A Tale of Mash and Oak, Part I: The Adventure Begins

Join KHS team member Sam Zachrich as she shares a personal journey of discovery in the wide and wonderful world of whiskey.

Mark Twain once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” If you had asked me two years ago what I thought about this quote, I would have thrown up. On you. On the spot. Before I started working here at Know How Studios with fearless founder Laurie March, I did not appreciate the brown elixir. But now I’m on a journey.

One day after work, she asked me if I wanted to stay and have a glass. In the back of my mind, I was praying I wouldn’t yack after my first sip, but Laurie poured a pretty amazing glass of Glenlivet 18. Lucky me. This was a HUGE improvement over my prior whiskey experiences (with some, um, less-refined brands).

No gag reflex, no running for the trash can. I could actually taste flavors other than lighter fluid. This funneled me straight into a whiskey obsession. I immediately committed to learning as much as I could and trying as many varieties as I could get my hands on.

One of my goals was to become comfortable navigating a liquor store without getting overwhelmed by all of the choices. Was I in the mood for bourbon? Irish whiskey? Scotch? If I went with Scotch, did I want a single-malt or a blended variety?

See, the choices can get complicated quickly. So my plan of attack has been a two-part affair:

1) Continue sampling and educating my palate – not by ripping shots, but by finding other enthusiasts and learning from and with them (I have found that most bars will give you a taster pour and are usually excited to discuss the various offerings).

2) Gain an understanding of the distilling and barreling process. It’s where many of the nuances of whiskey begin, after all.

First, and arguably the best part – trying different whiskeys. It’s simply the best way to learn whether you prefer a certain type over another and to discover the range of flavors and subtleties. If you choose to begin a journey of your own, I encourage you to ingrain this principle in your brain: You can drink whiskey however you want.

Some hardcore whiskey lovers may disagree, but as the Scotch Whisky Association observes, “The only rule is that you should drink Scotch the way you enjoy it as an individual.” With that in mind, I have come up with something that works for me. When trying a new-to-me whiskey, I start with a neat serving (a pour straight out of the bottle, no ice or mixers) in a lowball glass, because this allows me to really taste it. I’ll usually add a few drops of water, too. It may sound a little weird, but I swear it opens up the flavor.

Once I know if I like a certain whiskey, I prefer it with an ice cube, but not a huge one if I can help it. I just like it a little colder, but there is some science behind my preference. It’s called retronasal olfaction, which happens when you sip a chilled beverage and the warming of it in your mouth wakes up the flavor molecules and shoots them straight up your nose. You’re able to get an additional taste. Crazy, right?

Another thing to note – the spelling of whisk(e)y. It is debated, and I was confused myself when starting out. The point to remember is that the spelling varies by region because … well, because. It doesn’t have anything to do with differences in flavor, distillation or bottling practices. Irish and American producers tend to use “whiskey” while Scottish, Canadian, Australian and Japanese makers go with “whisky”.

Next up – Part II: Whiskey Production