Whiskey a Go Go

A musical guide to surviving your first tasting
By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  September 18, 2012


Whiskey has inspired — and inebriated — musicians across eras and genres. (See: the centuries-old “Whiskey in the Jar,” Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” the Pogues’ “Streams of Whiskey,” and Lynyrd’s  Skynyrd’s  “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller.”) And Whisky Live sounds like a great name for a country-hopping, amp-shredding concert tour. But it’s actually an epic tasting produced by Whisky magazine (full disclosure: I’m the American contributing editor). It does, however, travel to more than a dozen cities worldwide, now including Boston, where it makes its debut on September 22. And it boasts a killer lineup: 150-plus varieties ready for the tasting.

Diving headlong into such an event is risky. It’s tough to learn the differences among the many styles without trying them side by side — but taste too many, and you may not absorb anything but the ethanol content. So it’s important to walk in with a few maxims in mind.  Music is a powerful memory aid, so here’s a mixtape we’ll call “The Whiskey Tasting Survival Guide.” Each song offers a teaching moment. Let the education begin. 

Guns N’ Roses, “Patience” Whiskey is defined as any drink distilled from fermented grain mash and aged in wood barrels. Scotches are made from malted barley; bourbon from at least 51 percent corn; rye from at least 51 percent rye. There’s also Irish, Tennessee, and Japanese whiskey. Each has its own history, production methods, and spelling preferences (the “e” is optional). There’s a learning curve.

The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Just Like Honey” If you think all Scotches are smoky peat bombs, you might as well believe that all cheese is stinky cheese. An overwhelming majority of Scotches have notes that are floral, fruity, buttery, nutty, or, yes, like honey.

Digable Planets, “Where I’m From”  Wine doesn’t have a monopoly on matters of terroir. With whiskey, it’s about more than the soil, though. A distillery’s landscape is evident in many single-malt Scotches — so called because they come from just a single distillery. (Blended Scotches, like Johnny Walker, involve blending dozens of single malts.) When you taste a Scotch produced on the island of Islay, for instance, pay attention for salty notes in the aroma. That’s evidence that the whisky spent a decade or more aging in a wood barrel in a warehouse where the air is permeated with sea spray.

XTC, “Senses Working Overtime” There are 10,000 taste buds in the human mouth. The human nose has five million cells that are sensitive to odors. Taste is not necessarily the sum of a spirit’s parts; it’s only one part. So take your time — breathe the aromas, note the mouthfeel (silky? rich? jagged?), and observe the color. 

The Beatles, “Think for Yourself” Taste and smell are highly subjective. If someone pours you a bourbon and tells you there are milk-chocolate notes in the nose, and you detect dark chocolate — or coffee — you’re not wrong.

Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water” Adding water to a Scotch is not an indication of a drinker’s frailty, greenness, or risk aversion. Nerd alert: it’s science. The addition of a few drops of water disrupts the alcohol’s molecular structure and cracks open esters, compounds that contain aromas and flavors. Scots call it “releasing the serpent,” but anyone not inclined to medieval reference might do well to think of it like foreplay.

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 See all articles by: LIZA WEISSTUCH