Hallelujah, the end is nigh!!! The end of the wait for Season 2, that is. And I believe that the PERFECT way to enjoy the new season is to have a glass of your favorite whiskey (or whisky) in hand.
While I’ve been a fan of “the brown” for several years now, there really is a very special relationship with the Outlander series and whiskey. Whether as a restorative, antiseptic, or wedding night dinner guest, whiskey has been featured in practically every episode of the show and no one but Diana Gabaldon can so perfectly describe the way just a small sip of the fiery spirit can travel down your throat and warm you from within. Makes me thirsty just typing about it…
Not sure you’re into whiskey? Don’t have a clue where to start? Might I suggest a tasting party? It just so happens that us Outlander fans have a GREAT BIG REASON to celebrate on Saturday night, so… if you’re looking for a way to celebrate I suggest you gather a few friends and have a whiskey tasting.
I’ve hosted whiskey tastings for the past few years and the concept is pretty simple. Each guest picks a bottle to bring and you sample each one of them during the tasting. You can choose whether to have an “open tasting” where you all know what brand you’re drinking or have a “blind tasting” where the booze brand is hidden, thus preventing you from any preconceived notions of brand, price, age, etc. (my personal preference).
A note on being a responsible host: unless you plan on treating your guests like a bunch of 20 year old fraternity pledges, serve only small portions of each liquor for tasting. My last tasting had 8 different whiskeys and I was not planning on giving each of my guests 8 full shots of liquor. I do actually LIKE these people and I’d like to see them safely delivered home. You just need enough for a few sips to properly taste each variety. But if you plan on going bonkers, for goodness sake, take the keys and pass out pillows.
So what the heck ARE we actually drinking? Well, that’s where things get a bit complicated, but as you’ll soon discover when wobbling down this boozy path, whiskey is produced all over the world with multiple variations of how it’s made. However, the common denominator is that it’s all a variety of alcohol distilled from a mash of fermented grains (corn, wheat, rye, barley, etc.). There are actually several articles I found discussing whether it’s called whiskey or whisky, but in my mind… none of that really matters if you’re just sampling and trying to figure out whether or not you even like the stuff.
But for those of you who really need answer to the whiskey/whisky debate, I found this little rule here:
- Countries that have an E in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) = whiskey
- Countries without an E (Canada, Scotland, Japan) = whisky
Cute, huh? Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know but the article is a pretty good read and gives you just an inkling of the debate that writers/editors have had to tackle when discussing this wonderful booze. As for this gal from the StatEs, I’m just gonna refer to it all as whiskey.
So… now that we’ve got whiskey/whisky debate handled let’s do a few definitions. As I am NOT a professional distiller, I’m going to only provide the most basic definitions of each so as not to perjure myself.
Bourbon: the mash needs to be at least 51% corn and is stored in charred oak containers
Tennessee Whiskey: similar to bourbon, but the whiskey goes through a charcoal filtering process called the Lincoln County Process
Scotch Whisky: must be made in Scotland (duh) and is made from malted barley
Canadian Whisky: can also be referred to as rye whisky as it’s made from (duh #2) malted rye.
Irish Whiskey: uses mostly malted barley and is distilled three times before barreling.
If you’re intrigued and want to find out more, I highly recommend doing a little research because there really is a lot to learn about the process: everything from the number of distillations, the variety of barrels/casks used to store the whiskey, the length of time it is stored, or even how much is lost due to evaporation in what’s known as “the angel’s share.”
But for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to assume that if I’d go into that level of detail right now, your eyes would glaze over and you’d go wandering off in search of getting yourself a damn drink already!
So enough teaching, let’s go shopping. My suggestion is that you have a few things in mind when putting together your sampling list. 1.) is this international night? 2.) what’s the budget?
As I just discussed above, if you choose to explore whiskey in general, then I’d suggest a tasting menu that included American whiskey/bourbon, Canadian rye, Scotch whiskey and Irish whiskey. But buyer beware, a trip to the international section of the liquor stores can come with a hefty price tag. You could very well drop $75 on a bottle of Scotch only to discover that your guests think the taste of peat is quite similar to dirty feet (no judgement, please). I’m sure there are all kinds of taxation laws that go into pricing international booze – thus driving up the prices for products from afar – but my point is that if you’re new to drinking whiskey, don’t think that you need to spend more than $30 a bottle to find a really good quality liquor. If you’re just trying to put together a variety of samples, buy the smaller bottles first.
Here in my state of Virginia, the laws governing small local distillers have changed dramatically in recent years allowing more distillers to operate and there are plenty of options for those of us who like to utilize a shop-local mentality, so why not give one of those a shot? (ha-ha, get it? Shot?)
Check out the whiskey section of your local store and look for local brands and ask the staff for recommendations. Or take a field trip like I did with a few local Outlander fans did to a fun place like The Virginia Distillery Company and pick up a bottle. Either way, discuss with your guests on who’s bringing what variety and have fun!
What to Eat
So, have you ever been on a wine tasting and inevitably there’s that stale looking bowl of oyster crackers that you’re supposed to eat to cleanse your pallet between tastings? Well, at my house I don’t employ any of those dry dustballs to ruin my oral rendezvous with the brown. Whiskey tastings can actually be a chance to pair a variety of foods with flavors you’ll find in whiskey. Nuts, smoked meats like bacon, aged cheeses like cheddar or parmesan, fruits like cherries, and dark chocolate all pair well with whiskey.
Great, now I’m hungry AND thirsty. Either way, get some snacks together and experiment.
Eyes, Nose and Mouth
Near the beginning of this article I discussed whether to have an ‘open’ or ‘blind’ tasting. The photos below show how I conducted a blind tasting. We simply put a number on the bottom of each bottle, poured a bit into a labeled glass jar.
So, is there a specific glass for whiskey? Why yes there is, as a matter of fact. It’s a beautiful little glass goblet known as the Glencairn glass. Do you need one? Hell no. But….I have to confess that I bought my own special whiskey glasses at a local antique shop. These little beauties were designed for some sort of cordial, and for me, a not-so-wee dram with exactly one ice cube fits perfectly.
But use what you like. Some guests will want a clean glass for each taste, some will just be fine with a single serving plastic shot glass. Again, relax. This is supposed to be fun. Drink it out of a jelly jar for all I care.
And now we drink!!
Eyes: The first part of sampling the whiskey is to examine the color. Dark amber, light caramel, the color of (book) Claire’s eyes? Try to serve the liquor in clear glasses, and perhaps arrange them on a white background to judge any differences in color.
Nose: Believe it or not, there’s actually a method for sniffing this liquor that’s specific to judging whiskey.
First, swirl your glass like you know what you’re doing.
Second, open your mouth slightly. Third, take a little sniff. You actually need to open your mouth so that you don’t inundate your olfactory senses with only the smell of alcohol vapors. By opening your mouth before you sniff, you actually engage your mouth in the smelling process and might be able to pick up other flavors.
Mouth: I mentioned earlier that you really only need enough liquor to take a small sip. Actually, you need at least two sips to capture the taste. The first sip is what I refer to as the trailblazer. This one may actually feel like you’re sipping liquid fire. That’s okay. An easy solution is to pour a bit of water in with your sip first. It cuts back on the burn of the alcohol and in my opinion, opens up the flavor of the spirit a bit. Some whiskey purists will most likely disagree with me, but I don’t really care. I actually want to enjoy the stuff and not feel like I just murdered my tongue. Now for my second sip, I start employ the method known as the Kentucky Chew.
Now that your first sip deadened your nerve endings a bit and warmed your innards, take a little time with the liquor before you swallow and actually roll it around your mouth for a bit. Not like it’s a large wad of Hubba Bubba, mind you, but let it linger a bit. Swallow. Open your mouth and inhale. Your mouth may actually experience flavors like oak, vanilla, caramel, charcoal, smoke, grains or cherries.
I found this wonderful tasting wheel here and printed a few copies out for my tasters. Helped us all figure out how to actually name the flavors we were experiencing. Oak, smoke, cherry, vanilla, butterscotch, grain, etc… Something other than “Fire”, “Burn”, “Ouch” “It Hurts But I Like It.”
I made little comment cards to go along with the tasting, and the tasters and myself made note of the following brown boozy components: Appearance, Aroma, Taste, and Finish and ranked them on a scale of 1 (never again) to 5 (an angel is weeping).
For what little it might be worth, I’ve assembled the reviews from my panel of non-professional but highly skilled boozers to give you the results of our tasting. Our opinions were ALL over the place on some of these, which I found as a testament to our individual taste preferences – and which I love. Because after all, there really is no wrong answer. And with that, I’ll provide a quick summary but strongly encourage you to buy a bottle and taste for yourself.
Our menu included 7 bourbons and one Tennessee whisky. They were all U.S. liquors and came from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and California.
George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky No. 12 (90 proof)
Appearance: Dark Caramel, Wet (smart ass. Who wrote that? Quinn?).
Aroma: Sweet, Floral, Yeast, Maple
Taste: Smokey, Woody, Malty.
Finish: smooth, hint of black pepper.
Average Score: 4
John B. Stetson Bourbon Whiskey (84 proof)
Appearance: light caramel
Aroma: nutty, almond, floral
Taste: smoked, toasted oak,
Finish: smokey, vanilla, lingers
Average score: 3
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey (93 proof)
Aroma: spicy, oak
Taste: pepper, cedar, fire
Finish: butterscotch, honey
Average score: 3.5
Bowman Brothers Small Batch Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey (90 proof)
Appearance: medium caramel
Aroma: fruity, floral, cherry, vanilla
Taste: oak, pepper, honey, berry
Finish: lingers but smoooooooth (‘cause this one is my favorite and my only 5 of the night!)
Average score: 4
Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (90 proof)
Appearance: darkish? Lightish medium? (we’re on our 5th sample. Who knows?)
Aroma: acetone, tobacco and honey
Taste: cedar, tobacco, maple, honey
Finish: smooth, short
Average score: 4
Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 10 year, (90 proof)
(or Rare Eagle as one of the tasters called it)
Appearance: dark dark
Aroma: butterscotch, maple, vanilla, caramel
Taste: oak, maple, sweet, clove
Finish: sweet, smooth, clean
Average score: 4.5
Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (94 proof)
Appearance: dark dark dark, red/amber, caramel
Aroma: toasted oak, vanilla, floral
Taste: vanilla, cocoa, woody
Finish: clean, complex (is that apple?), sweet
Average score: 4.75
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Single Barrel for Virginia, whatever that means (90 proof)
Appearance: light or dark. We don’t know
Aroma: apple, toasty, vanilla
Taste: fruity, herbal, honey, cherry
Finish: good, quick, wonderful, herbal
Average score: mostly 5’s but there was a 2?
In summary, we had a great time. I LOVE bourbon day. We all got a little boozy and sampled some wonderful whiskey. I also discovered that spilled whiskey actually removes the varnish from your table so, there’s that.
The big winners of the night were Buffalo Trace, Bowman Brothers and Elijah Craig –all of which scored 5’s. But don’t put TOO much stock in the numbers because as the night went on… the numbers went up! Go figure? It just kept getting better!
The surprise losers of the night were: John B. Stetson, a shocker as the Stetson was tried and LOVED by all in the previous year’s tasting. This bottle was only aged 6 months, which we all decided was a dumb move by the distiller. The other surprise flop was the Blanton Single Barrel – a sad shocker as this one came with the heftiest price tag at over $70/bottle and has the cutest little jockey bottle stopper.
Oh well… try and try again, I suppose.
To everyone, I offer you Cheers! Bottoms Up!
Or in the words of our favorite clansmen……