel on his experience there. The female lead, Daisy Buchanan, was from Louisville, so perhaps he found inspiration in a particular guest? Perhaps for Gatsby as well?

Once the 18th Amendment was passed, the bars inside were closed and The Rathskeller became simply an extended dining room. Part of this space was even leased to Walgreen Drugs. The Seelbach Cocktail, now illegal, was forgotten.

In the 1930’s a new bar was opened that offered its own theatre and musical entertainment, and though many ownership and design changes have occurred over the last eighty years, the Seelbach still stands and parts of the original Rathskeller designs still remain. The story goes that in 1995 when ownership was undergoing another renovation of the hotel, a manager discovered (I like to think it was physically found in the basement) a recipe for the Seelbach Cocktail and again made it the house drink, though the specifics were guarded. Thanks to Gary Regan, who convinced the Seelbach Hotel to allow the recipe to be published in his “New Classic Cocktails” book, we can all share in the drink’s history and unique flavour.

At Pourhouse, we’ve altered the recipe slightly to suit our tastes, so come try our version and tip your glass to Fitzgerald, Gatsby, forgotten cocktails, and air conditioning.

[originally published on pourhousevancouver.com/blog]

Sunday 16 February 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Scotch

Scotch is without a doubt the most complex and diverse of whiskies. Despite being geographically small, Scotland is home to over a hundred distilleries - more than the rest of the world put together (though this is likely about to change as more and more open every year). For historical, practical, legal, and geographical reasons, there are a range of flavours, aromas, and production methods involved - so many that whisky writers have overflowing websites and books with only their favourites. I felt compelled to do another whisky post just on Scotch alone. It’s a daunting prospect to enter a world of so many different great but expensive whiskies, so here are some things you should know.

How many kinds of Scotch are there?
While whisky can be separated by region, there are also some legal definitions:

Single Malt: a product of one distillery, made from only malted barley, yeast, and water.

Blended: a combination of single malt and grain whiskies from one or a number of distilleries that have been matured separately before being combined. 

Blended Malt/Vatted Malt: a blended whisky containing a mixture of only single malts from multiple distilleries. 

Grain: whisky made from one or any number of grains other than malted barley, usually by column still, and used for blending.

How is single malt made?
The most important of Scotch (not just because they’re considered the best, but because blends don’t exist without them) is the single malt. These are made by first soaking barley in water, which tricks the grain into growing. The husk breaks down as shoots are produced, giving access to the starches and enzymes within. This process is called “malting.” The growth is halted by drying out the barley using a heat source, historically by burning peat moss (giving the whisky a smoky flavour and aroma), later by coal ovens, and now usually by electric ones. The dried barley is ground into flour and mixed with hot water to remove the starches and enzymes into solution. The grains are removed, and yeast is added to convert the starches to sugars and the sugars to CO2 and alcohol. After a few days, what’s left is essentially a sour beer, which is then distilled (usually twice). The first compounds to distill not only taste bad but can be poisonous, and the last ones are unpleasant as well, so it’s the middle run that is kept. This is put into barrels and matured for a minimum of three years, usually ten to eighteen. This is where most of the flavour of the whisky is created and honed, and the end products are usually blended to achieve consistency.

What kinds of barrels are used?
There are no barrel regulations for Scotch, so you will see a range of woods being used, sometimes even on the same whisky. American or French oak, new or used, sherry or bourbon, and all manner of combinations. Over time the whisky will absorb compounds from the wood, adding flavours like vanilla, toast, butter, spice, smoke, caramel, tobacco, as well as colour. The wood also softens the alcoholic edge. Because most Scotch barrels have been previously used and are rarely toasted or charred, the absorption process tends to take longer than other types, such as American. This is why single malts are aged typically at around twelve years, whereas bourbon is aged at around half that. 

How does Scotch differ by region?
While these are generalizations, there are flavours and methods consistent with where the whisky is made. Here are the major regions and their characteristics:

Highlands: due to climate, barley is historically more difficult to grow in this region, so less whisky was produced. It was also illegal at one point to distill here, so smaller stills were both sufficient and necessary. These smaller stills allow more compounds and oils to pass through, yielding a thicker and more flavourful malt.

Lowlands: the invention of the column, or continuous still, allowed for considerably faster production. These were built first near the city ports, such as Glasgow, where there was a better climate and therefore larger supply of barley. Bigger stills mean more surface area of copper for compounds to be removed, making cleaner, lighter, and smoother spirits.

Speyside: this is technically part of the Highlands, but about two thirds of all Scottish distilleries reside here so it is considered a region of its own. Close proximity to the Spey River allow distilleries easy-access to a water supply for whisky-making. Easier production meant higher volumes, so Speyside distilleries adopted not just larger stills but faster methods of drying the barley than peat, such as coal, then oil, gas, and so on. Speyside whiskies tend to be sweet, fruity, soft, and approachable, with typically less or even no smoke. Most of the distilleries here are younger and are used for blending and don’t even sell single malts.

Campbeltown: the Mull of Kintyre was at one time the main export point to North America and had a large number of distilleries. Now there are barely a handful left and this is not considered a Scotch region as it once was.

The Islands: The invention of trains, railways, and coal-burning brought to the mainlands more efficient methods of drying barley than burning peat. The trains weren’t able to travel to the islands, however, so the traditional methods lived on and today peat is both a historical and defining characteristic of island whisky. The most prolific and famous of the islands is Islay, home to eight distilleries all producing a range of big, peaty, smoky malts.

Where should I start my single malt journey?
If you’re new to whisky, the most approachable place to start is the Lowlands or Speyside. These are approachable, soft, and often sweet-tasting whiskies. Speyside also produces the top-selling and cheapest of single malts, Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12. These are the Scotches you’ll encounter most often, but spending a little extra will get you a much warmer welcome to the party. Try the Balvenie Doublewood, Glenfiddich 15, (fruit, wood, vanilla), or Macallan 12 (fruitcake, spice, citrus, toffee). If you can spend a little more, try Aberlour A’bundah (dried fruit and spice), or the Highland options Dalwhinnie 15 (honey), and Glenmorangie Original (citrus, oak).

If you like sweeter and softer spirits like higher-priced bourbon or rum, Speyside is, again, a good start. 
If you like more rustic and harsh spirits, like cheap whiskey or big-bodied bourbons, try some Highland malts from Dalmore (wood, cocoa, citrus), or Oban (honey, peat, dried fruit). Also look into some non-Islay island whiskies, such as Highland Park 12 (honey, oak, fruit, spice, peat) or 18 (amazing balance of everything Scotch).

If you are adventurous and like the idea of drinking smoke, or if you like a good mezcal, try the Island whiskies. If smoky spirits are new to you, start with Arran 10 (butterscotch, mint, fruit), or one of my favourites, Talisker 10 (pepper, cocoa, oak), which have more balanced levels of peat. If you want to jump into the peatiest, Lagavulin 12 (citrus, smoke) and Bowmore 12 (seasalt, fruit, spice, smoke) to start and if you’re ready for that slap to the face of brine, medicine, and smoke, try Ardbeg 10, Bruichladdich 10 or 16, and Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Like any spirit, be wary of heavy marketing and trust whisky writers, bartenders, and your own research. Higher price-points don’t signify higher quality.

Should I try some blends?
Absolutely, but be warned that there is a lack of regulation on them, so on average you’re getting lower quality products. The worst blend is an astounding difference from the worst single malt. You often get what you pay for, so avoid anything cheap. BlackGrouse is a fine cheap blend, while Johnnie Walker Gold, or Compass Box are fine choices at higher cost. However, at this point you could arguably spend the same amount to get a great single malt. The blend experience can be just as rewarding, but because there is a quality risk, I suggest starting your adventure with single malts and doing research before spending too much on a blend. If you’re new to Scotch, avoid cheap blends at all costs and don’t make any rash judgments because of them.

For tips on how to enjoy your whisky, see the previous post - but I highly recommend you don’t add anything but distilled water. Considering the cheapest single malts are $55 (in B.C. where I’m from anyway), it’s not worth it to remove any flavour by means of ice and (god forbid) soda. I also recommend finding local Scotch tastings, which happen more than you realize and many are free. This is a great opportunity to find out what you like and don’t like without making any financial commitments. 

[originally published on www.shakestir.com]

Thursday 13 February 2014

The Cold, Hard Truth About Ice

How much does ice really matter?

While the average person might say “not much,” the average cocktail bartender will – with eyes widened – exclaim: “SO MUCH.”

So allow me, as a bartender, to nerd-out and give a full explanation as to why this is the case.

Ice, for all intents and purposes, should be considered an ingredient in the creation of a mixed drink, and like any other ingredient should be of the highest quality. A drink is only as good as its lowest-quality ingredient, so yes – ice quality matters a lot.

In the golden age of cocktails (the mid to late 19th century) ice was harder to come by as refrigeration technology was new to non-existent (depending where you lived). Only the best of establishments had the best of ice, usually delivered in large, very cold blocks from which the bartender would chip off clumps with an ice pick. This made well-crafted cocktails much more of a valued commodity than they are today. As ice became a taken-for-granted part of everyday life, and as the skill and art behind making cocktails disappeared, bars just began to use whatever was cheapest and easiest. This meant small, watery ice, and the drinks suffered (and still do) because of it.

To understand exactly why, let’s consider the purpose of ice in mixing drinks:

- it dilutes, softening the edge of the alcohol by lowering the proof, allowing flavours to combine with each other more easily

- it chills, lowering the perception sweetness, bitterness, and viscosity, all contributing to a better-balance of flavour, and a dry rather than sweet drink

and less importantly,
- in the case of egg or cream, it emulsifies ingredients, creating texture that both mutes the flavour of alcohol and increases the perception of sweetness, allowing for less added sugar

Given the above, ideally the ice should chill the drink as much as possible before over-diluting it. This means the optimal ice is as big, cold, and hard as possible to allow for the longest shaking or stirring time before the perfect amount of dilution is obtained. (Never trust a drink that only gets a few shakes or stirs before being served). Skimping on ice is the equivalent of skimping on ingredients – using the lowest quality of what’s available to save on costs means the drink quality will suffer. In fact, it’s even more important, because a Manhattan with a great whiskey, for example, can be ruined by adding too much water.

So what can be done about this to ensure the best ice? Most of the best cocktail destinations use a Kold Draft machine, which ensures large cubes that are colder, higher density, and more pure than any other machine. The high-pressure water injection system freezes out impurities, the cube-shape and cold temperature help make drinks as cold as possible, and the density of the cubes allows for slower dilution – again helping with temperature and allowing us more control when mixing. This also means anything enjoyed on the rocks isn’t a watery mess.

Nerdy, right?
Yes, but attention to detail is what makes the best food and drink, and ice-quality is an extremely important but often overlooked detail.

[photo: ice harvesters, circa 1912, New York State Archives]

[post originally published on pourhousevancouver.com]

Monday 27 January 2014

Mexican Spitfire: The Actress, The Temptress, The Suicide... The Cocktail

Today's new cocktail is a tip of the glass to an exotic Hollywood star of old, Lupe Vélez.

Vélez had the distinction of being the first (or at least one of the very first) Mexican actresses to break into Hollywood. She was feisty from a young age, a deviant child sent to a convent at thirteen – which only made matters worse. By her late teens she showed a passion for the theater and vaudeville, and left Mexico to make her Hollywood silent-film debut in 1927. She transitioned to talkies and starred opposite the likes of Jimmy Durante, Gary Cooper, Lon Chaney, and Edward G. Robinson. Many films and a Broadway-stint later, she became as well-known for her exotic image on the screen as for her strong and passionate personality off it.

In the late 1930′s, she was making comedies, most notably as a fiery Mexican girl in the aptly named “The Girl From Mexico,” a role she reprised six more times in films named, “The Mexican Spitfire.” It was a fitting persona that revitalized her career and quickly became her nickname (though she apparently wasn’t happy about it).

On the other side of the camera, her life was just as torrid, including affairs with numerous co-stars (such as Gary Cooper - about whom she said 'he had the biggest member in Hollywood, but not the buttocks to use it'), a rocky marriage with “Tarzan” actor, Jonny Weissmuller, and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy with actor Harald Maresch. This was seemingly her reason for suicide. Vélez took her life and that of her unborn child on December 14th, 1944, and named Maresch as the father in her suicide note. She was 36 years old.

Displaying 2-lupe-velez-ca-early-1930s-everett.jpgIt’s the circumstances of her death that are even more controversial. The photos and files on her crime scene mysteriously disappeared, leading to a wealth of founded and unfounded gossip. On the positive end, the first story had her dying in a peaceful sleep in an expensive gown on her silk-covered bed after overdosing on Seconal sleeping pills. Sadly, the most prominent story was the rumour that she was found drowned in her own toilet (and vomit) – hardly a glamorous end for a Hollywood star. It was only last year – seventy years later – that a crime scene photo of a deceased Vélez was discovered and validated, showing her lying peacefully on the floor in a beautiful floral dress.

In remembrance of the lovely Miss Vélez – her talent, passion, and Hollywood suicide – we raise a glass with the “Mexican Spitfire.” It’s a tart, fiery strong, but fruity and refreshing mix of tequila blanco, fresh lime, pineapple juice, Green Chartreuse, and a touch of habanero pepper tincture (courtesy of Scrappy's Firewater).

1.5 oz tequila blanco

0.5 oz green chartreuse
0.75 oz pineapple juice
0.5 oz lime juice
dash Scrappy's Firewater (to taste)

Shake with ice, double strain. 

Monday 20 January 2014

Things You Should Know About Whiskey

I consider myself lucky to work in a bar frequented by so many knowledgeable drinkers. Many know not only what they want, but exactly how they want it made and are quality-checking my every move. On the other hand, many have no idea what they want, so my responsibility is to find something new and exciting, thereby encouraging a little education. 

There are also those who know what they want, but know little about it. The best way to learn is by experiencing, but most of these customers will pick something they recognize off the backbar rather than asking for some advice. We trust what we know, but this can be limiting - usually to products that care more about being recognized than being good-quality!

Whiskey is my drink of choice, so I feel compelled to share some general knowledge for those who are interested but can use some facts along with their dram. These are common questions and what I consider important information. 

What is it?
Whiskey by definition is fermented and distilled grain. There are numerous sub-categories defined primarily by geography and the grains and production methods used. These categories are legal definitions, some very simple and loose (ex. Canadian), and some very strict and specific (ex. American). Here are the most common types and their general definitions (I am, of course, paraphrasing):

Scotch: whisky (no “e”) produced in Scotland from malted barley (and often other grains), aged in wood barrels, and can contain colouring. Scotch has a wide range of flavours, many being earthy and smoky due to the burning of peat to dry out the malt. It also has a range of quality, with “single malt” regulations guaranteeing a good product, and “blended” guaranteeing nothing. 

Bourbon: produced in the U.S. (not specifically Kentucky) from at least 51% corn and aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon produced in Tennessee including the extra step of filtering through maple charcoal after distillation. Bourbon is fuller-bodied, sweeter, and more approachable than most whiskies. 

Rye: produced in the U.S. from at least 51% rye and aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Rye tends to be dry, light, and spicy. It was the most commonly used whiskey in classic cocktails (bourbon came much later).

Irish: produced in Ireland from any number of grains and blends (though often malted and unmalted barley) and aged in wood barrels. These whiskies tend to be more soft and subtle than Scotch with no smokiness. 

Canadian: produced in Canada from any grain, aged in any barrel, and can contain colouring and flavouring. Despite being called and labelled “rye” for historical purposes, most Canadian whiskies are made from corn and contain no rye at all. This lack of regulation is why Canadian whisky is typically poor-quality. They tend to lack flavour, and with a couple exceptions should be avoided altogether.

I am often asked questions like “what’s the difference between Scotch and whiskey?” or “can you make my Whiskey Sour with bourbon instead of whiskey?” So, let the above be the lesson. These are all types of whiskey. 

While Scotland, Ireland, and the U.S. have the most history and reputation, many other countries around the world are producing great products, including Japan, New Zealand, England, India, Australia, and Belgium, just to name a few. Their production methods and regulations vary, but we won’t get into that now as you won’t encounter them as often.

How are they labelled?
Most producers only reveal what they have to on a label, which varies by country. There are certain words to look for, like “straight” with American whiskey, which legally claims it has been aged for at least two years, and “single malt” for Scotch, claiming it has been produced only from malted barley at one distillery. The word “blended” refers to the whiskey being a combination of multiple products, usually from multiple distilleries. Having words like “bourbon” or “Scotch” on a label is verifying a certain level of quality - by law - whereas “Canadian Straight Rye Whisky” means basically nothing. That’s where category knowledge will help you out.

Age labels refer to the youngest whiskey in the bottle. This is to stop producers from adding a drop of 20-year old whiskey to 3-year old and labelling it as the former. 

What does “blended” mean? Should I avoid it?
Blended whiskey just refers to the product being a combination of multiple distillations. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, basically all whiskies are blends unless specifically labelled “single barrel” or “single cask.” Whiskey can be a blend of multiple barrels, years, grains, or even distilleries. When discussing, “blended” usually refers to Blended Scotch Whisky, which is made up of 50-90% grain whiskies (ones made from individual grains) along with single malts. Blends make up for about 90% of Scotland’s whisky production, and are some of the top-selling spirits in the world (including the #1-selling whisky, Johnny Walker). Like everything else, there are good and bad ones. 

If I don’t like one brand, should I avoid everything they make?
No! Basically every distillery has multiple products made in multiple ways. Just because you don’t like one particular product doesn’t mean that the single barrel or sherry-casked version isn’t much better. For example, Johnny Walker Blue, Black, and Green are all considerably higher quality than Red. For a broader example, Jim Beam White Label is produced by the same company as Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek, which is a diverse range of bourbon.

How should I be drinking it?
There is no “right” way to drink it. It’s your drink and you can enjoy it any way you please. Just know that diluting it too much or chilling it will both reduce aroma and flavour. Lowering the temperature of your mouth essentially numbs the palate, so you will experience less if you have it on the rocks or with a chilled whisky stone. (I’m sure I don’t need to mention that adding any kind of soda or mixer will mask the flavour of the whiskey entirely).

There’s nothing wrong with adding a little water. In fact, it can often enhance flavours by lowering the proof, allowing your smell and taste receptors to find more behind the ethanol. However, it’s best to only add a little and to always use distilled water rather than tap or sparkling, both of which can affect flavour. (Many whisky purists insist on adding regional spring water, but if you’re unsure or unable, just go with distilled). Spirits over 50% ABV will benefit from a little water. 

Also, a quick rule for bartenders: no one should water another’s whisky - always serve water on the side. 

And of course, if you’re in the mood for a cocktail, a properly-made Old-Fashioned (spirit, bitters, sugar, water) is the simplest, purest, and oldest drink there is. It’s the best way to enjoy your whiskey if you want to mix it, with the Manhattan and Sazerac to follow. 

Does higher price mean higher quality?
No - though this is a better bet than a lot of other spirits (particularly vodka and brandy). A general rule is that the product price should match the difficulty of its production. That is why whiskies produced in small volumes or old-ages cost more than young whiskies mass-produced across multiple distilleries. Some companies slyly take advantage of this and market their products as “premium” or “top-shelf” and price them higher, when they’re actually just selling average (or sometimes poor-quality) spirits. Trust your taste-buds before you trust a price-tag! 

Bigger reputation doesn’t mean better quality either. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The brands that advertise the most should make you wonder why they’re not spending these resources on developing and improving their products. If you’re not sure where to start, get some advice from a bartender, friend, or do a little research on your own. Don’t just choose what you recognize on a shelf.  

Who should enjoy it?
Everyone! Whiskey isn’t “an old man’s drink” (In fact, no drink should be gender specific, but that’s another rant altogether). It’s not always harsh and dark brown and high-proof. In fact, many whiskies are soft, approachable, and sweet. A bad product or bad experience can be off-putting, but remember that there is a lot of diversity by type, style, region, and quality. Some whiskies taste like you ate the remains of yesterday’s campfire, some taste like honey and tree fruit, and some taste like buttery toast and vanilla. Try every style you can and find what you like.