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.