Enjoy Whisky: The S-L-O-W Dram Experience

THE S-L-O-W DRAM EXPERIENCE

Drew McKinnie

Let us take a sensory journey through the enjoyment of a dram of whisky. In this Part 1 article I seek to raise awareness of what works best for many whisky lovers, a s-l-o-w dram, something to be celebrated and enjoyed in great company; later in Part 2 I will examine implications in terms of image of whisky and the community of whisky lovers.

 

Part 1

The Optimum Whisky Experience

 

Take yourself to a happy, comfortable setting. Relax, breathe deeply, and imagine a lovely dram of your favourite whisky, poured into a shiny copita or tulip-shaped tasting glass, held in your hand. You can see the viscosity of the dram as it swirls around the side of the glass. The colour, whether pale gold or a deeper amber, catches the background light with entrancing flashes, a promise of what is to come.

You hold the glass up in the light, then to your nose, and savour, with your mouth slightly open. Aaaah, the nose, the aromas rise, tickle your olfactory senses, bringing a cascade of impressions from component smells. Without being aware of it, you might even close your eyes as memories of events and associations from the aromas come flooding in. Then, eyes open to catch the hue and colour, you swirl again, then the lovely second inhalation of those lovely aromas. Discovery brings such fun! New smells are detected, subtle tones and aromatic associations.

The aromas bring anticipation, so again without being aware, you might begin to salivate; the more pleasant the flavour associations, the more intense the anticipation and urge to – wait for it – raise the glass slowly to the lips and – taste. You take a sip, swirl over your tongue, savour and linger a while as your brain makes sense of the complex sensations. You swallow, exhale, and then lick your lips and mouth as you savour the aftertaste. New flavours emerge, nuances and hints of component tastes. More discoveries! You are also aware of the finish, the texture, which might be long and smooth, lingering, or shorter and dryer.

With this avalanche of sensations, you have unconsciously brought the glass back towards your nose to smell again, slower and gentler this time, to correlate the aromas and flavours, to modify your initial impressions. A particular component of taste triggers the urge to find the corresponding aroma, to bring harmony to these complex impressions. You smell slower, deeper, letting the aromas dance with the flavours still on your palate.

The first taste may have brought a burn sensation from alcohol, some heat and tingling. As the heat and aftertaste subsides, you taste again, sip and swirl over the tongue, and let it linger longer on the taste buds. The taste buds come alive with numerous flavours; more subtle elements emerge this time. The second taste awakens sensations of a kaleidoscope of flavours, greater awareness of combinations of components.

By now, your normal fast, intuitive and reactive thinking style has shifted to slow thinking, discerning, analyzing and enjoying. You make comparisons, contrasts and associations, whilst building new impressions, opinions and memories.

In an optimum setting you might taste your dram in company with friends. By now you are aware of their reactions; you hear their laughter and lip-smacking, expressions of enjoyment or surprise, and often, their descriptions of the settings in which they have experienced those flavours or aromas. Now the powers of verbal suggestion come to bear. They remind you of something different, something new, and again you find yourself exploring, unconsciously seeking out aromas, tasting for hints of flavour.

For some, you want to add a few drops of water and explore new aromas and modified flavours, texture and finish. The differences can be startling, sometimes wonderful, sometimes more subdued. These experiments are fun.

For many, you want to see how the whisky ‘grows’ as it warms in the glass. You cup the glass in hand to warm it, cap with the other, swirl – and again bring the nose and taste buds to bear, searching out the different characters, relishing new pleasures of emerging aromas, flavours and subtle elements of finish and aftertaste.

You repeat this intensely sensate process, letting your eyes, nose and taste buds, your memories and social banter enhance your enjoyment of this wonderful dram.

For most whisky lovers, the optimum whisky experience is something to be savoured, relished, celebrated slowly. No hurry, we take our time – we experience the ‘s-l-o-w dram’.

The optimum ‘slow dram’ rewards the whisky lover; so does the spontaneous enjoyment of a second dram, exploring variations of styles, aromas and flavours.

The right glass helps enormously in enhancing enjoyment. A copita, or tulip glass, is much preferable to shot glasses or tumblers. Any glass that brings the aromas to life will improve the sensory experience, whilst decreasing the consumption rate.

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Part 2

Image, Approachability and Responsibility

 

Recall the sensate, spontaneous enjoyment of whisky described in Part 1, through visualising, nosing, tasting and textural savouring of a slow dram. The fun times from sharing impressions, associations of flavours and aromas, enhance our enjoyment of whisky. I hope this has been a rewarding experience.

Our friends in The Scotch Malt Whisky Society recognise the efforts made to ensure tastings are welcoming, educational and fun. This approach is consistent with a philosophy of sharing whisky enjoyment, growing a responsible community of whisky lovers. Contrary to some stereotypes, whisky lovers are mostly ordinary responsible people who enjoy good times with friends, who savour their whisky for pleasure rather than intoxication effect. Whisky enhances enjoyment of social gatherings and celebrations, firesides and foods; often best enjoyed in company, yet may add immense pleasure to moments of quiet solitude.

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Image is affected by advertising, marketing, social settings and fashion. Fashion is fickle, so if it swings towards a certain product sector, then it presents opportunities to modify or shape the image, to improve differentiation from similar products. There is evidence of increasing fashionability of malt whiskies and cocktails, particularly with female drinkers. Whisky bars are emerging in Australian cities; more whiskies are appearing in restaurants, bars and clubs. Whisky is being portrayed with a more modern, fashionable image.

There are risks to the image of whisky enjoyment. Whisky lovers could differentiate our image more from bourbon. Many bourbon advertisements in Australia have a loud tone, where shot or tumbler glasses appear prominently. Imagine if whisky advertising put less emphasis on leather chairs, wood-panelled clubrooms and crystal tumblers, more on friendly group settings where we enjoy whiskies; celebrations, barbeques, dinners, restaurants. Large balloon glasses have a classy elite image. Whisky being sipped from tulip glasses in attractive mixed company sends different signals to shot glasses being lined up in a country and western bar.

The whisky community might differentiate our image further from Ready To Drink beverages (RTDs); canned or bottled mixer drinks ready for parties and copious consumption of potent sweet drinks. Many RTDs are bourbon-based, with some scotch-based varieties. These are unfortunately tied, in the public mind, to the image of binge drinking and under-age alcohol abuse.

We have seen much focus on RTDs and high alcohol content beverages by Australian anti-alcohol groups and governments. No matter how much evidence is presented of the adverse social consequences of abusing RTDs, beers and wines at low price points, many people jump to a simplistic conclusion that spirits, including whisky, are the cause of such problems. High alcohol concentration is demonized. Anti-alcohol groups include RTDs in spirits consumption statistics, rather than tracking RTDs as a separate category.

The rate of alcohol consumption, leading to high intoxication, is a primary driver of adverse social consequences. It is not just a function of alcohol concentration by volume.

Whisky lovers are usually not into skulling shots, guzzling RTDs, nor social misbehaviour. The optimum enjoyment of whisky is not associated with high consumption rate. Whisky lovers have fun whilst enjoying their drams responsibly, so we have a role in sending that alternative message.

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The whisky community might educate others by emphasizing whisky savoured as part of an overall social experience. The ‘slow dram’, enjoyed in modern social settings with family, friends and good food is a real social setting for whisky. SMWS whisky tastings promote responsible enjoyment, a community of whisky lovers. Increasingly SMWS events promote enjoyment of whisky with foods and delicacies; or more correctly, the matching of foods to different styles of whiskies.

Consider the restaurant industry promotion of quality, superior produce, regional flavours, fashionable social settings, plus accessibility by a broader cross-section of the community. We are increasingly able to choose from degustation menus, ‘slow food’ experiences, adventurous pairings of food and wines. Association of whisky including ‘slow dram’ with ‘slow food’ experiences can be beneficial, enhancing the image of approachability, fun and rewarding sensory experiences.

The whisky community also faces educative challenges. Whilst knowledge of good wine, beer and food combinations is steadily growing, there is little public knowledge of how whisky can be enjoyed with a meal. Most see whisky as a post-dinner option; not as an accompaniment.

Recent SMWS tastings and events have included matching cheese and chocolates, savoury and sweet canapés with whiskies. Some lucky folks have attended memorable tasting dinners, combining innovative menus with sensational whiskies. These are means of educating people about great combinations. During tastings, we educate participants by deliberate use of sensate language, describing social settings and foods that would enhance enjoyment of whisky.

For example; a bright Speyside whisky might be described as a welcoming pre-dinner dram for a seafood meal or barbeque. A rich sherried malt might be described as a dessert whisky accompanying a sticky date pudding or cheese with glazed fruits. A robust smoky dram might shine with smoked meats, tapas or a chorizo-flavoured italian dish. Lighter drams may sensationally match seared, lightly caramelized scallops on a savoury base, or accompanying a seafood main. Some Islay malts might accompany strong cheeses and dried fruits; others match chocolate and citrus desserts, or even prawns roasted on a beachside fire. We describe a desirable dining setting, using sensate language to highlight a flavour and aroma combination.

Whisky websites and publications can also develop our knowledge. Some whisky lovers are active in the culinary press. Great recipes and whisky-food matches, with great photography, motivate people to be more adventurous in their culinary explorations. Any whisky lover can broaden the appeal of whisky, its versatility and variety, the marriage of a slow dram with great food.

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When you are next in a happy social setting, pour a luscious dram into a tulip glass, swirl, see its viscosity and colour; then smell and let your memories flow. Sip and taste; smell again, explore the flavour and aroma associations. Compare your impressions with those of friends. Search out and discover the new flavours and aromas. Relish the mouth feel and finish, aftertastes and subtleties.

Now embed this experience in restaurants, parties, or shared experiences over an open fire or picnic table. Relish the great sensations of matching quality foods with your best whiskies. Promote the enjoyment of whisky as a fun, responsible, quality experience. Share the knowledge, enjoyment and friendship. Slainte!

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