Four reasons for wine lovers to embrace whisky
It was during the Edinburgh festival about ten years ago, I was in a bar with some English friends. Not inconsiderable quantities of alcohol had been imbibed and, though he wasn't being aggressive, a local was indicating - mainly through body language and the odd murmured comment - that my friends' high spirited presence at the bar was at the very least an annoyance.
“What are you drinking Pierre?” one of my cohorts enquired, at which point the local questioned me - “Pierre? That's not an English name...”
“Believe it or not I'm French” I informed him, to which he replied, “French? Then you're practically Scottish! Can I buy you a dram?”
I'd love to tell you that from here on in I began a life long love affair with Scottish single malts - sadly it took a couple more years before whisky opened up to me. As the grandson of a Parisian wine merchant I was still too much in love with the fruit of the vine to consider any infidelity.
However the good news is I believe that wine appreciation can be an excellent apprenticeship for embarking on the voyage of discovery the world of whisky offers.
You speak the language of whisky, you just don't know it
There is a ritualistic approach to wine appreciation – nosing the bouquet, assessing the colour, brightness, body in the glass, “chewing” the wine, looking for complexity, picking out constituent flavours, swallowing and then analysing the finish. As a wine lover you have learned to pick out scents, flavours, textures and to find comparisons – vanilla, summer fruit, leather, forest floor, decomposing cabbage... whatever it takes to describe the wine.
The drink is different but the ritual remains the same and much of the technique for assessing - and vocabulary for describing - whisky is already in your possession.
You may never have gone near a glass of whisky but you already possess many of the skills you will require to delve deep into the complexity and flavours it can offer. The drink is different but the ritual remains the same and much of the technique for assessing - and vocabulary for describing - whisky is already in your possession.
As with your first steps with wine there is an acclimatisation period. Subtle differences may be hidden from you and the high alcohol content may take some time to get used to – you've got to hold the whisky in your mouth for quite a while and that can burn at first. Pretty quickly though your taste buds will toughen up and you'll start to spot common features in quite varied whiskies which make their differences even more apparent. Just as you can tell Napa Valley from Médoc, soon telling a typical Speyside from an Islay will be obvious to you in a blind tasting. And that is where the fun really starts.
Return on investment - your money goes a long way with whisky
A friend of mine who is a product designer was called to a meeting with a large drinks manufacturer who wanted him to design a “wine fountain” to be installed in bars. Essentially wine on tap, they told him their research had shown that people wanted “fresh wine.” When he suggested that the whole point of wine was surely that it's better when it's old rather than “fresh”, the assembled marketing execs just stared at him with expressions of blank incomprehension.
As a connoisseur of fine wine you will have learned a little patience - up to a point it keeps getting better with age. This is exactly the same with whisky but as a wine lover you are going to spot something others may not. With some notable exceptions, most of the "standard" expressions from distilleries have been aged for 10 years and even some fairly affordable malts are 15 or 18 years old. Given that you're not going to drink the bottle in one night, but will probably work your way through it over a period of months or even years, compare its cost to the price of a good quality 1995 Bordeaux.
That's right, amazing value!
Whisky and wine both have a sense of place or - as they say in France – terroir
While mass produced new world wine is frequently marketed on grape varietal alone, the most important thing in good quality old world wine is not what it is made from but where it is from.
The French call this “terroir”, a term derived from the word for soil or land, but with a meaning that encapsulates more than that. The soil and geography form part of terroir but so too does the local style, skill and “essence” of the place. The regions can be tiny, the Médoc peninsula in Bordeaux for example is sub divided into small parcels of land. Moving a few miles up the road can take you from Paulliac to St Estephe and introduce important differences in the wine you will encounter.
With whisky there is a parallel to be drawn. I've often heard fans of a particular whisky say they only really understood their favourite dram after a visit to the distillery because the drink has a sense of place.
The soil and geography form part of terroir but so too does the local style, skill and “essence” of the place.
Scotch whisky has as many differences of style as the wines from different parts of the France. Local geography plays a part, not because of the soil but because of other equally influential factors. Whisky matured in coastal distilleries will have a maritime influence due to the humidity and salt in the air. If local peat is used to dry the malt it will affect the flavour - peat from Islay will have a very different composition to Highland peat.
Local styles influence the product enormously: Highland distillers have different techniques and preferences to their counterparts on Islay. A distillers choice of whether to use peat is a hugely important decision but so to are preferences for different types of cask. Some producers favour casks that once contained sherry, others Bourbon and some even use new wood - all of which impart flavour and complexity to the whisky. Move to other countries and the differences get even more extreme - the climate in India for example means whisky matures faster allowing for young whiskies with unusual profiles.
This lack of homogeneity, the way that the drink in your glass can transport you to the place it is made, this celebration of diversity, local craft and tradition is something that as a wine lover will feel familiar. Whisky appreciation gives you a whole new set of places to taste.
As a wine lover you'll enjoy the diversity and intensity of whisky
Gerwürztstraminer from Alsace compared to a Chilean Carmanere, one slightly oily, perfumed with a delicate sweetness, a pale gold - the other rich and dark with notes of cocoa. Diverse certainly but at least as diverse is a comparison of a young smokey Islay matured in an American oak cask, with its oily body, light colour, smoke and vanilla overtones to a sherry wood matured Japanese whisky, bold and rich with notes of chocolate, coffee, jam, spices and fruit.
Your journey will also involve falling in and out love with different styles.
Similarly diverse then, but, the intensity and complexity of the whisky take the experience to new extremes. Sometimes it's difficult to classify two whiskies as being the same drink – at best they seem like distant cousins - and yet at their heart there are common traits.
Your journey will also involve falling in and out of love with different styles. With wine you may have started off looking for the muscular power of a new world red before you grew to love the subtle tones of a fine Burgundy or the perfectly balanced acidity of an old fashioned Rioja; so too you may find parallels in the aggressive smokey Islays and more subtle floral lowland whiskies.
Your tastes will develop, distillery output qualities will ebb and flow, local styles may evolve, but one thing is sure a lifetime search for the perfect dram will be as exciting as your quest for the ultimate vintage.
The Auld Alliance
These days of course I'm a regular visitor to Edinburgh and - whilst I haven't returned to the bar where the "Vieille Alliance" gave the infamous local boy an excuse to buy me a dram - I often wonder what he'd make of my progress on my whisky journey. I could certainly tell him a thing or two about wine but I'd probably even teach him a little something about whisky.
Sadly I've forgotten his name but if he's reading this - Sláinte mon amie!