My Whisky Journey

I’ve been asked a few times how I got interested in whisky. While I’ve mentioned before on this blog what my first few drams were, and about my brother-in-law introducing me to brown spirits, I’ve never taken the time to write the whole story. Since I don’t feel like producing a tasting note tonight (which actually does take quite a bit of time – researching the distilleries, reading critical reviews, finding prices, stats and a bottle photo, etc.), you all just get to read my ramblings on the subject instead. Lucky you.

In college I hated the taste of alcohol. For that matter, I was very unfond of beer too. I liked wine (mostly dry whites), cider, and mixed drinks. G&Ts, Cape Codders, Screwdrivers… I even went through a period where I mixed cheap Calvados with hard cider over ice. Anything to mask the harsh taste of straight alcohol. When my buddies wanted to do shots, I ducked out or suffered through – but the burning in my mouth, the frantic swallowing, and the shudder of revulsion as that $15-a-bottle vodka (or worse, Jim Beam) seared my throat and triggered my gag reflex. Ugh. After college, I expanded my home bar to make a wider array of mixed drinks. I bought some bartending books and tools, and tried to expand my horizons with Manhattans (I didn’t, and still don’t, like bitters), Martinis (three bleu cheese-stuffed olives make it better, but unless you down it ice-cold, you’re still basically sitting there with a glass of straight gin or vodka), and Daiquiris. Something was wrong, though. I wasn’t enjoying the drinks I was making. They were almost always too sweet, too cloying, or too complicated to make. I wanted something I could relax with and enjoy, not something I had to drink before it warmed up, and I was getting sick of sweet mixers.

I resolved to learn how to drink higher-end spirits. Since I thought I universally hated whisky and boubon from my college experiences, I settled on Cognac. I knew you drank it straight, and at room temperature, and the sophistication of it appealed to me. The one problem was that the stuff was expensive! How was I going to learn which brandies I liked if each experiment cost me upwards of $40? I bought some miniatures at BevMo and tried to like them, but the shudder was back. It said “V.S.O.P.” on the bottle – how could it taste like the Jim Beam of my college days? I was about to give up when my brother-in-law saved the day.

At Berkeley, he was taking a scotch appreciation class, taught by a former Diageo rep. Ok, technically he was auditing it (ahh, college). They were tasting a wide range of excellent single malts by splitting bottles among the whole class, and my brother-in-law would come home raving about whisky. I already knew I didn’t like cheap blended scotch any more than I liked the VSOP cognac, but I took a leap of faith and asked him to help me pick out two bottles of decent single malt. Being a bit of an over-enthusiastic personality, he suggested I go straight to the top with a bottle of Laphroaig 10 (good value, about as peaty as it gets for the money), and Aberlour A’Bunadh (big sherry, and cask strength to boot). In hindsight, this could easily have derailed me – big Islay peat is an acquired taste, and the intense burn of straight cask-strength scotch is likely to put any newbie off the trail. I tried the Laphroaig first. Luckily, I was amazed. A $33 bottle of spirits that I could drink straight, at room temperature, and there was no shudder! Just aroma, flavor, and mouth-burn (which I quickly learned to tolerate drinking the Aberlour!). This was exactly what I had been looking for: an uncomplicated drink that I could enjoy straight, drink slowly, and (unlike wine) keep a bottle open for a long time. No-stress drinking. Who knew?

I had to try more, and it was the personal tasting notes that I took at a few local bars while exhausting their scotch selections that led to this blog. I figured I couldn’t be the only one discovering scotch for the first time, and I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences here. A few people have asked me if I plan to change the name of the site when I’m no longer a ‘noob’ (when will THAT be, I wonder?), but I think at some level we all have more to learn and there will always be more journey for me. Thanks for sharing that journey with me.

The Scotch Noob

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  • Nice article. I’ve been following you for a good few months now, sometimes agreeing with you (Corryvreckan, a’bunadh, Talisker), sometimes not (Nectar D’or, although I am a fan of the standard 10 yr old), but always enjoying your thoughts and your enthusiasm which shines through each review. It’s an enthusiasm I can relate to. It’s funny how so many “experts” say that beginners should never start with Laphroaig. In fact Laphroaig was my first single malt love and still is in many ways, especially the cask strength. Actually, I’m not sure whether peat is an acquired taste or just a peculiar taste, which some of us like or not, irrespective of how many Glenlivets we’ve tried before.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say hi and thanks – this is a good blog you’ve got going here. Cheers.

    • I totally agree on the peat thing. I started trying various Glenlivets and Aberlours and, though I found them ok, never really got into them. Finally I just decided to dive in headfirst and ordered some Lagavulin 16 at a bar, and that made all the difference.

  • Thanks for sharing your story; it is always interesting to know where people are coming from, as everyone has had their own journey. As for when does one stop becoming a ‘Noob’? I don’t think we ever do, as there is always so much to learn (the journey, not the destination, is more often than not the fun part). Take for example Morihei Ueshiba, the man who developed modern Aikido: he is reported to have always worn a white belt with his aikidogi, because even as the founder of the style, he felt that he would never stop being a student.