If you have followed the grand masterplan I've laid out for you in this
Beginner's Guide, you should have bought and sampled a few different
single malt whiskies by now. And the fact that you're still reading proves
that the whole experience must have been not entirely unpleasant.
Excellent! That means you've joined the thousands of connoisseurs who
have discovered that those bag-piping, sheep-fondling Scotsmen have
actually made a useful contribution to civilisation as well: Scotch whisky.
Your personal taste dictates whether you'll like a specific malt or not, but the
whole point about enjoying SMSW is de enormous diversity in style and character.
There really is a single malt whisky for everybody. Some of them are round and
sweet while others are spicy, medicinal, nutty, fruity or flowery. Vive la difference!
With some experience, you can discover the strangest fragrances in a single malt.
Everything depends on the water and barley that is used, the peating level of the
malted barley, the size and shape of the stills, the skill & experience of a stillman,
the amount of reflux, the type, history & size of the cask used for maturation, etc.
And practicing your drinking certainly is no punishment. Well, if you're don't get carried away that is...
Otherwise, you'll have a hangover to look forward to. Chapter #9 of this guide deals with some practical issues. Issues like MODERATION for example; the difference between a connoisseur and an obnoxious drunk isn't always apparent to the naked eye. GLASSWARE is an important (but often overlooked) topic as well; you can read a little more about it here. I've also written a few words about HEAD-TO-HEAD TASTINGS and BLIND TASTINGS - along with some thoughts about BENCHMARKING and SCORES . More information in the Advanced Beginner's Guide.
These are a few last 'practical' issues for novices; if you're interested in some bits of theory and trivia I suggest you browse onwards to chapter 10, the conclusion of this Beginner's Guide (for Beginners).
And much like sheep-fondling, distilling whisky is a skill that's honed to
perfection during many years of practice. Given the dedication of those
Scotsmen to their craft, I'd say the least we 'connoisseurs' can do is try
to keep up with our drinking... Besides - practice makes perfect...
When you follow
All the information about the history and production of single malt whisky might
seem boring to the outside observer, but that changes with a glass in your hand.
Unless you're sensibly handicapped , it won't take long to notice the variation in styles.
Exploring that wide variety could take many decades, though - and along the way you will inevitably want to find out where these changes come from. The Advanced Beginner's Guide explores these topics in further detail.
Expanding your horizon
And if you like the idea of working with benchmarks, you might want to consider spending a little money on a 'touchstone'
blend like Teacher's. It has a smooth, neutral profile that brings out the specifics of any single malt whisky you put next to it.
While you are sniffing and slurping you can compare the different single malts to the 'neutral' blend and also to eachother.
This makes it fairly easy to quickly determine what 'types' of single malt whisky are your particular favorites at the moment.
The few examples in the chapter about shopping are just a few of the many different categories that can be distinguished.
Within every style there are dozens of different single malts available - with every new dram your curiosity grows further.
You'll soon learn that the 'regional' classification described in chapter 3 only skims the surface of the wide variety in styles.
But it's as good a place as any to start your voyage of discovery through the wonderful world of single malt Scotch whisky.
If your experience is anything like mine you'll be wandering around maltland for decades, searching for answers.
I've learned that your knowledge and understanding (and therefor the appreciation) of whisky can be enhanced greatly
if you take a little detour into other corners of the spirit world now and then. For example, having a few sessions with
wine might give you a better understanding of tannins. Those tannins can easily pop up in a single malt whisky as well.
Just like with whisky, it's useful to make notes of your experiences. And even within the whisky world, there's enough
variation to keep you entertained for many years to come. Apart from the single malt whiskies from some 100 different
malt whisky distilleries in Scotland there are numerous vatted malts, single grain whiskies and blends available as well.
And that's just in Scotland - the whiskies they make in Ireland, the USA and Canada are very different, for example.
When it comes to scoring whisky, we maniacs use a 1-100 scale that's roughly comparable to the 50-100 (actually more like 55-95) scale used by the writers Robert Parker and Michael Jackson. The main difference is that for us, 50 is not the bottom line. Our scale is supposed to include all alcoholic drinks (beer, wine, sherry, port, cognac, wodka, rum, etc.) and 50 points is the border between liking a certain drink and not liking it. And since we're malt maniacs, you can rest assured that we like most malt whiskies. The 'average' score for a single malt is +/- 75 points (but we've learnt to avoid a lot of the sub-standard material by now. We actively love every whisky (single malt or otherwise) that scores 80 points or more.
More Advanced Topics...
I could go on for a bit - but I won't. The voyage of discovery through the wonderful world of whisky never ends.
For more than a decade I kept updating this Beginner's Guide whenever I learned something new about whisky.
But then I realised that topics that might be of interest to a whisky freak like me, might not be for a novice...
Should you indeed evolve (or devolve, it's a matter of perspective I guess) into an aspiring connoisseur
after sampling a few whiskies, you can pick up where you left off with the Advanced Beginner's Guide.
For example, oxidation of an opened bottle may not be your main concern if you just bought your first
bottle and plan to finish it within a few weeks or months. However, that starts to change if you have
a few dozen open bottles or even more. Will they still be drinkable after a year? Well, that depends.
And when it comes to the closed bottles for your collection, bottle storage is an important issue too.
Standing up or lying down? Are a specific temperature or humidity required? Will corks and labels rot?
There's a lot left to tell about food as well. I already pointed out the importance of eating enough food
before a tasting, but WHAT food goes best with what whisky? Whisky can indeed be a very interesting
alternative for wine to accompany a meal - but not just any whisky. And not just any meal for that matter.
Those are just some of the topics that might not seem very interesting to an average novice in the world,
but that will eventually occupy a fair share of your brain, just like the finer points of distillation & maturation.
More information about all that - and much more - can be found in the Advanced Beginner's Guide of this site.
Whisky Classified (David Wishart)
Would that guide be of interest to you? Well, that depends on your experience.
This guide was written for both absolute beginners in the world of whisky and the
people who already enjoyed a few drams and would like to learn a little 'theory'.
If you belong to the former category, I suggest you use the information laid out
in this guide to buy a few whiskies first. Before spending considerably amounts
of time and money on whisky, it would be smart to find out if you like the stuff.
If you do, you can return to the Advanced Beginner's Guide in a few months.
Members of the latter group could proceed directly to the ABG - but if you're clever
you should read chapter 10 of the Beginner's Guide first. Then you'll understand
why I started working on the Advanced Beginner's Guide in the first place.
O.K., we're almost finished. Let's proceed to the final chapter now - a proper conclusion to this Beginner's Guide (well, I hope)...
Benchmarking & Scores
And when you sit down to enjoy the actual tasting session, how do you express your feelings?
Describing the taste and aroma of a single malt isn't easy for beginners, because dozens of different
components work together to create the overall experience. Besides; everybody has his or her own frame
of reference. Specific aspects of the taste & aroma of a whisky are associated with previous experiences.
This means that nobody really smells and tastes the same things when they sample the same whisky; it
all depends very much on your 'conditioning' and the size, shape & condition of your nose and mouth.
Just keep in mind that tasting notes are often metaphors which are related to the culture of the taster.
Nationality, ethnicity and upbringing all play a role in the impressions we pick up from a glass of whisky.
However, do not despair - once you've sat down with a few other malt lovers for a while and shared a
few drams you'll soon find a common vocabulary (and I don't mean everyone's speech becoming slurred).
I know not every whisky lover agrees on this, but most certified malt maniacs find rating the malts we try
on a 1-100 scale very useful for expressing our feelings towards those whiskies. Over time we all found
certain 'benchmark' single malts that we got to know a little bit better. As soon as you've investigated a
few different single malts you'll be able to relate every new whisky you try to these 'benchmark' malts.
Do you like malt 'A' a little bit better than malt 'B'? Is malt A more sherried than malt B? Does the finish
of malt A last longer than that of malt B? Obviously, it helps a lot if you keep tasting notes and scores.
After all - that's how Malt Madness (and later Malt Maniacs) got started, a few guys exchanging notes.
After you've been sampling sampling single malts for a while, it's almost unavoidable that you develop some
preconceptions about how some whiskies 'should' taste. These preconceptions are usually based on either
the price tag on the bottle or previous experiences with earlier batches or other expressions of the distillery.
You can diminish 'the label effect' by sampling your malts 'blind'. If you happen to be the proud owner of a
supportive girlfriend she can pour your glasses for you, so you don't know what whisky you are drinking.
Otherwise, you'll just have to pour them yourself the night before and do some heavy dramming to destroy
the brain cells holding the memories about the identity of the whisky in each glass.
Just kidding - the average glass of whisky doesn't 'mature' very well overnight. A blindfold will do just fine...
Organising a tasting session
Spread the gospel!
Share your fun to double your fun. Single malt whisky should be shared to be enjoyed to the fullest.
The most enjoyable way to experience the wonderful world of single malt whiskies is enjoying them in good company .
So, why don't you organise a little tasting session at home with some friends, colleagues or family members some time?
I throw a little tasting party at least once a month, and these sessions are always a lot of fun. Here's how you do it:
1 - Tell all your friends about the Malt Madness website and direct them to this guide,
2 - Pick a date as soon as you've assembled three or four accomplices,
3 - Have everybody pick and buy a bottle of single malt of their choosing (*),
4 - Clean your home (not obligatory, but a necessity if you live like me,
5 - Make sure you've got the right glassware (at least 2 glasses per person),
6 - Make sure you've got the right water (no bubbles),
7 - Welcome your friends (and their bottles...),
8 - Synchronize your watches (make sure to give each whisky half an hour at least!)
9 - Start having fun!
(*) But wouldn't it be a bummer when everybody at the tasting session showed up with a bottle of Dalmore 12yo?
Yes, it probably would - even though the Dalmore 12 years old is a fine and recommendable dram in its own right.
The whole point of a tasting session is comparing several different single malt (or other) whiskies to each other.
So, some synchronization and preparation is necessary in order to have a successful & enjoyable tasting session.
The tips in the Beginner's Guide should help you put together a fun session. If you really want to learn more from
the experience (and perhaps even impress your guests), check out the Advanced Beginner's Guide for more...
When you really want to explore the finer nuances of a single malt, try tasting it next to one
or more other malts. The contrasts will make it easier to define the subtle elements in a malt.
As a timid beginner you might start out with a 'head-to-head' (a.k.a. H2H) tasting comparing a
Lowland malt with a Highlander or an Island or Speyside malt with one distilled in Campbeltown.
Like I wrote in chapter 4, every region is supposed to have a certain style; the Lowlands malts
are very light and subtle, the Islay malts peaty and overwhelming, Speysiders are gentle, etc.
You may not like a certain style, but how will you know if you don't try?
After a while it may become more interesting to compare different malts from the same region or
different versions from the same distillery. Especially a 'Hopalong H2H' of 4 or 5 expressions from
one single distillery can be very educational (apart from being jolly good fun). You can find some
suggestions for interesting set-ups for head-to-head sessions in the Advanced Beginner's Guide.
Just to convince yourself that you haven't wasted your money by following my advice (well, not all of it anyway ;-)
I suggest you take a malt whisky you are familiar with and pour about 20ml into each of your different glasses.
Next, take at least half an hour to compare the noses and to see how the whisky appears and develops quite
differently in the different glasses. What a difference a glass makes...
And don't forget about the right glassware. Like I mentioned in chapter 7, the shape and
volume of the glass have a distinct effect on your experience. Pick your favourite glass
and stick with it until you've sampled enough malts to make an honest comparison.
If your first few single malts have convinced you that you'd like to explore the wonderful
world of whisky further, you really should consider spending some money on glassware.
And if you've got some time to spare, doing a glassware test of your own could enhance
your future enjoyment. Just spend a little time and money on (give or take) half a dozen
different nosing glasses and see which one suits you best.
Until they've invented alcohol-free whisky, that actually tastes nice, it's wise to pour your drams cautiously.
Usually, about 15 or 20 ml of malt whisky in a cognac bowl is all you need for a liquid adventure that can last for at least half an hour. The average person should be able to enjoy half a dozen malts on an evening without having to suffer the consequences. Those could include; projectile vomiting, the humiliation of uncontrolled behaviour and speech or the discomfort of an hangover. Still, it's wise to drink plenty of water during and after any session to help your liver do its work. There are some 'tips & tricks' to help you sustain the longer sessions and festivals (like taking extra Vitamin B) but I'll go into those in the Advanced Beginner's Guide - along with many more advanced topics.
After your first few single malts, you may find out you quite like the stuff.
You might even like malt whisky so much that you want to try some other
expressions. Good for you! But if you've paid attention while reading the
earlier chapters of this guide, you'll have learnt that single malt whisky
contains a little bit of alcohol. And alcohol can do 'funny' things to the
human body - not to mention the human mind.
Many Frenchmen have the peculiar habit of spitting out their whisky and
wine, but obviously that kind of hooliganish behaviour is frowned upon in
more civilised societies. Why spit out something wonderful? Fortunately,
there are many other ways to avoid unacceptable levels of intoxication...
One golden rule while dramming is: drink lots of water between drams.
Not only does it help to cleanse the palate, it also helps to dilute the
percentage of alcohol in your system. In other word, your personal ABV
wil be diminished - which is an increasingly good thing as time goes by.
That's why it's so important to always use the same type of glasses
when you want to compare two or more malts.
Using different glasses may cause you to mistake differences between those glasses for differences between the malt whiskies inside the glasses. Obviously, that's not scientificly sound... The Advanced Beginner's Guide contains a massive glassware test.