Booze Education: Giving Advice To The Next Generation Of Whisk(e)y Lovers


Now THIS is a class that I would have never skipped in College!

At around 2AM Monday morning, a young college student in Philadelphia (we’ll call him AR) sent the following email to The Hip Flask and I:

Gentlemen,

Hello, I am a university student living in Philadelphia. I am trying to learn what I can about single malt scotch whiskey, and came across your blog. I was wondering if you had any resources on learning how to taste scotch? Ideally recommendations of places to go and do a whiskey tasting that is appropriate for a novice, or an individual from whom I could learn, either officially or unofficially.

Thank you.

AR

The Hip Flask responded to the email first and offered the following advice:

Hi AR,

I don’t know too many places to go in the Philly area to do tastings, etc. I could make a few book recommendations – you can’t go wrong with anything by Michael Jackson – but that doesn’t sound like what you’re looking for.

So, to really get you sauced in a hurry, I’ve copied a friend of mine who blogs and has far superior knowledge than I, especially on all things Philly.

G-LO, Take it away!

Cheers,

THF

And here is my response to THF and AR’s emails:

AR,

The Hip Flask (THF) is too kind. I don’t know about having a “far superior knowledge”, but I do know a good bit, and am very happy to pass along some information.

I guess the first question is, what have you had so far, and what do you like as far as flavors? Like most things in life, drinking Scotch is very subjective and personal, so I don’t want to steer you down the wrong path. Compared to my colleagues at “It’s just the booze dancing…”, I think I have the widest range of “likes” when it comes to whisky, so knowing what you do and don’t like would be very helpful. The last thing I would want to do is turn you off to Scotch by recommending something that you would have never liked in the first place.

As THF said, reading anything by Michael Jackson is a great start. There are also numerous resources on the web, and they are all free. If you scroll down to the Blog Roll on our website, you will find numerous links to other blogs and websites devoted to Scotch and whisky in general. Here are a couple links to get you started:

And here’s an extreme video example (yet VERY amusing) about whisky tasting:

Drinking whisky in Philly is a bit of a challenge. Although we’re more of a beer town, there are a couple places in Center City that have a respectable whisky selection. Here are a few:

My biggest complaint about drinking whisky in bars is the price. The younger stuff is somewhat reasonable, but once you get into something older, I feel like the prices get truly ridiculous.

If you have the time, some spare cash, and the desire, then I HIGHLY recommend attending the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Extravaganza event at The Union League on October 28th (click here for a discount code). Although you are pretty much on your own, it’s a great way to try a broad range of whiskies (Irish, Japanese, Scotch mostly). I will definitely be there!

Hope this helps to get you started. Let me know what you like and I’ll give you some recommendations. I’m sure THF will chime in as well.

Thanks for reaching out!

Cheers!
G-LO

AR reached out to us, and now I’m reaching out to you. What advice would you give to someone that wants to learn about the wonderful world of whisk(e)y? Let us know in the comments below.

Slainte Mhath!

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16 thoughts on “Booze Education: Giving Advice To The Next Generation Of Whisk(e)y Lovers

  1. Hey G-LO & THF,
    What a great conversation. I think you gave AR excellent direction and certainly some help in getting started.

    I would agree with what you all have said and add to it this:

    Reading books, labels and blogs can only get you so far (and this from a blogger!). They will help build a foundation of knowledge that may assist in your personal appreciation for the spirit, however, at the end of the day it’s all about what you, as a whisky drinker, like. Keep an open mind and taste as much as you can. The best way I have found to accelerate one’s tasting knowledge (from wine to whisky) is to be able to have multiple tastes in front of you at once so you can continue to smell/taste the various products and understand how they compare to one another. I believe people can understand the different nuances best through this kind of immediate comparison. I agree with G-LO, attending a big whisky event is a great way to do the side-by-side tastings. If the whisky drinking bar culture in Philly is not as developed as G-LO & THF have implied, then perhaps instead of waiting for coordinated tastings in the area, go befriend the bar tenders at a place that has a good whisky menu. Go on an off night when they are slow and perhaps offer to pay for a drink or two but ask him to spread his single pour of one out over tiny tastes of multiple bottles. Obviously, you’ll want to compensate him/her well for their help & guidance. Lastly, remember that there is more to whisky than Scotch and at the end of the day, the only wrong way to drink whisky is to not drink it at all! Welcome to the world of whisky lovers!

    -WW

  2. I don’t know if there are any shops specialising in whisky in Philly, but a great way I found to learn was to invest in mini-bottles which a shop in London sells – it’s a bit pricey, but cheaper than drinking at the bar and usually (if the shop is good) they can recommend things there and then, in person, better than a bar tender can and, for less than the price of one bottle, you can try a whole load of different ones to get a feel for what you like…reading about it can only do so much because, as G-Lo said, it all comes down to personal taste preference and, until they create lickable books (ooo…Dragon’s Den anyone?) getting your drink on may be the best option…

  3. Heya, glad I looked here. I’d got a similar e-mail and as a non local was going to point him your way. I agree with what you say, especially the Richard Paterson link. That really is a fine how to on the tasting scene. All I pretty much added was to encourage making doing tastings a social thing when he could. When I started up doing tastings with friends really helped build up a good whisky vocabulary fast as we compared notes on what we though, and really helped when there was that one flavour on the tip of your tongue you couldn’t quite identify.

    Good to see newcomers to the fine world of whisky

  4. Woah there G-LO!!! What on earth are you doing? This kid is a college student. Even if he is of legal drinking age, you should be encouraging him to embrace his academic studies, to revel in the company of like-minded co-eds in evening study groups and to pursue the forms of intellectual stimulii only provided withing the revered halls of our city’s ivy-adorned halls of higher learning.

    Or you could tell him to hook up with me for a carefully constructed craft beer curriculum.

    Then again, he did ask about scotch so perhaps your response was borderline appropriate. After all, What good is a 3.9 GPA if you can’t achieve it while taking at least a few finals with a hangover?

    As you may be aware, my area of adult beverage “expertise” rests in craft beer (more specifically, Domestic craft beers); however, I spent a few solid years in the pursuit of peat as well so I can lend a hand with a bit of advice:

    First, you and WW are correct, with just a few exceptions Philly isn’t really a whiskey town (no selection in the City is anywhere near what you’ll find at one of your meccas, Keens Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan). That said, Cooperage has a decent selection. The Capital Grill (and I’m sure the Palm, Ruth’s Chris & Mortons) will have a handful of good pours but they will be outrageously overpriced and they won’t have the full spectrum of single malts to choose from – just some very good highlights. WW’s suggestion of hitting a place on an off night (Tuesday’s for instance) and passing the bartender a few bucks to set you up with some sample pours is a really good one. Moving to G-LO’s neighborhood would expose you to a ton of interesting whiskey’s and commentary as well but there are perils associated with living too close to those people. No need to get into that now. The visuals are too disturbing even for me and I still have many of hours of work ahead of me.

    Cheers!
    @TheAlemonger

  5. Brilliant advice from all of you! Yes. Even you Sir Alemonger.

    AR emailed me this morning and I have responded. I will share it with all of you later this evening.

    In the meantime…. keep the good stuff coming!

  6. For someone trying to figure out where to start with single malts, I find this “Single Malt Flavor Map” from Diageo’s website (sure, it might be a biased map) actually quite helpful for understanding what different types of malts are available, and making sure you choose a variety.

    http://www.malts.com/index.php/en_us/Choosing-Whisky/A-World-of-Flavour/The-Single-Malt-Whisky-Flavour-Map

    And no, I am in no way affiliated with that site! Just giving a shout-out to a nice tool.

  7. The conversation continues…

    Here is AR’s respinse to my email:

    G-LO,

    Thank you for your prompt reply and thorough response!

    I am not certain what I like as flavors because I have not had a large variety. I have had 12 yr Glenlivit and Glenfiddich, both of which were good. I also recall liking a 16 yr Lagavulin. One scotch that I definitely liked was the Coal Ila (10 yr). This list is also most of my single-malt experience, I have had a few others that I don’t recall the exact name of. It is difficult to compare the different ones since I drank them so far apart (timewise) and had no frame of reference.

    Part of what I want to do is learn about how to taste, so that I can intelligently taste a variety of whiskeys and discover what I like.

    Thank you for the links, I will make sure to check them out.

    I will keep the whisky bars in mind, but I agree with you about the price issue.

    I also had come across the Extravaganza on the internet. It does seem like a pretty cool event, and I am eager to attend a whisky tasting, but there are two issues that could prevent me from going:

    1) Price – even with the discount (thank you), $120 is a lot. I’m not sure I could justify spending that much.

    2) Lack of experience – if I end up going to an expensive tasting like this, I really feel that I have to know what I am doing. I want to learn how to taste scotch, what the terminology means, all the flavors and components I should look for, and such. If I don’t have some base knowledge, I have to wonder how much I would get out of it.

    Another tasting I found on the internet is the Whiskey Festival on November 15th (http://www.phillymag.com/whiskeyfest/index.html), which is also $85, so still expensive but a good value it seems looking at what they will have.

    You ask what I like — I would like to try a spread of whisky’s that cover some range of flavors, regions, peatiness, or other factor so that I can determine what I prefer and learn to be able to discern said differences.

    Do you have recommendations for scotch whiskys that really showcase different aspects of whisky-ness?

    Thank you very much for your willingness to help me get started, I do appreciate it!

    AR

    And here’s my response which echos what we’ve all been saying:

    AR,

    No need to thank me! This is EXACTLY what I hoped to do when we started the blog. Thanks for the opportunity to help!

    You gave me lots of information, now I need to figure out how to make sense of it all.

    Let’s start with nosing and tasting…

    To be honest, I only recently started to really take my time to nose and taste what I’m drinking. I used to just drink and decide whether I liked a particular beverage based on taste alone. The writing has helped me to slow down and start to figure out what I like and don’t like. As I said in my previous email, this whole tasting and nosing business is very personal, and everyone’s impressions could have HUGE variances. Back in July, I was invited to take part in a tasting panel for something called The WhiskyCast Virtual Tastings (Shameless plug: it’s available on iTunes as a podcast. The 2nd edition Virtual Tasting is much more entertaining. The Malt Stock guys are great!). The moderator, Mark Gillespie of http://www.whiskycast.com, gave us three different whiskies and asked us to discuss what we smelled and tasted. Since we weren’t professional tasters, he helped us along and kept reminding us that there really are no wrong answers. He also reminded us that smells and tastes are essentially memories. Things like “it reminds me of that cinnamon pastry that I used to get at the bakery down the street when I was a kid” or maybe “it has a smokiness that reminds me of that cigar my Dad used to smoke when he finished mowing the lawn”. These are extreme examples, but you get the idea. The point is that taking your time and really analyzing a whisk(e)y will eventually allow you to pick up stuff like that. What you should definitely pick up is a good tasting glass. Something with a bowl that tapers and narrows as it moves towards the top. A rocks glass is great for drinking, but not so great for nosing. A Glencairn glass is fantastic for nosing, and it’s reasonably priced ($10 to $15).What really amazes me about nosing and tasting is how you’ll smell something sweet in the nose, but never find it when you take that first sip.

    It takes me a long time to really pick up separate and distinct odors in a whisky. I usually start by putting about 1.5 to 2 ounces in a Glencairn glass and letting it sit a bit to let the alcohol dissipate a bit. Then I give it a sniff, think, write. Give it a swirl. Let it sit. Pick it up again and smell. Write some more. Then I take a tiny sip, hold it against my tongue, and try to think about what’s going. What effect is it having on my mouth? Sometimes it starts off sweet, then the spice might kick in. It could end really peppery, or hot like cinnamon, or maybe really medicinal and drying. The whole short, medium, or long finish is open to debate. Some whiskies could linger for seconds, a few minutes, or maybe even for as long as 30 minutes.

    After I try it straight, I go back, add some water, and do it all again. I like to keep some water around to cleanse my palate between sips. I’ll occasionally have a slice of white bread or an unsalted oyster cracker to get my mouth and tongue back in shape too.

    If you ask 50 different whisky geeks about how they nose and taste, you’ll probably get 50 different answers. There are guidelines, but as far as I’m concerned, there are no rules. Keep in mind that I usually only go to this much trouble when I’m alone and working on a review. Also, the pros have been doing this kind of extensive tasting for years, so they have a wealth of memories to refer back to. You should really reach out to the whisky bloggers and writers. I’ve gone back and forth with a few people and the majority are quite generous and love to give advice.

    And now for the drinking…

    If you like Lagavulin and Caol Ila, then you definitely like the classic Islay whiskies. I too am a fan of Islay! I like the big, intense flavors that they bring to the table, and I REALLY like the smokiness. What impresses me most about Single Malt Scotch is the broad range of flavors. I truly believe that there is a whisky out there for everyone as long as you can keep an open mind.

    I would say that you’re off to a great start! Here are a few recommendations: Aberlour A’bunadh from Speyside (About $60), Highland Park 12 from Orkney (under $40), Talisker 10 from the Isle of Skye (one of my favorites. about $55), Laphroiag Quarter Cask from Islay (very intense and smoky. around $55), The Balvenie DoubleWood from Speyside (around $45), The Glenlivet Nadurra from Speyside (around $60), and The Macallan 10 Fine Oak from the Highlands (about $45). Those should give you a good sampling of everything that Scotland has to offer. One more thing about Scotch… don’t discount the blends. There are some great ones. Compass Box whiskies, Chivas Regal 18, and Johnnie Walker Black and above are well worth trying.

    How do you feel about Bourbon or other world whiskies? Scotland is AMAZING, but there is also great whisky coming out of Ireland, Japan, the USA, and even Sweden. Japan’s Yamazaki 12 is fantastic, and so are some of the Small Batch bourbons like Knob Creek, Basel Hayden, Woodford Reserve, and Eagle Rare. They also tend to be less expensive.

    Do you have friends at school that are also into whisky? If so, then I think you should go in on some bottles with friends. Good way to cut costs, also a great way to have some fun discussions with friends.

    As far as the Extravaganza goes, it is definitely not cheap, but when you consider the variety (and quantity!) that you will have at your disposal for close to 2 hours, then I think you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. Last year I had a Glenlivet 25, a Laphroiag 30, and a Balvenie 21. Those three whiskies alone would set you back at least $120 at a bar or close to $1,000 if you bought full bottles. And there’s the single cask, cask strength Society bottlings! They go for $80 and up for each bottle. The Philly magazine event looks pretty good too, and they’ll have lots of Bourbon to try (the Buffalo Trace Antique collection alone is worth the price of admission), but I think it’s a much bigger event with lots more people. At $85 though, it sounds like a good value.

    My apologies if I’m long winded. Like I said, I love talking about this stuff!

    Hope this helps. FYI, I took the emails from yesterday and posted them to the blog. Thought it could make for some good discussion. Feel free to chime in!

    Cheers!
    G-LO

  8. Wow! What a great post and ensuing informative conversation. I, too, am a fan of the Islay’s and the smokiness especially, and Lagavulin in particular—when I can get it or afford a bottle! Thanks for sharing this fun and well written post “session.”

  9. Whisky Extravaganza, Keens, expensive books by Michael Jackson??? Clearly this young student has come to the wrong Booze Dancer for advice.

    The Wookie’s advice on how to taste and experience Whiskey … on the cheap:

    1 – Tasting — Try everything you can. If you like it, it’s good. If you don’t like it, it sucks. Whiskey, beer, wine, and women are all the same in that everyone has different tastes and what works for one will not work for another … even if recommended by an expert.

    2 – Seek out free tastings. The Macallan events are awesome (5 expressions, munchies, some education .. gratis) Also many distributors will sponsor specials at bars where you can get cheap or free booze … I refer to the Tullamore Dew incident of 2009.

    3 – 2 words — OPEN BAR — wedding, parties, or any special event if the bar is open slip the barman a few bucks and taste the best stuff they have to offer.

    4 – Distillery tours — where ever you go look for a local booze producer. Chances are they’ll love to give you a tour and a taste. This goes for anywhere not just Scotland.

    In summary try as much as you can, in moderation, and if you like it you like it. This is all you need to know for Whiskey and life!

    End of lesson.

    • Did you not read all of the cost cutting measures that everyone mentioned?AR has had “The Glens” and has even ventured deep into Islay. This young Whisky Geek to be is well on his way and is just seeking some recommendations and tasting advice.

      Let’s comment on your list…

      1 – Agreed. Taste all you can taste. What you like or don’t like is a very personal thing. Reviews only help when you find someone with similar taste. It’s like me telling you to have a Laphroaig when I know that you generally don’t like uber-smoky whisky.

      2- Agreed. The Balvenie event was fabulous, as were the Macallan, Glenlivet, and Johnnie Walker events that I’ve attended over the years. The problem is that we don’t live in a major whisky market like New York or Chicago, so these events are few and far between. AR sounds like a man on a mission. Keep an eye out for the free tastings, but realize that they are a rarity.

      3 – Good suggestion in principal, but it’s gonna cost you extra to get to the good stuff. Let’s face it, top shelf at most catering places and open bars is usually Johnnie Walker Black or Chivas Regal 12. Good stufffor sure, but AR is already past that. Now if you’re looking to get loaded on the cheap, then this is 100% solid advice.

      4 – Also good advice. But is it practical for a college student in Philly? Ummm…. no.

      What AR needs is a group of friends that are willing to go in on some interesting whiskies and that are willing to share.

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