Whisky – the tipple of a discerning gentlemen?
Years ago our Head of the Brand Commercial Team met a boy and fell in love with whisky. Now she tells us how whisky still divides people when in fact, it should bring us together.
Water of life
When I was eighteen, I landed my dream summer job at the Jameson Distillery in Dublin. During those couple of months, I fell in love with the city and with whisky; a product of such craftmanship that it has remained largely unchanged for centuries. At the height of the manic consumerism of the late nineties, this level of enduring mastery really resonated with me and made a lasting impact.
So much so that I moved to Dublin (admittedly, there may have been a boy involved as well). I finished my degree and got into the Irish Distillers Graduate Program. After a month of whisky boot camp, me and nine other students were suitably educated and inebriated to be given the title “Whisky Ambassador” and each assigned a city in which to spread the gospel of triple distilled Irish whisky. I was posted in London, where I was given the keys to a massive Jameson branded Jeep and a storeroom full of whisky. I took on my new responsibilities with gusto. I organised events, tastings, bartender trainings and supported our field sales team, driving around the UK. For years even after London I felt something was off if I couldn’t hear a clinking sound while driving.
For gentlemen only
As it turned out however, whisky is a tricky tipple. It seems to come with rules, etiquette, confusing terminology and a truck load of convention. What surprised me as well was how masculine a drink it was and at least fifteen years ago, it still represented the final frontier for the stuffy gentlemen’s club type.
Whisky divides people. Many have that one bad experience with tear-inducingly smoky Scotch stolen from their parent’s bar cabinet in their youth, which ruled whisky out as an option later on in life. Those who managed to avoid trauma still see it as something their dad drinks. And there I was – twenty-four years old, female and from Finland – trying to convince them otherwise. I did not fit the image of a typical whisky enthusiast, let alone someone who might have well informed views about the water of life.
In many ways though, the fact that I was not what people expected often made the shared tasting experience unexpected as well. Participants felt more at ease to ask questions that they may have felt apprehensive about if there was a serious silver-bearded connoisseur standing at the front of the room. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of anyone who possess vast amounts of whisky knowledge, but I also have found those situations intimidating which can be counterproductive to both learning and enjoying.
Despite some prejudice toward whisky – and at times myself – I loved my life as an ambassador. Not only did my job make me a hot ticket socially but I got to share with others what I thought was so fantastic about whisky; the careful selection of raw materials, the malting process that allows for variation from golden pepper to peaty smoke, the distilling in beautiful swan-necked pot stills and the years of patience it takes for the liquid to mature in oak casks to a point of perfection. Most importantly, at every stage of production there is a person who tastes, smells and makes choices that make each whisky a unique product of its origin.
My initial favourites were all of course Irish. I loved the smooth triple distilled finish and the lack of smokiness which allowed for more caramelly notes in the profile. One of my top tipples to this day is the Irish Redbreast, which is a pure pot still – a definition of great value within Irish whiskies - and simply delicious. I did find some Scottish whiskies I liked as well but learned early on that Scotch is entirely defined by specific areas (still cannot fully embrace Islay whiskies) and by whether or not it is a blend made of a selection of different whiskies (often cheaper) or a single malt from just one distillery, made with 100% malted barley.
And then came along the Finnish rye
Before I joined Kyrö, I had never had rye whisky of any note, a more common grain for whisky in the US and Canada. My training in Ireland and work experience in the UK had perhaps skewed my perception a little and quite frankly I did not think much of whiskies from North America. I have since discovered that rye brings a whole new set of characteristics to the liquid. Unlike the typical choices of barley in Europe and corn for Bourbon in the US, rye packs a decent punch! It is a temperamental grain to distill, and the flavour profile is robust and peppery while still finishing in smooth warm notes. Rye was a game changer for me and sparked a whole new level of interest in the category of “other whiskies” that is currently booming worldwide.
As for the rules and etiquette, there definitely are some helpful tips like adding water to whisky when doing a tasting, since without dilution your taste buds will soon feel entirely indifferent. But whether you like your whisky neat or on ice, from a tulip or a tumbler, with a mixer or without, is totally up to you. You also don’t need boot camp or a degree on the topic to enjoy whisky. Bravely pick different types and see how you like them. Any distiller worth his or her salt wants their whisky to be enjoyed and shared, not left as an ornament on the top shelf in some dusty old gentlemen’s club.