Scotch on the Rocks
The age-old debate about how to drink whisky rumbles on. Yet whatever marketing folk behind Scotch brands and rival whiskeys might tell you, there are no rules. It's time to slay that dragon for good says Tom Bruce-Gardyne …
The tinkle of ice in a glass, or the rattle of a cocktail shaker is the soundtrack to many a drink, but it is a sound that has haunted Scotch whisky over the years with the antiquated myth that a dram should be drunk neat with just air, or water if you must.
On the cusp of 2024, the notion that the drink is still constrained by such rules sounds absurd, yet something of the myth endures.
"I know I shouldn't add water … or ice?" is a comment that persists, particularly from visitors to Scotland, accompanied by a guilty grin as if they are about to commit some terrible sacrilege. Complete nonsense of course, but old clichés are slow to die. Perhaps part of the blame lies with that stock character from cinema and TV – the Scottish hardman, slugging his whisky back straight to prove he's a real man and as tough as nails.
Other whiskeys from Ireland and America and beyond clearly have a vested interest in prolonging this idea. That while theirs is a free, easy going, mixable spirit with a younger vibe, Scotch is a bit fusty and dusty - an old man's drink that's hidebound by its traditions. It was surely Scotch that Dave Broom was referring to when he wrote: 'Whisky's inability to dispatch the myths associated with it is one reason why it can remain a difficult sell. So, it's time to take aim and blast them away.'
That was ten years ago in his book 'Whisky: The Manual'. Go around the Johnnie Walker Experience on Edinburgh's Princes Street today, and you will hear the same story. Visitors are told on arrival that the tour will dispel a few whisky myths – like how it should be drunk and by whom. Along the way Johnnie Walker is served in a series of easy-drinking cocktails and never neat, which wouldn't impress your average Scottish gangster from central casting.
Glance at its history and it's clear that Scotch whisky has always been mixed. The earliest distillers infused their raw spirit with berries, bog myrtle and heather to soften the blow. The first big export market, England in the late 19th century, was won over by Scotch and Soda, a drink that sounds laughably old-fashioned until you realise it's just a highball by another name.
The spirit would have played a minor role in those Prohibition-era cocktails, though for the most part the barmen in their speakeasies were simply trying to disguise the taste of moonshine like bathtub gin – not something you would want to drink neat. Scotch on the rocks became the drink of postwar America, and when sales went south in the 1980s and 1990s it was Spain that helped save the industry with Scotch and Coke.
This tartan Cuba Libre accounted for an estimated 80% of consumption around the Millennium when Spain was briefly the world's biggest importer of Scotch. The cocktail was allegedly cooked up by Coca-Cola's Spanish sales team, not that anyone in the whisky industry minded. In this one market, the most popular brand of Scotch, J&B, claimed to have sold a staggering 3 million cases in 2002.
Single malts have tended to take themselves more seriously, and they garner more respect among consumers who are hungry for knowledge. The 'how to drink whisky' videos from Richard Paterson OBE, Whyte & Mackay's legendary master blender, have gone seriously viral. But his line is not the laissez-faire, anything goes, mix it up message of Diageo's Johnnie Walker Experience. It is quite the contrary.
He believes there is a right way to enjoy Scotch, and it absolutely doesn't involve ice. "When I take so many years to create a whisky – particularly a great single malt – adding ice really does numb it," he told me. "Let the warmth of your tongue do the talking not the bloody ice."
He went on to relate a grim tale of being served a Dalmore in America stuffed with ice before he could say no. Sniffing a cube, he asked where it came from. "Obviously our refrigerator, what's the problem?" the hapless barman replied. "This ice actually smells of garlic, cheese and pasta," Paterson thundered. "Apart from chilling it, it's absolutely ruined my whisky."
You can see why his videos and tastings are so popular. People appreciate a little guidance on single malts especially from a dry, charismatic Glaswegian who knows his stuff. Whether you agree about ice or feel like a whisky cocktail is totally up to you.
Obviously, in the real world there are no 'rules', even if some big Scotch brands from Haig Club to Monkey Shoulder and Glenlivet beg to differ. Their mission, as they keep telling us, is to rip up the rulebook and disrupt the status quo. On which note, let's raise a dram to the dying embers of 2023; thanks for reading, see you in the New Year.
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom has been a weekly columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and most recently Scotch Whisky Treasures.
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