Has your partner’s whisky collection started growing? Are they using terms like “phenol ppm” and “cask strength”? Have they cleared out a closet to fill with whisky bottles as they reassure you it’s an investment? You may breathe, Grain & Glass are here to fill you in on just what on Earth your partner or friend is talking about.
My friend has joined a “whisky society”
Are you picturing something akin to the meeting scene from James Bond Spectre? A shadowed Christoph Waltz confidently broadcasting esoteric tasting notes as he sniffs at an 18-year-old single malt across tennis court-sized oak table? I’m afraid the reality is far less cool, but perhaps that’s its charm.
Whisky societies come in many shapes and sizes, but the short version is that it’s a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts who enjoy whisky. The meetings range from clubs that gather in bars or online, or perhaps just a small group of friends sitting in the back garden and sharing whisky. It’s a chance for them all to try to out-geek each other and generally have a jovial sip of whisky. Whisky really is better when its shared, and that’s the foundation for any great whisky club.
They’re going to a “whisky festival”
If you see them taking a tent, get worried. This isn’t some pop-up in a field with whisky acts hitting the stage (though I can’t say I wouldn’t go to that). Whisky festivals often take place at a city venue or convention centre. They usually run for up to around five hours on the day, possibly even with a couple of sessions, and see producers bring their wares to share with enthusiasts.
A ticket to such an event grants you access to sample whisky from different exhibitors, learning about the story behind how the whisky came to be and generally what that producer is trying to achieve. Often, attendees can pay a little extra to try some absurdly rare whiskies too, so it’s a great way for enthusiasts to try some “dream drams”.
They keep reeling off tasting notes!
If it smells and tastes like whisky, then that’s a good start, it’s not counterfeit at least, but why is it that your whisky-geek friend is able to find all these very specific flavours? First and foremost, know that mostly these notes are just descriptors: no one has thrown toffee or peach iced tea in the whisky (if they have – then it’s not whisky anymore).
There are some flavours that we can attribute to actual compounds in the spirit. For instance, if you can smell bananas on the whisky, that’s likely down to a fruity ester that was produced during fermentation – It’s the same thing that gives bananas that smell. However, if your friend or significant other starts touting notes “French mustard mashed potato on a Sunday”, then there’s some creative license going on there… that being said, you’re probably trying to imagine what that smells like now, and therein lies the fun with tasting notes!
A bit of a contentious one this. When a special bottle of whisky comes out, there are a lot of fans out there looking to drink it. The act of “flipping” is to buy a bottle only to immediately sell it, in the hopes that you can inflate the price and make a bit of money. It’s the devil’s game and causes much frustration in the world of whisky. No one can tell you what to do with your newly purchased whisky of course, but opening the bottle you bought buys you something far more valuable: kudos.
Congratulations on your new armchair-chemist! Your partner likes smoky whisky and now they want to know why.
Whisky gets its smokiness from the kilning process when drying the grain in the early stages of production. If we’re burning a substance like peat to dry the grain, we’re going to get a smoky whisky. Burning such a substance creates “phenols”, and these delicious little so-and-sos attach themselves to the grain and add our smoky character. So, you can generally get an idea of how smoky your whisky will be by measuring how many of these phenols we have in the early stages, and we measure this in “parts per million” (ppm); a whisky that is 70 phenol ppm will generally be smokier than a whisky that’s 30 phenol ppm, though there are other variables to consider.
In short, whisky can be smoky or not, from there it can be a little smoky, very smoky, and everything in between. Phenol ppm is our rough indication as to how smoky it will be.
Pappy Van Winkle
Despite sounding like a novelty car horn, this is actually arguably the most coveted bourbon on the planet. This stuff goes for ludicrous sums at auction and tastes bloody delicious! If your partner enjoys Pappy, then odds are they’re going to be pacing around the house and cursing at the lack of availability of the stuff and the extortionate pricing when they do find a source.
A law concerning potato equality? False. Perhaps an invoice for Smash? Try again; they’re actually talking about the grains that are used to make whiskey (we’re using an “e” in whiskey at this point as it’s mostly a consideration with bourbon and rye).
We can make whiskey from all sorts of grains: wheat, barley, rye, maize, etc. Different grains may also be used together, and the specification of this will be our “mash bill”, or sometimes referred to as “grain bill”. For instance, we may have a mash bill of 70% maize, 20% rye and 10% barley.
If you ever have the opportunity to wander into a warehouse full of maturing whisky, you’ll immediately be greeted by a beautiful aroma. This wonderful scent is whisky escaping from the cask, binding with the air and floating to the heavens; it is our angel’s share. It’s a bit of a concern for our producers, as that smell is literally whisky leaving the cask, and over the years this adds up to quite a lot of whisky lost. More to the point, the term angel’s share is essentially evaporation, though that’s a far less romantic description.
Where can they learn more about whisky in a welcoming space?
No surprises here, there’s a great bar and tasting company in Birmingham called Grain & Glass, if you’re reading this article then you may be familiar with it, but, regardless, here’s our shameless plug…
At Grain & Glass, we’re well and truly whisky geeks, each with our own area of expertise. Our bar boasts hundreds of unique whiskies for them to try and sports a tasting room for whisky tasting sessions. Whether you’re interested in whisky yourself or just want to have a wine, beer, or cocktail whilst your whisky-geek partner/friend enjoys a dram, we’ve made Grain & Glass a welcoming space for all.
With over ten years of operating The Birmingham Whisky Club, close to a decade of running Whisky Birmingham (a large local whisky festival) and a bar that frequently hosts casual drinkers and whisky tastings alike, there are many ways for your whisky friend to explore their hobby with Grain & Glass.