How much do you really know about whisky? No other spirit creates such debate or clan-type defence of a favorite bottling or regional style. Here we simply debunk the most common myths and misconceptions about malt…

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Slainte (your good health)

  • Real men only drink whisky neat

  • A malt should always be drunk at room temperature

  • A tumbler is the only proper glass for whisky

  • Malts and mealtimes don’t mix

  • You can tell a good malt by its colour

  • Malts is only an after dinner drink

    ‘Real men only drink whisky neat’

    Though it’s often claimed that diluting the precious spirit with water is sacrilege, it ain’t necessarily so.

    By all means, nose and even take a sip of a malt whisky neat if you are tasting or trying for the first time. But adding a little water actually releases the aromatics of the malt, a process you’ll witness for yourself as the oils swirl in your glass.

    Ideally, the water added would be the same as that used by the distillery to make the whisky. The best bet for most people is to add still Scottish spring water, widely available in bottles. Using soft tap water without too many added chemicals, such as most Scottish water, is fine.

    The proportion is a matter of taste: diluting the alcohol to around 20 per cent appears to be the optimum for tasting.

    ‘A malt should always be drunk at room temperature’

    Whilst it is generally accepted that single malts should be drunk at room temperature to allow the various flavour notes to be released and reveal themselves when they hit the tongue, there are some who prefer an aperitif dram slightly chilled.

    Take care, however. Too much ice numbs the tastebuds. Many think soda water has a taste of its own strong enough to interfere with the true flavours of the malt – and its bubbles don’t help either. You’re best advised to avoid soda if you wish to appreciate single malts fully.

    ‘A tumbler is the only proper glass for whisky’

    Actually, most of the glasses sold as ‘whisky tumblers’ do not have the best shape for nosing or appreciating aromas. A glass with straight or flared sides allows the aromas to escape too easily.

    Specially designed tasting glasses with gradations marked on the side to measure the proportion of water added, as used by master distillers and blenders, are ideal. Wine glasses which narrow towards the rim will do, such as a clear tulip-shaped wine glass that is not coloured or cut. A copita or traditional sherry glass, large enough to give the whisky a good swirl, is ideally shaped to trap and concentrate the aromas too.

    For a serious tasting, use something to cover the glass to hold in the aroma, particularly if the whisky is to sit for any length of time after being poured. Since the nose of each whisky actually changes according to the glass it’s in, you’ve a fine excuse for experimentation!

    ‘Malt and mealtimes don’t mix’

    Yes they do, actually.

    Traditionally, Highlanders have enjoyed a dram with meals. For many, locally distilled whisky was one of the few alcoholic drinks available. It was obviously warming and was an excellent accompaniment to simple foods like bread and strong cheese.

    Some people also prefer to stick with drinking whisky throughout a meal simply to ensure they don’t mix their drinks.

    Today, too, dinners are regularly held where a different malt is served with each course. Devising a six-course banquet to accompany six malts can be a diverting game! Look out for the annual Burns Night supper events on – put 25 January in your diary!

    Experts on matching wine with food have been known to suggest that only an Islay malt such as Lagavulin can survive being drunk with smoked fish, especially kippers. That’s probably too extreme a view. Why not try Glenkinchie with a delicately smoked trout or eel? You might well be pleasantly surprised.

    To give another example, Talisker and oysters from Loch Harport, opposite the distillery on Skye, are widely considered a divine combination. Here you can enjoy the island’s harvest and the island’s malt whisky, in perfect harmony…

    ‘You can tell a good malt by its colour’

    Not really. A single malt’s colour is just another of its many differences to savour, and can teach you a lot about a whisky, but is actually no guide to quality. Since new make whisky – as piped from the spirit still to the spirit receiver – is colourless, the colour of a malt depends on the length of time spent maturing in the cask, picking up characteristics from the oak wood.

    Lagavulin has the dark appearance you might expect of a 16-year-old, yet Talisker, a sprightly ten-year-old, is noticeably darker than Glenkinchie, which is bottled at the same age. Several factors have an effect on the colour of the mature whisky: the previous contents of the cask; the charring of its inside walls; whether a cask has been used once, twice or three times.

    ‘Malts are only an after dinner drink’

    Not true! There’s a malt to suit every mood, place and situation. For example Glenkinchie (sometimes known as ‘the breakfast malt’!) deserves its reputation as a fine aperitif. Yet, along with almost all malts, it also makes an excellent digestif for the end of a meal.

    Malt has long been an integral part of Scottish life and played a key part in people’s rituals. At weddings, it would be the only alcoholic refreshment available, with a dram offered to departing guests as a deoch an dorus (an at-the-door drink).

    The water of life also played a key role at the births and funerals of lairds and crofters alike. And business deals were often sealed – and toasted – with a dram, as they still are today.

    ‘It’s worth using single malt for cooking’

    True, the best cuisine uses only the best ingredients. However, it is surely a waste to use any premium malt as an ingredient in a hot dish, since the alcohol and so many of the characteristics will evaporate in the cooking.

    The heather honey notes of Dalwhinnie can contribute to the cold traditional Highland drink Atholl Brose, consisting of whisky, honey, oatmeal and water. Mix together and leave to stand for two days. Today, the water is replaced by cream to make a delicious dessert (which, incidentally, is not strictly a brose or broth since the concoction is eaten cold).

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