I occasionally try to get my dad to join a club. It’d be good for you, I say, you should get out more. His reply is always the same: ‘I’m not a joiner’. Like Groucho Marx, he steadfastly refuses to join any club that would have him as a member. I’m a lot like him – I’m slow to get involved, to commit, to enthuse, which makes it all the more surprising that I took to whiskey with such reckless abandon. Someone recently asked me how one goes about getting ‘into’ whiskey, to which I replied ‘open a bottle and take a swig, get back to me if that doesn’t work’. I didn’t say that really, but the question did set me thinking about my tragic obsession with our national drink. Why whiskey? Why did I throw myself headlong into this, of all things? Why not sport, cars, stamp collecting, Pokemon – anything; why? And the answer is a Shauvian ‘why the hell not?’ But the big questions is ‘how’ – because behind every superfan is a newcomer who was scared to ask a question. So here’s how it happened for me.
Perseverance, persistence, severe thirst
I’d love to tell you I had some magical epiphany upon first tasting Ye Olde Pot Stille Whisky at the wake of some fenian son, but I didn’t – I just liked the idea of whiskey: It’s intrinsically Irish, interesting without being elitist, an everyman drink. So I just decided ‘this is something I could do’. So I started working my way through Paddy, Jameson and Powers, first with mixers and ice, then just ice, then straight. Like most humans with a functioning gullet, it burned the first few times I tried it straight – but in a good way, like with a hot curry, or roaring the lyrics to The Fields Of Athenry. So I kept at it, and soon, the epiphany arrived. In Citizen Kane, there is a scene where the titular anti-hero destroys the room of his lover. Orson Welles strides about the room wreaking havoc on the contents. When the scene was finished, Welles walked off set, hands bleeding from the damage he had inflicted, and said to one of the crew ‘I felt it, I really felt it’. He had disappeared into character, abandoned the self. That was it for me and whiskey – at some point I crossed the line from wanting to like whiskey to genuinely loving it. So while you can’t force yourself to love something, you can certainly give yourself plenty of opportunity for it to happen. I used the same approach to trick my wife into falling for me – she dumped me twice when we were kids, but I knew if I was pig-headed enough she would eventually give in. And she did, with all the grim resignation of a cornered rodent. Hooray for love!
Once I had gotten ‘into’ whiskey – ie, I could drink it without reacting like Edward Scissorhands – I was ready to share my new passion with the world. The Irish Whiskey Society is a great way to start exploring and expanding your palate. Their monthly meetings will provide you with some rare and pricey samples to tick off your list, without having to break the bank by sourcing them yourself. But since I have four kids (and, as previously stated, I am not a joiner), I don’t get to go to many of their events, as I rarely have the time, the money or the ability to stay awake past 8pm. And so to the internet, where fandoms go to thrive. The internet is a great resource for the budding enthusiast – there are any number of whisky blogs and sites that can teach you a lot. There are also some great YouTube channels – Ralfy Mitchell’s being one of the best, walking a fine line between whisky review, history lesson and witty polemic. An undertaker by trade, Ralfy’s talent lies not in his knowledge or his ability to communicate with confidence, but rather that he has that rare quality of being very likeable on camera. Fun fact: I once tried to make a whiskey review vlog, and upon completion it had all the fun atmosphere of an Isis beheading video.
Manic tweed preachers
So by now you’ve tried a few drams, you’ve got the knowledge and the experience and you want to share your passion with friends and family, so what do you do? You keep it to your damn self, that’s what you do, because much like religion and politics, people don’t generally want a 25-minute lecture on why their beliefs are wrong. This is partly because not many people give that much of a shit about what they eat and drink. Most of us take a fairly utilitarian approach to what we consume – does it taste ok, is it cheap, will it soothe my fretful mind? – these are the basics for us. Who cares that a chicken for the Sunday roast costs about the same as a Sunday paper – sher that’s just great value, nothing terrifying about it at all. So just like you don’t tell sleepy shoppers at the express checkout that their dinner is a Frankenfood nightmare, you likewise don’t tell the person next to you at the bar that vodka is a drink for people who don’t know what to drink. I can see it in people’s eyes when I start to drone on about whiskey – they rapidly lose the will to live, because not everyone gets it, or even wants to – and that’s ok, because I get it, you get it, we get it. So I try not to preach, or even correct people when they’re wrong, like the taxi driver last week who told me Paddy no longer exists and is somehow just known as Jameson now. A simple ‘how interesting’ through gritted teeth is all this situation requires, lest it descend into a scene from Collateral.
Coppa stills, dolla bills
So you like and possibly love whiskey – now to expand your collection. Specialist shops are great, going in having the bants with the staff, browsing the latest expressions – but they are expensive. Go online – it is a lot cheaper, even with P&P. I use Master Of Malt, mainly because I was on a whiskey junket with one of the chaps from the site and he seemed sound. MoM has a great blog, chat option, amazing selection and prices – but overall there is a great tone to the site; witty, fun and irreverent. They also do tasting sets – small samples of up to five different distilleries, often grouped by region; a fantastic way of educating yourself. There are plenty of other sites, but MoM is my favourite, and they also do Christmas crackers with whisky samples in them, which is great since I am the only one who drinks spirits in my house: ‘Hic, shut the hell up grandma, and pull this goddam cracker with me’.
Fill-up Glass, a pun on Philip Glass
So you build up a bit of a collection, maybe five to 15 bottles, and you want to enjoy them the right way, so you will need some glassware. The Glencairn is the industry standard for nosing (don’t call it sniffing, that’s what dogs do) and tasting (don’t call it drinking, that’s what boozehounds do), but Glencairns are five quid a pop. Your collection has already set you back 40-70 euro a bottle, so you are going to be looking for a cheaper option. This is where charity shops come in. I love them – okay, as soon as you walk in the door you find yourself paraphrasing the kid in The Sixth Sense by announcing ‘I smell dead people’ – but you know what dead people liked? Spirits. So there will be plenty of old whiskey tumblers, along with some branded whiskey glasses perfect for nosing, tasting, sipping and generally containing whiskey.
I use an old Carolans glass (above left) that cost me 50 cent, and if I’m just having a drink without being pretentious about it, I just use Tesco tumblers (above right) that are a fiver for a pack of four. No need for Waterford crystal – a simple vessel lets a decent whiskey shine, and is lighter in the hand for keyboard warriors like me who have atrophied Gollum arms.
How to be pretentious
So you have the kit, the hooch and the enthusiasm – it’s on to the skills. These aren’t really those elusive skills that require training, like parallel parking or removing a water meter – this is just learning to trust your instincts. When I started getting into whiskey and listening to people at tastings rattling on about what scents they were picking up, I felt like it was those magic eye posters from the 1990s all over again. A guy stands up and says ‘wow I am getting wet cement, a Nairobi sunset and the concept of ennui on the nose here, what are you getting?’ And all I was getting was slightly intoxicated. Tastings are all about confidence – in the beginning you will get whatever notes are suggested to you, because our sense of smell is incredibly easy to manipulate.
For fun, take your glass of whiskey, go into a quiet room and close your eyes. Inhale the scent – what do you get? Beyond the alcohol burn, beyond the vapours – what else is there? Take a sip – is it what the nose suggested, does it smell like it tastes, or vice versa – and what effect does it have in the mouth, apart from making you warm and drunk – is it mouth coating or astringent – or what? Once you swallow, how long does the flavour stay in your mouth? This is called the finish, and the longer it goes on the better; it should be like descending into a fractal, an endless spiral of hidden flavours and notes you hadn’t encountered already, falling through layers of sensation. Or it may taste like total shit, who knows – but at least you gave it your full attention. Mind you, telling your spouse and kids you are going into a quiet room with a glass of whiskey may lead to some sort of intervention, so just tell them it’s research. They won’t ask any more questions beyond that point because they will be terrified.
As for the objectivity of taste: The notes you experience, the things you taste – they are you. They are the summary of your life experiences, because you can only reference your own memory bank, your own sense of taste and smell. I can’t use plantain as a reference, as I have never tasted it. All the things I taste tell the story of my life – creme anglaise, pine smoke, creme brulee, fruit coulis, sauna wood, smoked reindeer – honestly, I have come up with some of the most deliriously middle class notes I have ever seen; high praise, given that this is whiskey we are talking about. So it is completely subjective: I did a blind tasting last year. On one of the whiskies I picked up a note that I hadn’t sensed in a long time. When I was a teenager I went out with this girl whose father had a thing for mothballs. He had them all over the house, to a point that he must have had a genuine concern that the actual Mothman was going to attack the house, rather than a concern his Farrah slacks might get nibbled by some gothic butterflies. As a result, his daughter always smelled like mothballs. So when I nosed this whisky (in The Whisky Shop in Dufftown) all I got was that – memories of her, long black hair and screaming matches, her throwing Manic Street Preachers CDs at me, that strange sense of loss that sometimes sneaks up on you: You know – mothballs. What you sense from that glass is all about your history – so don’t think that anyone is trying to tell you what to get on the nose when they say ‘apples!’ ‘honey heather!’ ‘a burning wheelie bin!’ – share who you are, your own experiences, your senses and your creativity. Or just make crazy shit up, really it doesn’t matter – just don’t feel threatened. Look at the tasting notes on SMWS bottlings; they make little – yet perfect – sense, because they are all about ideas, moments, and feelings as opposed to telling you exactly what something tastes like.
Burden of spoof
One of the greatest confidence builders you can have as a whiskey newcomer is taking part in a blind tasting. I took part in one in Gordon and Macphail that had at least two world renowned whisky experts in attendance. We were asked to identify region, cask, age, and marks were out of 25 – the experts lost to a random Norwegian who got 14 points. So, despite the many souls claiming in their Twitter bio to be experts, really they are few who have that forensic sense of taste and smell – strip away the labels and not that many people will be able to tell you what they are drinking. On this note, I’m proud to say that I know almost nothing about whiskey, and if you ever see me putting ‘whiskey expert’ in my Twitter bio, you can shoot me in the head.
One last thing – at some point in your journey you are going to start thinking about tweed. You will see people wearing it, and think you might look good in it too. My advice is to enjoy tweed responsibly. Use it in moderation, because nobody wants to be a ‘full-kit wanker’ when it comes to a material with the density of kevlar. There are few sadder sights than somebody succumbing to heatstroke at Feis Ile because they refused to take off their thick hessian bonnet or loosen their 12-tog waistcoat in 28 degree heat whilst drinking nothing but cask-strength smoke oil.
As I pointed out in a previous post (one that I would casually describe as being part social diary, part suicide note), my dad has a lot to do with me getting into whiskey. He was a fan, so I figured it’d be cool if I was a fan. Over the last six weeks I’ve been living with him, rummaging through his whiskey collection to see if there are any rarities in there – the one in the pic up top being the only one of note. The reason I’m here with him instead of at home with my wife and kids is not that my marriage is dying, but that my father is. He’s 85, so it was only a matter of time before something struck, and so cancer has come calling. He had incredible health almost all his life, and he was starting to feel almost invincible. Up until a few weeks ago was fiercely independent. Now I am making his meals and holding his hand when he walks. He is like Oisín, home from Tír Na n’Óg, crashing to the earth and ageing 300 years at once. He is just finished radiotherapy, and there have been several occasions over the last month when I thought he was going to die in front of me. On Father’s Day he split a vein in his leg and lost about 500ml of blood. As he lay on the ground, blood spraying out of him with metronomic precision, I kept think ‘this is it, this is it he is dying and I can’t do anything to stop it’. And as he lost consciousness he turned to me and whispered ‘make sure you record The Sunday Game’.
The paramedics came, brought us into the emergency department, we got treated and came home for me to clean up what looked like a scene from Dexter. Then I made his lunch.
This is what we do: Kids become parents become kids. This is the cycle of life – human existence is just one long series of arrivals and departures. He keeps telling me he doesn’t know what he would do without me, and I keep thinking, what am I going to do without you?
Yesterday we had an appointment with the oncologist. She told him that this cancer is going to end his life. When she left the room, he said ‘I just wish I had indulged more, and just drank a lot more whiskey’. I told him not to worry, I’ll drink enough for both of us. So at night he has a glass of Guinness (or two) and I have a dram (or three) and we watch Nationwide. So this is where we are right now – somewhere in the middle of a long goodbye, raising a glass together, saying hail and farewell. And FYI – he made me promise to keep the glassware.
My point is this – what makes whiskey interesting to me is the people. Really, any fandom is about people; sure, there is something about your passions that are particular to you, but finding other people with the same passion is what keeps it alive. And it doesn’t matter if it’s on the internet, in the Celtic Whiskey Shop or on a trolley in an emergency department – people make it interesting. For me, whiskey is part of my inheritance. It is how I celebrate my dad and all he did for me. For you it will be something else, you just need to figure out what that is. And that is how you get into whiskey.