If you had to name a liquid gold, surely whiskey must be it. Hold it to the light and it winks at you with a Scotsman’s mischief, drink a dram and it will smoothly lull you with its charm without the nasty hangover of bubbly or beer.
Like love, they say that you never forget your first. Mine was an Old Fashioned cocktail, decadently laced with a Laphroaig single malt (purists, avert your eyes). The smoky peat of the whiskey was delicately balanced with a touch of orange oil and a large round ice cube (favoured by whiskey lovers for keeping the drink cold without diluting the flavour). After the first sip, I had to have more.
Ever since then, I’ve been drinking whiskey, collecting it, sometimes infusing it and introducing a few more people to it through Women Who Whiskey Nairobi. I’ve found that there are several myths which stop people from trying this fantastic drink, so it’s time to bust a few of them:
Myth 1: You have to be a certain kind of person to drink whiskey
Many whiskey first-timers express their doubt at whether they’ll enjoy such a strong drink. The truth is, whiskey is the older cousin of beer – if you enjoy one, chances are that you’ll enjoy the other. This is because the malting process that gives beer its flavour is the starting point for whiskey too.
Grain – often barley, but also rye, wheat, corn or even spelt – is either sprouted or boiled to get a sugary liquid that can be converted by yeast into alcohol. After a fermentation period the paths for beer and whiskey diverge with a distillation process that differs according to the brewer. The eventual colour and flavour is finished by aging the spirit in casks; white oak barrels for bourbon and sherry/bourbon casks for Scotch. The resulting liquid gold is watered down to a standard alcohol volume for bottling or blended with other ‘malts’ for a more consistent flavour.
It may not be a complex process, but it’s the finer details of how this is done that determine what the final drink is called and make up the distiller’s craft. Single malts from the Islay region of Scotland get their signature flavour from the peat that is burnt to help barley malt dry, to the point where some taste the same as smoking a cigar.
In order to be called Scotch, it must be aged in used casks – a contrast to bourbon, which gets its signature vanilla flavours from being aged in fresh oak. Factors like the water used, the fermentation time, or even the shape of the still are all credited for subtle changes in flavour. The beauty of whiskey is that can range from honeyed caramel, fruity toffee and gingerbread spice to salty sea spray, leather or polished wood.
As much as there is to say about whiskey, there’s also the whiskey drinkers themselves. Contrary to popular opinion, they’re not all men in suits swapping witty repartee over a glass of rye and a cigar. (Thanks, Mad Men.) There’s the party-loving blended whiskey fans, the single malt sippers and the casual cocktailers.
You may also be surprised at the number of ladies who enjoy a whiskey or two. Grace Jones, one of the oldest women in the UK, recently claimed that a whiskey a day was one of the secrets to living for 110 years. When we launched Women Who Whiskey in Kenya (the first chapter outside of the US) there was an overwhelmingly positive response – we have over 100 women involved in Kenya out of the 6000+ membership globally.
Wherever they are from and whatever they drink, I’ve found that whiskey drinkers tend to share a curiosity about the world and a fun-loving attitude (without bias, of course).
Myth 2: Older is always better
It’s true that the extra years in a cask can add complexities of flavour and smoothen out the edges of a whiskey, but that doesn’t mean that you should automatically go for the oldest bottle on the shelf.
Firstly, the age on the bottle doesn’t actually tell you the overall age of the whiskey; a single malt labelled as 8 years old simply indicates the youngest whiskey that has been used.
Secondly, different whiskeys take a different time to reach their best flavour – a whiskey which is best at 5 years could be swamped by the flavours of the cask at 21 years.
Thirdly, even though a distiller may have a range of different age statements, the differences between the whiskies may be more than simply the time that they were aged. For example, the Lagavulin 12 attracts a much higher price than the 16 year old version from the same maker thanks to less water being used.
Finally, an increasing number of producers are dropping the age statements on their bottles in favour of a theme or a simple statement of where they are from.
So what does this mean when you’re choosing a whiskey? At the end of the day, it’s about your personal preferences. The best way to find out what you like, particularly in comparing different whiskeys from the same producer, is to attend a formal tasting. Don’t have the time for a tasting? Get together with some friends and a few bottles and see what you smell and taste. You might be surprised at the differing opinions.
Myth 3: Whiskey can only be from a few places in the world
Drinking a whiskey can take you halfway across the world, from the misty bracken of Scotland to the fiery heat of India. There is a lot of debate over which country can claim to have invented the drink, but you will find producers in most parts of the world. Canada is your best bet for rye, while the US has its signature bourbons and Tennessee whiskey.
However, in recent years experts have favoured newer whiskey markets: Yamazaki Sherry Cask from Japan, Kavalan Solist from Taiwan and Sullivan’s Cove from Australia. No doubt South Africa’s James Sedgewick and India’s Amrut will be hoping that they’re next.
Fun fact: you’ll also find that different countries prefer different spellings. Ireland and the US favour whiskey, while most of the rest of the world drops the ‘e’ without dropping the flavour. In Kenya, no rule has been set yet with the spelling of whisky however, as Kenyans follow British spelling style guides, it should be spelled without the ‘e’.
Myth 4: You have to drink whiskey straight
Connoisseurs will tell you that the only way to drink a single malt is on its own, or with purified water (just a few drops to open up the flavour, or at a stretch to dilute a ‘cask strength’ malt). However there are as many ways to drink whiskey as there are varieties.
You can enjoy your scotch with a large ice cube to keep it cold, while Bourbon lovers often opt for whiskey rocks In Japan, whiskey bars specialise in hand-carving large round ice cubes that cool the drink with minimum dilution and look pretty cool too. Whiskey cocktails are an art to themselves, with dozens of recipes for the Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Mint Julep and Manhattan just to name a few. Take it to the club by mixing a blended whiskey with sweet green tea Shanghai-style, or with Coca-Cola for slamming down in a red solo cup. The sweeter vanilla of bourbon can make an indulgent addition to your desserts.
Whatever way you choose to drink your whiskey, the most important thing is to enjoy it.
Women Who Whiskey Nairobi
Women Who Whiskey
Women Who Whiskey is an experimental whiskey club for women. There are over 20 chapters internationally, with Women Who Whiskey Nairobi being the first to launch outside the US in 2014.
Both for amateurs and connoisseurs, Women Who Whiskey gives our members the opportunity to learn about varieties of whiskeys and cocktail culture, and to join a network of like-minded women with a taste for curiosity and strong drinks. We host events in different venues around our chapter cities, where members can try new spirits, discuss mixology with seasoned bartenders, and enjoy the company of other whiskey-loving ladies.
Interested women can stay up to date with Women Who Whiskey Nairobi by joining the mailing list.