What you will need ahead of time to accomplish this sort of tasting:
- Enough Glencairn glasses (or glasses of similar shape) for all your friends who will be partaking. The Glencairn style is preferred because it allows a wide bowl for the spirit to evaporate, but concentrates those vapors at the top for maximum "nosing" concentration. As you will find (and as I documented in "Whisky Pranayama: The Science of Nosing and Tasting"), nosing is fully half of a whisky tasting. Trust me on this.
- A pitcher of cool, still water. Many of you enjoy your bourbon or Scotch on the rocks - that's fine. But since we're not trying to mute the spirit here with dramatic temperature fluctuations, we're going to stick with liquid in the same phase as the spirit. That means water - cool, still water. Some people like an eyedropper for administering the water, but a steady pour hand will serve you fine. I've been using my Brita water pitcher for the last 6 months!
- Some small plates of crackers or other bready snacks to neutralize the palate. This is important: no blue cheese or cotswold or sausage here, unless you want to destroy your ability to taste the subtlety in the spirit. The point of bready snacks is that they help neutralize the palate between pours.
That's where this tasting comes in. As you set the stage for the tasting (ideally gathered around a table with whisky unpoured - I'll tell you why in a minute), introduce your guests to some basic "fun facts" to help get them up to speed:
- Whisky can come from many different grains. If it's Scotch (usually "single malt") that malt comes from 100% barley. Bourbons can be a mix of corn, rye, barley, or wheat as long as a majority of the "mash bill" is corn. Similar to bourbon, in order to be called a "rye" whiskey the mash bill must be at least 51% rye. The grain does make a difference in the flavor profile, but a huge balance of the flavor comes from wood.
- All color in whisky comes from wood. Yes, all of it. The spirit actually comes out of the still clear, just like a white rum or vodka. (In case they don't believe you, you'll soon be gesturing towards some new-make spirit - and then tasting it - to prove your point).
- Each type of wood selected for maturation is different, but nearly all wood used is oak. These oaks are predominantly from America, France, Spain, or Japan, but that is by no means a comprehensive list. People have tried to use wood other than oak for maturation, but it turns out that oak is just about the ideal hardwood for coopering, weathering, and aging. As we talk about the new-make spirit, it's worth noting that many countries have regulations which stipulate that new spirit must rest in a certain type of oak for a specific amount of time in order to be called a "whisky". That's half of the exploration of this tasting!
- The casks used for maturation usually do not come from freshly cut oak. In fact, it's preferred that they not be, as even "virgin" casks are usually air-dried for some months or years before they are coopered (that is, fashioned into barrels). This has a lot to do with the unique (and substantial) flavor profile imparted by virgin (fresh) barrels.
Don't want to order Death's Door online? That's okay, many famous distillers including Jack Daniels and Jim Beam ("Jacob's Ghost") are producing white dog spirits just like this. "White dog' is a common name given to new-make spirit by distillery workers. Just don't say I didn't warn you - this whisky (in my opinion) is really only suitable as a teachable moment, so don't drop tons of cash.
Can't afford a 19yo private edition whisky? That isn't a problem, my friend. My suggestion is that you choose anything from Glenmorangie's line-up. Their original is a stunner in recent years; remember, the goal is to exhibit excellent wood maturation. Even with a 10yo, you'll definitely get the point across with Glenmorangie.
A cautionary note about how far we've come now. This whisky is deservedly dubbed a "peat monster", and I selected it because it showcases that Islay peat better than almost any other. Islay whiskies are... unique, and that's why they form fully 1/4 (oh SNAP!) of my Four Corners method. You get the idione, the smoke, the maritime reak - it's all there my friend, and no other whisky in the world comes close to this experience. This flavor doesn't come from the wood. Instead, it all comes from how the malt (barley) is treated before it's fermented and distilled. In fact, the wood tempers the harshness somewhat.
Some of your guests will be exclaiming "holy hell!" while others will have found their Shangri-La. You tell me if you can go back after this, but make sure you clear your palate before the final run. That peat smoke leaves an imprint, and you don't want to miss what's coming. A few drops of water will release the younger lemon-heather notes in this malt (which many guests will appreciate).
Your local liquor store doesn't stock the special releases? Not to worry - you just pick anything from Ardbeg, Lagavulin (a bit pricier), or Laphroaig and you're set.
Your guests here will be treated to something diametrically opposed to that peat monster above. The flavor is rich, yes, but there's no peat reak, no botanicals, no lemony, heathery pepper spice. Here we have pots full of stewed fruits, rum spice and wine skin, oranges and sangria. That may sound really sweet, but sherry doesn't actually impart much "sweetness" - it's a dried plum or dried fig sensation that will coat your mouth on the finish. And of course there's that unmistakable Bruichladdich cereal note underneath.
About this time I surprise my guests by bringing out some New York Cheesecake to savor with this particular malt. While I have successfully paired this with a steak dinner in the past, I really think Pedro Ximinez sherry (unlike Oloroso or Fino) is well-suited to a fine dessert. Cheesecake always seems to fit the bill, but creme brulee or something with chocolate may not be off the table.
Dude, I am tired of you recommending malts that I'll never find in my local liquor store. That's okay, amigo! I would recommend Auchentoshan's Three Wood in a pinch (also exhibiting PX sherry on top of light malt), or possibly the Glenfiddich 15yo Solera Vat if you can't squeeze in the PX. Bowmore's 15yo ("Darkest") is just too similar to the Laphroaig Quarter Cask to draw a definitive "corner" here, but the smoke is subdued and it will definitely be different. Just look for something sherry matured, and then try to make it a special pick to really savor as the evening winds down.