A campaign to end whisky snobbery

Special to WJW

One question that periodically comes up in casual conversation is: What Scotch whisky should a whisky novice try first?
To which I inevitably respond: What, pray tell, is a “whisky novice”? Drink one whisky and, presto change-o, one is a novice no more. There is no secret handshake or silly initiation ritual. Even worse, the phrase “whisky novice” is sometimes used as a down-one’s-nose reference to those uninitiated into whisky snobbery. What utter piffle.

Even worse, I’ve heard folks say things like, “I don’t pour the good stuff for those who won’t appreciate it.” It’s as if appreciation of alcohol requires years of apprenticeship or a higher education degree.

It is true enough that some folks do not appreciate smoky, peaty whiskies while others swear their allegiance to the ranks of peat freaks. But this has nothing to do with being a novice. Tastes are subjective.

More important, however, is to keep in mind that subjective valuations can change over time. Children generally prefer sweet to savory, but over time our tastes usually change and our desired range of flavors broadens, as do our likes and dislikes in general. Whisky is no different.

Tasted it once and didn’t like it? Fine, try another — but don’t presume that you will never like it. At some point down the road, try it again. You might surprise yourself.

Years ago, I gave a bottle of Laphroaig 10 year old, a super peaty, smoky single malt Scotch whisky to a friend who had only ever enjoyed mild blends. Try it I said, and if you don’t like it, no worries, don’t drink it — only, please, give it a fair chance.
Take a sip, hold it in your mouth for a moment and try to focus beyond the smoke and peat at the flavors lurking beneath those layers. Three weeks later, this friend was on a second bottle of the stuff.

On the other hand, I have a friend who has been buying high-end single malts and bourbons for many years — decades even — but can’t stand any hint of smoke in his whisky. He enjoys smoked salmon, smoked herring and even the occasional cigar, but will permit no trace of smoke in his whisky. He obviously knows his own tastes, and there the matter ends unless or until he wishes otherwise. He’s no novice.

It is also perfectly true that one’s appreciation for a particular thing can be increased by comparative knowledge. We may love chicken soup, for example, but after sampling enough chicken soup it becomes clear that not all soups are equal.

The important point is to keep an open mind and maintain personal honesty. Tell your friends what you like, but don’t kid yourself about what you do or do not like.

This is one of my favorite cheap, blended Scotch whiskies for those who want to start their whisky journey with something mild and easy:

The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky (40 percent abv; $25). It is easy to understand why the Famous Grouse continues to be Scotland’s best-selling blended Scotch (since 1980) and one of the top sellers globally. This is a lovely whisky, delicate and floral on the nose with just a slight hint of smoke and honey. It punches well above its weight, delivering a rich and full array of flavors, despite being relatively light-bodied, including cream, toffee, apple, vanilla, mocha, spices, and something vaguely citrusy, along with a hint of grain in the medium-long finish. It’s delicious straight, on the rocks, with soda, or however you wish. L’Chaim! n

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