Whisky Wisdom With The Whisky Exchange

Whisky wisdom for Burns Night with The Whisky Exchange

Whether it’s for Burns Night or any other sophisticated soiree that you might be planning, whisky is always tasty treat - but it can be tricky to know how to choose the right one. TOAST chats to Dawn Davies of The Whisky Exchange to glean some of her indispensible whisky wisdom.

Before you read any further it’s important to note - whisky is for life, not just for Burns Night. Of course the annual celebration of the life, works and spirit of the great Scottish poet and notorious whisky lover Robert Burns  is the perfect excuse to indulge in a wee dram with friends but whisky, once a spirit almost exclusively reserved for the older, usually male drinker, is experiencing a steady surge in more widespread popularity.

At our recent Whisky Show the average age was 35-45, so we are definitely seeing more and more young people engaging with it” explains Dawn.

“It is still largely male dominated but this is slowly changing, and there are more and more women working as master distillers, buyers and brand ambassadors. I am sure that women will be a major category within the next decade and a consumer that the brands shouldn’t ignore”

Dawn Davies MW (the MW stands for Master of Wine, by the way) is Head of Buying for vast online spirits retailer The Whisky Exchange, as well as their sister wholesale company Speciality Drinks. After university, Dawn dived straight in to the wine industry and quickly became one of the UK’s very first female sommeliers, working at the likes of Zuma, Boxwood, The Square and The Ledbury. Following that great feat, she then ventured in the world of retail and spent nine years purchasing wine and spirits for none other than Selfridges whilst simultaneously studying to become a Master of Wine, and now she is well on her way to becoming a master of whisky too…

There’s so much to learn that even the greatest whisky experts will never stop learning - whisky is our biggest category so I get to taste a lot and learn a lot every day” she explains.

And no, I’m not oblivious to the fact that I have possibly one of the best jobs in the world!”

Ben Nevis 10 Year Old Bowmore 15 YO Darkest Dawn Davies

The Whisky Exchange boasts a staggering range of more than 9000 whiskies and fine spirits, so I can only imagine just how much tasting Dawn has to bravely undertake – a tough task I know, but someone’s got to do it. The business itself was founded in 1999 by brothers Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh who both grew up in the world of spirits retail as their parents ran a successful off licence in North-West London for many years; when they retired Sukhinder and Rajbir decided to sell the family business in order to create what is now The Whisky Exchange.

It still is a family-owned business today and the Singh brothers are both heavily involved in the day-to-day running of it” explains Dawn.

“Our philosophy is simple – we never rest on our laurels! We’re always trying to find new products with genuine heritage and quality, but we also make sure that the customer experience is second to none

Today The Whisky Exchange  stocks a whopping 3,500 whiskies, about 2,300 of which are single malt Scotch whiskies plus 250 bourbons, and the remainder is made up of blended Scotch, grain, Irish, Japanese and other whiskies from countries including Wales, South Africa, India, Sweden and Australia. But as a customer faced with such a vast selection of wonderful whiskies – where on earth does one start? Much like Marmite, whisky has divided drinkers for decades, and if you don’t know what you are doing it’s all to easy to end up with a bottle of something incredibly strong, smoky and pungently peaty that even the most hardened of whisky drinkers might struggle with.

“There so many different styles out there! You can have a whisky that is a vanilla, tropical fruit bomb or a deep, rich whisky that is just like Christmas cake in a glass!” Dawn enthuses. 

 “I always say there is a whisky for everyone!” 

With that in mind, and with Burns Night fast approaching, Dawn has kindly shared a few words of whisky wisdom with TOAST.Life – so if you’ve ever wondered how to go about choosing the right whisky to serve at home, whether to drink it with ice or water, what nibbles to serve with it and which glasses to use, then read on for TOAST’s indispensable Inspire Me guide! 


Whisky or Whiskey?

“Whiskey with an ‘e’ is used to reference Irish or American whiskey” explains Dawn.

“Everything else is whisky. There are lots of theories about why that came to be and the most popular one is that in the 19th Century Irish distillers added an ‘e’ as a way of differentiating their whiskies from Scotch. The Americans followed suit thanks to the influx of Irish distillers and Irish whiskey into North America”

How To Make The Right Choice 

“If you’re new to whisky and you’re struggling to choose a bottle - think of flavours that you like for example - dried fruits, vanilla, fresh fruit, smoke and then get recommendations from shop staff based on what you like. If you have a particular brand that you like then let them know it so they can find ones that are similar” Dawn suggests.

“Also try as many whiskies as you can even if you don’t think you will like them as sometimes you may be surprised. There are many tastings out there and many bartenders and shop staff are more than happy to guide you through the different styles”

If you want to try lots of different whiskies without buying full bottles, take a look The Whisky Exchange’s Perfect Measure samples - hundreds of whiskies available in 3cl bottles. Why not buy a few and do some sampling with friends? 

Perfect Measures Set


Style vs. Substance

“Don’t risk choosing a whisky based on the look of the label - it can mean you miss out on an amazing whisky” explains Dawn.

“For example most people wouldn’t look twice at Ben Nevis 10 Year Old - if I had shopped on label I would never have tried it and yet it’s one of my favourites! Don’t be blinded by style over substance”

Belvenie 14 YO Caribbean Cask Talisker


Crowd Pleasers

“If you’re having a crowd over for Burns Night and want to indulge in a wee dram I would recommend serving three crowd-pleasers”

- Glenfarclas 15 Year Old is a good choice - plenty of raisins and dried fruits 

Nose: Complex and full, with heather honey, sweet vanilla fudge and dark fruit – raisins and plums.

Palate: Rich and oily texture, with layers of marzipan, fruity sherry and spicy cinnamon and ginger.

Finish: Lingering with brown-sugar sweetness and fruit.

For A Sweet Palette 

- For a more fruity honeyed style I’d suggest the Balvenie 14 Year Old, Caribbean cask

Nose: Brown sugar, butter and nutmeg with shortbread, golden syrup and sweet Muscat grapes.

Palate: Apples, lemons, icing sugar and brown toast, with syrup, caramel and toffee popcorn.

Finish: White toast with golden syrup and spiced, stewed apples.

A Smoky Dram  

- And Talisker 10 Year Old – for those that like a smoky dram! 

Nose: Powerful peat-smoke with seawater saltiness, the liquor of fresh oysters, a citrus sweetness.

Palate: A rich dried-fruit sweetness with clouds of smoke and strong barley-malt flavours, warming and intense. At the back of the mouth is an explosion of pepper.

Finish: Huge, long, warming peppery finish with an appetising sweetness.


Tickle Those Tastebuds

I always suggest taking your first sip neat to get a feel for the whisky - water can open up the whisky as well as lower the alcohol level, so if you feel that it is a bit tight or you want to dilute the strength then add water – but add a few drops at a time so you don’t add too much and dilute the whisky too much” Dawn explains.

“With regards to ice it is very much up to you and how you like to drink whisky - on a warm day whisky can be a refreshing drink, especially with ice and soda water in a highball”

Great Glasses 

“There are so many options when it comes to whisky glasses. Most people enjoy whisky from a tumbler and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are glasses available that help to concentrate aroma and flavour much more. A tulip shaped glass always works well for tasting – we have one called The Perfect Measure Tulip Glass and this would be my usual choice”

1920S Tasting Glass Pour

“We’ve also just launched a stunning modern recreation of a glass used by whisky blenders in the 1920s. It’s been developed by Elixir Distillers in partnership with whisky writer Angus MacRaild. You might find it a little odd at first as it’s nothing like a tumbler or tulip glass. Instead it’s an onion shape which really helps with that flavour concentration, and it’s also a conversation starter!”

Perfect Pairing 

I love a hard cheese like cheddar or a blue cheese with my whisky as it works beautifully.   Other classics are smoked salmon and a smoky whisky” Dawn explains

“Talisker on a fresh oyster is delicious! And a rich sherried whisky is a great combination with chocolate. As a general rule - foods that are quite powerful in flavor will make the best pairings

Cocktail Hour 

“There are some awesome classic cocktails made with Scotch whisky, like a Rob Roy or a Blood and Sand. Our sister company Speciality Drinks recently held a competition for bartenders to create a new Scotch whisky cocktail. Rhys Wilson from the London cocktail bar Happiness Forgets won the competition with his creation - The Claymore” explains Dawn.

“It’s so easy to make - just take 45ml of your favourite Scotch whisky and 15ml Champagne cordial. If you can’t be bothered to make the Champagne cordial, which is surprisingly easy by the way, then you can always pop to Happiness Forgets where Rhys has it on the menu!”

Rhys Wilson at Happiness Forgets makes his champagne cordial by simply combining 2 parts of Champagne with 1 part sugar, and simmering on a medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly. You’ll need to add 5ml of malic acid powder every 500ml Champagne. It’s a good way to use up leftover champagne (if there is such a thing!) and will last for up to a week in the fridge.

The Claymore Whisky Show Cocktail Winner

Dawn's Choice

It really depends on my mood and what I feel like drinking but at the moment it has to be the Ben Nevis 10 Year Old – it has bags of tropical fruit and a lick of smoke – it’s hard to have just the one dram of this whisky!”

Further Reading 

There are some fantastic books out there – Dave Broom’s ‘The World Atlas of Whisky’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Whisky, The Definitive World Guide’ and many others that you can get a strong foundation from” Dawn suggests.

“The best experience though is through tasting – we hold a series of masterclasses on whisky throughout the year and of course if you want to really geek out our annual Whisky Show is a must!”

Dawn's Top Whisky Tips 

  • Ask For Advice - Don’t be afraid to ask for advice in a shop
  • Go off piste - Don’t just stick to Scotch whisky - the world is your oyster!
  • Be Adventurous with Flavor - here are many different levels and flavours of peat so don’t discount it as a style if you think you don’t like smoky whisky - some may surprise you.
  • Drink It How You Want To - don’t be afraid to add water or ice if that is how you like it
  • Most Importantly - have fun with it and experiment!

Burns Night is on 25th January 2018. For more on the history of Burns Night and how to celebrate it in style check out TOAST.Life’s indispensible Inspire Me guide over on TheEdit now.  


Posted in Inspire Me

by Sophie Farrah
on on 23 January 2018

  burn's night, whiskey, whiskey tasting, whisky

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