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Whisky Tasting at Home With Phil Huckle

Phil Huckle, The Man Who Knows Whisky Talks Tasting

Don’t know your single malt from your blended whiskey? Fear not. Chivas Regal’s UK Ambassador Phil Huckle shares his whisky wisdom with Toast’s Sophie Farrah, and takes us through his top tips for creating your very own premium whisky tasting at home…



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‘Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whisky is barely enough’

Wise words from Mark Twain, and personally I couldn’t agree more. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Scotch whisky is fast becoming a popular and some might say fashionable spirit to tease your pallet.

When once there was just  a dusty old bottle of Bells lingering at the back of your parents’ drinks cabinet, whisky has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade and its popularity continues to soar, particularly with a younger market.

"People are realizing that Scotch whisky is really the most diverse spirit that there is’ explains Phil. ‘Today there are over 100 single malt distilleries in Scotland as well as hundreds of blends so there is so much choice, and the quality has never been better.’"

Since first discovering Scotch whisky whilst living in the US over 20 years ago, Phil is now responsible for premium sprit and wine company Pernod Ricard’s entire Scotch whisky portfolio. Featuring a horde of notable blended whiskies as well as 15 single malt distilleries, it also includes the top selling single malt in the world - The Glenlivet.

Chivas

The thing about whisky is that there are so many intricate flavours’ explains Phil,  ‘from the really peaty smoky Islay whisky, to the sweet and fruity style of Speyside single malts and everything in between. Plus you have your blended whiskies too, which are generally smoother to drink. Once you’ve got the whisky itself you hardly need anything else, so organising your own tasting is incredibly easy to do…’

Something for everyone you might say, but it’s actually the very size of this vast selection that can at times be quite intimidating. I for one have fallen victim to ordering a familiar-sounding whisky, only to have then had to painfully sip my way through something so pungent and peaty that how anyone could actually enjoy drinking it was incomprehensible. 

To experience and appreciate the diverse and rich flavours of whisky, why not host a tasting in your own home? This can be a great excuse to entertain, whether you offer a variety of whiskies to taste between courses, or as a stylish way to round off a dinner party, a fun Friday night in with friends, or perhaps part of a sophisticated stag or hen do. It’s the perfect way to discover the wonderful world of whisky. 

Read on for Phil and Toast’s indispensable guide to hosting your very own whisky tasting at home…

Whiskey or Whisky ?

Before you begin, it’s important to note the difference between whiskey and whisky when making your choice: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors.

The word itself (both spellings) is of Celtic origin, and modern whisky or whiskey distillation practices originated in Ireland and Scotland.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Whisky

Anything between 2 and 6 good quality bottles of whisky will do. Whisky can be quite pricey so one way to do it is to ask each guest to chip in a certain amount or – even better – everybody brings a bottle, with a draw at the end as to who takes home the remnants of each bottle (if there are any…). You could ask one guest to bring a premium-blended whisky, another to bring a Speyside single malt. For a beginners tasting I would recommend these 4 whiskies, which will give you a nice contrast between different styles;

Phil’s picks include an Aberlour A'Bunadh which has been aged in 100% sherry casks. A sherry cask whisky is a red, mahogany colour and will give you richer flavours and more of a dry finish. Glenlivet 18 year old is a double cask so that means it’s been aged in both Sherry and American bourbon casks. The American cask will give you sweeter flavours and more of a golden colour. Add one premium blended whisky like Chivas Regal 18 year old which is really interesting. And then one more that is very different in style so maybe a Lagavulin 16 year old, or one of the Talisker range.

Whisky Tasting With Phil Huckle 11 Image By Niranvinodcom

Blended vs. Single Malt

In a nutshell, a single malt is a whisky which has been distilled in one single distillery. It’s made from 100% malted barley, it’s aged in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years and usually bottled over 10 years of age. A blended whisky is a blend of various single malt whiskies, mixed together with grain whisky. Grain whisky is very light, and predominantly made from wheat mixed with barley and other grains; it doesn’t have much flavour but it’s very smooth, and so it blends well with all the various single malts which flavor and add the character. 

Glasses

You don’t need to get any special whisky tasting glasses - what works really well at home is goblet wine glasses. You want something to capture the aroma of the whisky, which you should swirl just like wine, and because of its shape a wine glass will let you do this much better than a regular tumbler.

Water

Adding water to your whisky releases something called esters - organic compounds formed in fermentation. They give a certain fruitiness to whisky, so when you add water and these are released, you’ll be able to taste more flavours.

You don’t have to be a total purist about water - it doesn’t have to be from the same area of Scotland as the distillery, as some say! Tap water is ok depending on the quality…but if you’re going to spend a bit of money on some nice whisky then why not spend an extra pound on a bottle of still water to go with it?  Just make sure it is not a salty mineral water.

Ice  

Ice is a big no no. The cold temperature will actually reduce the flavour of the whisky! Speak to any bar tender and they will always tell you - ice keeps ice cold, so if you pack a glass full of ice and then pour whisky into it, it will kill all the flavour! If you absolutely have to, then one single cube on a hot day is ok, as it will melt quickly releasing water in your whisky, which as we know enhances the flavours. But there is actually on thing worse than ice…

Whisky Stones

These are small cubes of solid soapstone kept in the freezer that claim to chill your whisky without diluting it, or affecting flavour. However, you will never see any whisky company put their name to whisky stones and there is a reason for that! Whisky stones are terrible for your whisky. They are the worst of all worlds - at least ice will eventually melt and release the water enhances the flavours, - these cold stones just kill the flavour!

THE TASTING

Get Nosing

Pour the whisky neat at first – no water. Get your guests to spend a time nosing the whisky, because it’s your nose that identifies flavour. If you’re skilled enough your nose can identify hundreds of different notes, but your palate can only identify four or five. Be very gentle with it at first because it is 40+ percent! You don’t want to overpower your senses.

Whisky Tasting With Phil Huckle 8 Image By Niranvinodcom

One Second for Every Year

Next, take a sip of the whisky. Roll it around your tongue and your mouth. A fun thing to do is swill it around for the amount of seconds that correspond to the age of the whisky that you are tasting i.e. you would swill a 12 year old for 12 seconds. That way you really get a sense of the flavour. Discuss what notes you’re picking up and make a note of them. There are 9 key flavours to look out for;

Sweet, Fruity, Floral, Spicy, Herbal, Oaky, Nutty, Dry, Smoky

You can expand on these - pear drops, summer fruits, leather, etc. and look out for the finish as well -focusing on how long the taste of the whisky stays in the back of your throat. 

Add Water

Next, take the same whisky but this time add a  drop of water. Repeat the process outlined above, noting how the flavours have changed. Finally, repeat a third and final time but with  more water – 2 parts whisky 1 part water. That’s a really good ratio to taste the whisky because the water really opens it up; it releases all the esters and flavour compounds in the whisky, so when you go back and nose it with the added water you’ll notice that you actually get more flavour, rather than less.

Whisky Tasting With Phil Huckle 5 Image By Niranvinodcom

Savour The Flavor

Don’t rush it - spend plenty of time on each whisky, the results of doing it this way are far more interesting. At the end, bring all your notes together and discuss; what you liked and what you didn’t, and maybe make a plan for the next whiskies you’re going to try. It’s a bit like a book club, but everyone gets a bit more…toasty!


Phil’s Cocktail

Of course another nice way of drinking whisky is in cocktails…my personal favourite is Blood and Sands. It’s equal parts of Scotch whisky, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy - or cherry Heering as some prefer,  and freshly squeezed orange juice. Put that all in to a shaker with some crushed ice, shake it really hard, and then pour into a coupette or martini glass. It’s a great dinner party drink, or perfect for rounding off your whisky tasting at home! 

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Whisky Tasting With Phil Huckle Image By Niranvinodcom

Phil Huckle is the brand ambassador for Chivas Regal @PhilHuckle. If you've been inspired by Phil's tips and plan to host a whisky tasting at home, TOAST has also found the best equipment and accessories around to help it go as smoothly as your single malt. 

Images provided by Niranvinod.com

 
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