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A Bluffer’s Guide to Whisky

Concrete Playground is turning our bleary and debauched eyes to whisky, so come join us in the fun.

By Madeleine Watts
January 30, 2013
By Madeleine Watts
January 30, 2013

Australia is widely regarded as a beer-swilling nation. Yet beer consumption is at its lowest in over 60 years. Wine and cider no longer prompt confusion or smirking, and whisky is certainly no longer for grizzled men of bygone days slumped over a wood-panelled bar. Our tastes have become more adventurous. By no means has our love of alcohol disappeared; instead, we are increasingly looking through a glass, darkly. With that in mind, Concrete Playground is turning our bleary and debauched eyes to whisky.

While whisky is more popular than ever, a lot of newcomers are thrown by how and where to drink it. With the help of Lewis Jaffrey, head barman at Sydney's The Baxter Inn, we're here to help lead you through the ins and outs of whisky drinking.

Why should I be drinking whisky?

That's the million-dollar question. There seems to be something about whisky that appeals to everybody. "It's popular with everybody from 18-year-old girls who've never been in a bar before to 70-year-old CEOs," says Jaffrey, "They all seem to come down here and have a common interest for drinking whisky".

What is whisky made from?

Whisky is essentially liquid bread. The same ingredients you find in your morning toast — grains like barley, rye and wheat — are fermented and stored in wooden casks, aged for a non-specific amount of time, and pop out the other end as a bottle of whisky. While both Scotland and Ireland claim to be the birthplace of whiskey, it's hardly a debate we're going to settle. For now, let's just call it an even draw.

Blends vs Malts: what's the difference?

Whiskies tend to be either blends or single malts. A blended whisky is made when somebody takes liquid from different distilleries and blends it with a grain whisky, which is relatively cheap to produce. Blends, therefore, can be excellent for cheapskates, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're an inferior product. A single malt, on the other hand, is liquid produced exclusively from the same distillery. It might have been produced over a number of years to get a consistent flavour, but as long as it's from the same distillery you have yourself a single malt.

Whiskey around the world

What we generally consider to be whisky is Scotch whisky, but Scotland is by no means the only whisky-producing nation. The other big players are Ireland and America. Traditionally, Irish whiskey* is triple distilled (Scotch is distilled twice) and tends to be smoother and easier to drink. That's often why you'll associate Irish whiskey with your grandfather (to make a sweeping generalisation). American whiskey, on the other hand, tends to be sweeter and have a spicy quality, as anybody acquainted with Jack Daniels will be all too aware. Another big producer of whisky is Japan, who according to Jaffrey "took what Scotland does as an art form and turned it into a science". If you want to see what a whisky from India or Wales tastes like, inquire at your nearest whisky bar.

How to drink whisky

Whether you drink it wearing a dinner jacket with your other hand caressing a fine cigar, or whether you drink it during the wee hours in a booze-soaked dive, the real lesson is that you should drink whisky in whatever way suits you best. If you're starting off, you might want to have a bite to eat first; whisky is 40 percent alcohol and you don't want to wind up sprawled in the gutter staring at the stars too early in the evening. Jaffrey recommends starting off with a whisky and apple juice. This is popular at both The Baxter Inn and Shady Pines, so no need to be put off by the 'apple juice' part. If you're not at either of these joints hosted by Sydney's whisky afficionados, starting with a whisky cocktail will be best.

The first time you drink whisky is like being slapped in the throat, and as with any first time, you want to make it as gentle as possible. Gradually you can begin mixing it with water, or sipping whisky on the rocks, which will chill the alcohol and make it easier for your body to cope with. But drinking whisky neat doesn't have to be the end goal of the process. In the end, it's whatever makes you and your taste buds happy.

Image by Dominick Guzzo via cc licence.

Talk like a pro

While we in no way encourage you to become like this guy, there are certain terms and phrases that it might be useful to learn. Something sweet and fragrant is, like wine, often described as 'fruity'. 'Woody' whiskies have a smokey quality about them, while 'peaty' whiskies tend to be very strong smelling, a bit like tar or even iodine. At the end of the day, you can probably settle for the standard, "I like that one" or "eurgh that's dreadful". You don't want to over-intellectualise whisky; you want to enjoy it.

Storing whisky

Unlike wine, you'll be hard pressed to find a bottle of whisky that's gone off. Whisky is generally easy to look after, but there are some common-sense measures to keep in mind. Store your bottles in cool, dark places, and make sure, once it's opened, that there's no air getting in.

Famous Whisky Drinkers

Bar rooms full of endearing drunks had a love of whisky running in their veins. William Faulkner was rarely without a bottle upon his person at any one time and is remembered to have declared, "isn't anythin' ah got whisky won't cure." Faulkner once showed up to a Hollywood script meeting and sliced open his finger trying to uncap a whisky bottle. Instead of cutting the meeting short he dragged a wastepaper basket over so that he could gulp whisky with one hand and drip blood with the other.

Another noted devotee was Winston Churchill, who had a bottomless capacity for the stuff and regularly took whisky at breakfast.

The most renowned fictional character, of course, is Don Draper. With every act of business or sexual brilliance he seemed to have an Old Fashioned by his side, and arguably the popularity of Mad Men helped kickstart the resurgent interest in whisky.

Whisky on a budget

As with all things alcohol, you know what you're getting yourself into if you order the drink from the top of the list. At The Baxter Inn, their house whisky is an award-winning blend made by Ballantine, being sold at a mere $8 a glass, and there's a whole range of excellent whiskies that come in at $10 a pop. For that price, you should be able to get an excellent drink at whatever establishment you're drowning your sorrows in.

The Best Whisky Bars in Sydney

There are many fine bars in Sydney with a healthy selection of whiskies, but there are some that stand out above the rest. Our first recommendation, naturally, is The Baxter Inn. With over 500 whiskies, a pro-choice attitude to drinking, and a dissolute pre-war atmosphere, they are one of the first places you should head to if you're really keen to learn about whisky. The other sure favourite is, of course, Shady Pines, which loves whisky just as much as Baxter but comes in the form of a classic American-themed saloon you'd fully expect to find Johnny Cash drinking in (but he's dead, so you probably won't). Our other favourites are Palmer and Co., the Merivale take on Prohibition, and Shirt Bar, a man's bar for men who like their shirts pressed, their coffee strong, and their whisky smooth.

*The spelling of 'whisky' (versus 'whiskey') is a source of some contention. 'Whisky' is the general spelling in Australian English, although Irish and American whiskies usually go by their own preferred spelling: 'whiskey'.

Published on January 30, 2013 by Madeleine Watts
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