I turned to Ian because I’d recently gained an interest in whisky, having been given a bottle of Oban for Christmas. I was surprised how much I liked it, but it was hard to know how to develop the interest further. Most whisky books (including Ian’s most recent – ‘101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’) are lists or histories, interesting empirically but little use to the beginner trying to learn which whiskies he likes.
Ian’s suggestion was to try miniatures: “Rather than spend £30 or £40 on a bottle of whisky that you might not like, take that money and spend it on a handful of miniature bottles. Go to a good stockist like the Whisky Exchange in London and ask them for a variety clustered around a taste you already know you like.”
Whiskies are classified in different ways, but the useful Flavour Map on Diageo’s website plots them on two axes – smoky versus delicate and rich versus light. Oban (14 year old) falls squarely in the middle, so I plan to try a few miniatures that are smokier or more delicate, richer or lighter, until I discover the flavours I like. Of course, Diageo’s site only lists its own brands, but getting an idea of the other Diageo names and the descriptions given to them makes future selections much easier.
Whiskies used to be classified by region as well, as different parts of Scotland made identifiably different flavours. “But that’s not really the case any more,” says Ian. “Everyone can’t make every flavour, but many distilleries have the ability and are trying to make different flavours in order to cover different parts of the market. Or to follow trends – the current vogue for smokier whiskies, for example.”
Miniatures aren’t just for airlines and cash-poor tramps, apparently. Most of the big names do miniature versions of their whiskies, and if stores don’t have a particular brand then sites like Just Miniatures are bound to.
Ian also recommends David Wishart’s book ‘Whisky Classified’, which takes a more rigorous approach to whiskies and their flavours.
Enjoy Burns Night (and wear a velvet jacket).