Firstly, I have to admit that I am a self-declared whisky aficionado and thus no council or authority on whisky. Having said that, I do enjoy a good whisky and share what I enjoy about it (at great length), not because I am pompous (I use pompous as I am soon going to point fingers at wannabe whisky drinkers), but because I LOVE WHISKY!
The Kenyan media is recently awash with hype around whisky, so much so that even ‘celebs’ are seen enjoying and endorsing whisky – frankly I love the popularity whisky is gaining in Kenya albeit for the wrong reasons. Whisky has become a status symbol, a badge to signify your spending power, your social worth or your celeb status! Pompous people are buying expensive whiskies at posh bars; each trying to outdo the previous because of the buzz and euphoria around it. Let me state something in the most polite way I can: Some of the dumb shits talking about whisky cannot tell it from donkey piss!
Now that I have somewhat highlighted what I am driving at, let me add to that. Whisky does not need to be expensive to be good. In case one of the dumb shits I referred to ever reads this, let me rephrase; just because a whisky is expensive and priced very high per tot does not mean it is a good whisky. Or in simpler terms the price of a whisky is not what determines the worth of a whisky.
I have no issues with how much you spend on whisky or how you drink (or shoot) it. I do not care which bar you drink it at and what you add to your whisky. as a whisky lover, just want to let you know that you are wasting your money if you are not enjoying the journey that is whisky.
Whisky or ‘uisge beatha’ or aqua vitae or simply the water of life started it journey in Mesopotamia or modern day Iraq. It is believed that the Mesopotamian recipe to distil fragrances and oils slowly spread around the world. Subsequently uisge was distilled using a variation of that recipe.
Malt barley (the same kind used for our local beer), grain (maize, wheat, rye, etc) and water are the main ingredients for whisky today, but storage and location also play a very important part in the taste of the whisky. In the process of making single malt whisky, grain is omitted. Barley is soaked in water, germinated, killed, peated, crushed, mixed, distilled, barrelled, aged and then bottled.
According to Michael Jackson (no, not the singer/musician), “one of the most assertive aromas and flavours to be found in Scotch whisky is that of peat.” Peat is decomposed vegetation a stage or two before it becomes coal. It is added to the fire in the kilning process so that the smoke permeates the barley adding a distinct smoky and peaty flavour to it.
The wooden casks that held the whisky contribute to over 60% of the flavour in it. The type of wood, the previous contents (no, Scottish people are not called tight fisted because they re-use oak barrels) and the storage conditions. Legally, a whisky can only be called Scotch whisky if it has been distilled and spent a minimum of three years and one day in an oak barrel in Scotland. American oak casks that have held bourbon in America or Sherry in Spain are very popular choices for ageing the whisky. Of late, there are many select types of barrels available for different ageing processes. Casks that held the wine of Pedro Ximénez grapes, sweet wine made in Sauternes or syrupy Madeira from Spain, all contribute to the flavour in the whisky. Whether the barrel is charred or just washed will also add to the final favour. Once the barrel is filled with whisky, it goes into storage for as long as fifty years.
As it sits in the barrel, the air around the storage shed enters through the porous wooden cask adding aromas of salty sea breeze, cool highland air, heathery lowland mist and peaty depth near the bogs depending on the location of the store. Some of the alcohol also escapes through the porous wood known as the “Angels share.”
Now, the whisky is ready. Ready for bottling, blending or transfer into different types of wooden casks to age it further. The final colour, nose, palate and finish are four of the key characteristics of whisky that will assault your senses.
Whether the whisky is pale and straw-like as the Tasmanian Hellyer’s Road or a rich fiery amalgam of copper and gold like the Dalmore, the colour is the first thing you will notice about a whisky. The colour in whisky is substantially contributed by the oak barrel and the length of time it spent in it.
When you nose the whisky, you will get the aromas from the sweetness of the whisky to its smokiness. The fruity aromas from the fermentation in the Clynelish to the phenolic medicinal aromas of the Ardbeg will tantalize your olfactory senses in readiness of the taste.
As you add a little water and put the whisky to your mouth, it will give you everything. Creamy, rich, bold, gentle, soft, smooth, peppery, fruity, chalky, salty, iodine-like, all of it will come through in to your mouth. You will also feel the grittiness or silkiness of the whisky – the mouth feel. It can be tough and sandy like the Auchentoshan or subliminally smooth like the Laphroaig. Savour the taste, decipher the flavours and enjoy the sensation from the feel long into the finish.
The finish is the aftertaste it leaves in your mouth. Does the smokiness or pepperiness linger, does the chalkiness make your mouth dry, does the fruitiness leave you yearning for more and do you feel like you have just been on a journey in taste?
Scotland with her rolling meadows, angry seafronts, tall mountains and thick forests make a magical backdrop for a tale even more magical. The water of life made its way from the mountains, through the valleys, over the rocks, through bogs, over iron and gold ore – each adding a delicate nuance to whisky in your glass. Try different whiskies, taste what they have to offer, find what you like best in the whisky – not the price tag.
Whisky may be sunlight held together by water from the morning dew found on the nipples of angels but whisky is more importantly a journey to be savoured and not a destination to be reached.