Brendan McCarron’s first introduction to whisky was when he was eight or nine years old. He had ulcers, and his father wanted to test the theory that swilling the whisky around his mouth would help heal them.
“It doesn’t. It’s very, very painful,” said McCarron. He spat the whisky back into the glass, but his father didn’t want it to go to waste. So, McCarron drank it — and didn’t find it particularly pleasant.
Fast forward many years, and the Scotsman is now the Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks at Glenmorangie and Ardberg. There’s clearly virtue in starting young. A day in his life at Glenmorangie sees him overseeing nearly everything that comes with making a whisky. It’s a seemingly endless list — he sources for raw materials such as malted barley and casks, corresponds with distillery managers, does quality checks on new batches of expressions, conducts experiments with whisky, and holds a place on the company’s sensory panel. Every batch of Glenmorangie and Ardberg has to get McCarron’s seal of approval before bottling.
Doing a job like his requires a true passion for the spirit, as well as an intimate knowledge of the craft and science that goes towards creating a new expression. It goes beyond just having a glass of whisky on the rocks as dessert. If you’re a novice drinker, however, that dram you have after hours probably constitutes the peak of your whisky appreciation.
There’s always room to learn, especially if you’ve ever found yourself mulling over how your more knowledgeable friends can glean notes like pepper and honeyed fruits from a whisky, when all you can nose is antiseptic. We caught up with McCarron during his recent visit here for the DFS Masters of Wine and Spirits 2017, where he taught a whisky appreciation masterclass. When prompted for some tips to help a beginner start with whisky, McCarron volunteered these five. Keep them in mind at your next dinner date with whisky experts.
“Many people would advise beginners to avoid smoky whiskies, but I disagree. Try a strong, peaty whisky alongside some other whiskies. Islay whiskies are known for being big on the smoke, or an Ardberg. Pair that with Speyside whiskies, that are classically light and approachable. Glenmorangie Original is also a great, soft-textured whisky that doesn’t burn, with lots of pleasant fruity notes. Obviously, don’t try a cask-strength whisky if you’re a beginner. Anywhere between 40 to 46% is best.”
“As a rule of thumb, oak makes up about 50% of the flavour of a whisky. It has to be oak. American white oak is full of lactone, and when you char the wood, it brings forth very sweet notes like vanilla, spices and butterscotch, with a delicate hint of coconut. With sherry and wine casks, you’re going to taste much more influence from the type of wine the cask held before. The best thing to do is buy a whisky from an ex-bourbon cask, buy a similar expression from an ex-wine cask, and see how the flavours change.”
“Many people’s first whiskies were given to them by someone already familiar with the spirit. They get the glass shoved at them, and told to drink up because it tastes nice, without offering help. No matter what whisky you have, it is always best to tell people what they’re looking for when drinking it. Take a sip, hold it in your mouth for a second. If it is too strong, too fiery, or too heavy for you, add some water. A few drops of water just changes the mouthfeel of it and opens up the flavours. You get some purists saying you can’t enjoy whisky with water, but that’s just not true.”
“If you like ice, that’s fine, especially if you’re used to drinking spirit drinks with ice, and all of a sudden, you’re given a room temperature whisky. One thing though — get as big of an ice cube as you can, so the whisky won’t dilute. If you’re using many ice cubes, you’re going to get a whisky that is cold and watered down very quickly.”
“There are those who say there is a whisky for everyone. I think some people will just never like whisky, and that’s fine. But there’s such a huge range of single malts on the market that you should just give it a try. Have some water and ice, see how it improves. Try a few, and be sure to sip it. Many people start off by taking shots of whisky and that’s just going to give you a burn at the back of the mouth, with little else.”