Whiskey A Go Go

Lilli is seven months old, and she’s crawling and trying to stand up. She’s a bit of a handful, and after we get her down at night I have rediscovered my taste for alcohol, which I thought I’d lost during the pregnancy.

The only way I can go to the bathroom.

The only way I can go to the bathroom.

Since I’m getting back into the game, I thought I would consult an expert. Jordan Mackay, the James-Beard-award winning wine and spirits writer for San Francisco magazine. His writing on food, wine, spirits, and beer has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, The Art of Eating, Wine and Spirits, Food & Wine, Gourmet and many others.

Currently, he writes regularly for San Francisco, as well as a monthly pairing column in Cooking Light. His first book, Passion for Pinot, was published in 2009, and his second, Secrets of the Sommeliers (with Rajat Parr– no relation), was released in October 2010, winning the James Beard award in 2011. His latest book, Two in the Kitchen, with his wife Christie Dufault, was published in late 2012. Currently, he is working on a book about Texas barbecue and two more books on wine. He lives in San Francisco.

Jordan MacKay - smaller

Jordan is running a Whiskey Camp seminar at noon on Saturday, September 21 at the 8th annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food FestivalBut if you can’t make it, consider this interview a free preview.

Take me through a whisky tasting: how do you taste it, what are you looking for, and how do you manage to get through without getting blind drunk?

Tasting whisky is a little different than tasting wine, because, for instance, it’s much much stronger. You generally can’t hold it in your mouth as long nor smell it directly. Still, the same principles apply. Here are the things to pay attention to: 

  1. Choose the right glass (a small spirits, cordial, or sherry glass is perfect) and season it with a tiny bit of what you’re about to taste, then toss it and pour an ounce or so.
  2. Smell the whisky. Open your mouth when you inhale through the nose. This will give you some air flow and keep your nostrils from being singed. Sniff once, lightly, to get acquainted. Wait a couple of seconds, then sniff again, more deeply. Repeat as many times as desired.
  3. Taste it. First a tiny taste to whet the tongue and to season your mouth (as you did the glass). Then take a sip. Hold for a few seconds then swallow or spit. Be attentive as the flavors smolder on the tongue. Watch them, see how they morph and evolve. Then drink!

In the past few years we’re seen craft distilling take off, and now distillers like Maker’s Mark are lowering the proof of their whiskys to improve flavor. What’s the next trend you see over the horizon for whisky?

Actually, Maker’s is no longer going to reduce their proof. Speculation was that Maker’s was doing that in order to stretch its dwindling supply in the face of overwhelming global demand. But the backlash against the move by customers forced them to retract the plan.

But other trends I see are greater profiles for Japanese whiskeys, which are really interesting. The Mad Men Effect: More whisky crafted to the assumed tastes of women (read, softer, smoother and rounder). Sia scotch is an example. Beyond that, I see the future ever brightening for Irish whiskey and rye. Overall these are very good times to be a distiller. 

Ice, water, or neat, and why? 

It really depends. I rarely drink whisky neat anymore. A splash of water is my usual method. I do believe it opens up the spirit and makes it more attractive to drink. It might be slightly less intense, but the complexities and nuances are more available with a little dilution. But on a warm day an ice cube can be awfully nice. Seriously, there are no rules, and no one should ever take any heat for drinking a whisky any way they choose. Look, the much maligned whisky highball is all the rage in Japan. And those can be super refreshing. 

You also write about beer and wine and other spirits. What is the best thing you’ve ever drunk?

The best beer I’ve ever drunk was in a can and came from a vending machine in a neighborhood of Vienna was I was 20 and traveling through Europe with a backpack. Such sweet nectar! 

The best wine is usually what I’m drinking with my wife on the weekend when we have dinner together. Her company makes everything taste so much better. 

The best whisky? Well, the Port Ellen 29-year-old (8th release) that we drank in the warehouse of its (long shuttered) distillery on a misty day the Scottish island of Islay was pretty great. 

There are too many great elixirs in my past—and hopefully future—to count. What makes something epic is the setting, the mood, and the people you share it with. I truly believe that. 

Summer Obsession

Out of all the food magazines out there, Food & Wine has been my favorite for more than a dozen years. So you can imagine how excited I was when the August issue arrived, with its “Vegetables Now” cover touting “25 Creative Fast & Delicious Vegetable Recipes”. So I settled in on the bus (where I do most of my reading these days) and opened up my magazine.

Watermelon and Radish Salad

They should have titled it “Vegetables Eventually,” because I had to flip through 96 pages of burgers and steak and sausages and mussels before I got to the vegetables. But before I got there, I read about Tom Colicchio’s favorite weekend recipes. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I had to Google Top Chef because my knowledge of cooking competition shows begins and ends with the last 15 minutes of the season finale of Master Chef, and that was only because our friend Dave Miller was on it. Top Chef, the one with Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife. Got it.

But I do hope Tom What’s-His-Name reads this and invites me to his estate on Long Island, because I would like to personally thank him for this Thai-style radish and watermelon salad. It’s become my obsession this summer –like, stuffed pumpkin obsessed. I wanted to make it straight away. The radishes from the CSA were waiting in the crisper for me, and I spent my lunch hour collecting the herbs at Super 88. All I needed was the watermelon – not the easiest thing to schlep home on the T. With a baby.

Lilli and Rooster

I wasn’t alone in my obsession. I gchatted with Sylvie, who at the end of the chat left to cut up a melon. “Wait!” I wrote. “Did you see the new Food & Wine? There’s a radish and watermelon salad recipe that I’m obsessed with.” She came back to the screen. “Funny you should say that, because I bought this melon with that recipe in mind.”

After days of waiting and wanting, the weekend finally came, and so did a nasty head cold. I was so nervous about getting Lilli sick that I consulted my stepdad, a physician, about what to do: “Wash your hands like Lady MacBeth and wear a face mask when you’re near her.” His advice worked perfectly, but I knew that there was no way I could make the salad for our friends’ BBQ that weekend. So I put Rich in charge. “You know, dear, this recipe has A LOT of ingredients,” he said after reading the magazine. But he did it.

Finally, at the BBQ, I had a bowl of the salad – and was underwhelmed. I wished it had more punch. Maybe more fish sauce. Just a little more oomph. And then I heard hollering from across the back yard: “Oh my God! You guys, you have to try this watermelon salad! This is the best thing I’ve ever had. This salad, oh my God!” The other guests had spoken. Lesson learned: Don’t trust the girl with the cold when it comes to tasting new dishes.

A few notes: My wonderful friend Caitlyn was in from Portland last week. She lived in Thailand for five years so I had her take a look at the recipe. She said that everything about the recipe, except for the ginger, was dead on. She also made it clear that SQUID brand fish sauce is the only brand to use. Listen to Caitlyn.

Thai-Style Radish and Watermelon Salad by Tom Colicchio from August 2013 Food & Wine

¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

1 Tablespoon sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce (use the Siracha that’s in your fridge)

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

One 5-pound watermelon – rind and seeds removed, flesh cut into 1 1/2 –inch chunks (8 cups)

12 radishes, very thinly sliced

8 scallions, thinly sliced

2 fresh hot red chiles, such as Holland or cayenne, thinly sliced crosswise

¾ cup lightly packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped

¾ cup lightly packed Thai basil leaves, torn


In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, fish sauce, sambal oelek and ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Add the watermelon, radishes, scallions and red chiles and toss. Fold in the mint and basil, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.