Several experts offer tips and some suggestions on where to start
This holiday season, you might be getting or giving some top-shelf liquor. Czechia doesn’t have a long tradition with whiskey, an item that was in short supply throughout the communist era because it has to be imported at high cost.
So the Prague Post sought out some expert advice for those lost in the relatively recent sea of “the water of life” that has inundated the country. While overall consumption of spirits is down slightly to a total of 6.7 liters per person annually, according to the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ), most premium brand distributors report increases in sales.
The one thing that the experts agree on is that the best way to drink whiskey is the way you like it. After that, there was a bit of variation. Václav Rout, the proprietor of Whisky & Kilt, a club at Legerova 26 in Prague 2 with more than 400 kinds of whiskey, started with the basics, using the proper glass. His establishment has mostly Scotch whiskey, but also some Irish whiskey and ones from such diverse places as Africa, China, and Japan.
He favors what’s called a Glencairn glass. “Nobody knows about it in the Czech Republic,” Rout said. The glass, in use since 2001, helps to hold and focus the aromas. You can then appreciate the aroma by both smelling the vapor from the whiskey with your nose and breathing it in with your mouth before tasting it. You should turn the glass a bit, but not swirl it, he said. A glass should provide around two to three sips. One should neither gulp it nor nurse it too much.
The worst way to drink it is in a tumbler with ice, as can often be seen in old crime movies. “It’s a film cliché,” he said.
Ice was something that divided the experts. Rout claims that whiskey should be consumed at room temperature, and that ice will change the flavor by slowing the rate of evaporation. The whiskey will then provide fewer aromas.
He wasn’t against water completely but warned people not to add too much. A few drops from an eyedropper should be enough to open up the flavor without diluting it, he said.
Alex Robertson, an international brand ambassador for Chivas Regal, disagreed on this point. “Personally I enjoy some ice and just a splash of water. I think the water allows the aromas to reveal themselves as the ice melts slowly into the whiskey. Those aromas just become beautifully clear,” he said.
Robertson’s grandfather held views more in line with Rout’s. “I come from a long line of Scotsmen. My grandfather used to tell me you add nothing to scotch. You drink it as it is. You drink it neat,” Robertson said.
But current industry practices are a bit different. “When we test whiskeys in Scotland when we analyze whiskeys, we will always analyze at 20 percent alcohol by adding water,” he said.
“So as soon as you add water, you cut the alcohol, and it opens the aromas,” he said.
Mirka Kverková, the manager of Focus Spirits and Whiskeria Bar in the Jindřišská Tower in Prague 1, was one of many other experts approached by the Prague Post who stressed that the one and the only thing that matters is personal preference. “If someone would like ice, please have whiskey on the rocks,” she said. “But many people prefer to drink whiskey straight, and if it is too strong for someone use some still water,” she added.
The idea of a single malt or a blend saw a sharp disagreement. Robertson claimed that the idea that all malts were better than all blends was a falsehood. “People appreciate blends for the same reasons that people appreciate malts,” he said, adding that heritage and craftsmanship were ideas that could be found in both malts and blends.
“The malt category is growing incredibly well, but it still represents less than 10 percent of global Scotch whiskey sales,” he said.
“Malts, of course, have a distinctive, unique character, unique to the distillery. But a blend also has a house style, and a master blender has to take these whiskeys and bring them together,” he said. “I would argue the blend brings together the best flavors of what malt has to offer. By blending you create a house style,” he said, adding that some classic single malts such as Strathisla and Longmorn were used in making the Chivas blend.
He also pointed out that for a blend to be called 12 years old, then every type of whiskey used in the blend must be at least 12 years old, and some are probably older.
Whiskey & Kilt’s Rout, on the other hand, prefers single malts. “A blended whiskey is an actor playing a role. It has a mix of personalities, trying to please everyone at once. It is schizophrenic,” he said. “A single malt is for one person. You either like it, or you don’t.”
Cocktails, which often irk purists, didn’t meet with that much resistance. “A cocktail is a different kind of drink, but why not?” Rout said. The important thing is to use a good whiskey if you want to make a good cocktail, he added.
Brand ambassador Robertson also did not oppose them. “Cocktails are a way to balance the flavors within a whiskey,” he said.
While most of the experts were discussing scotch, the Prague Post also sought out an opinion on Irish whiskey and got a surprising recommendation.
“It’s almost always better to add even a teaspoon or two of water. Somehow it seems that more taste and depth of taste comes through on your palate when you do this,” said Frank Haughton, the owner of the James Joyce Pub in Prague 1. The pub has one of the largest collections of Irish whiskey in Central Europe, he said.
Haughton came up with something that none of the other experts mentioned. “There is also a new way to enjoy Jameson which incorporates a little bit of Ireland and Czechia. It’s called a ‘pickleback.’ Essentially you shoot a shot of Jameson followed by a shot of the pickling liquid from the famous Czech gherkins. It works very well and has certain elements of how tequila is often drunk with the salt and lemon,” he said.
Some of the experts offered tips for particular brands to look for, especially for beginners. Robertson pointed out many of the attributes of Chivas, the brand for which he is an ambassador. “The house style of Chivas is smooth; it’s rich, it’s generous,” he said.
He recommended Chivas 18 in particular. “It’s got that richness and the fruitiness: apple, pear, and chocolate,” he said. And for people going through duty-free shops at airports, there is Chivas Brothers Blend, a 12-year old that is only available there. He also mentioned Glenlivet 15 year old, which is aged in French oak casks.
Whiskey & Kilt’s Rout said a good bourbon for novices, and one of his favorites is Highland 18 year old, which has a little flavor of smoke. He also praised The Macallan Sienna, and for women, whose liquor preferences tend to be a bit different than a man’s, he recommended Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or.
Whiskeria Bar’s Kverková also had several recommendations. “For beginners, there is AnCnoc 12 year old because it is a sweet and gentle, and Glengoyne 10-year-old because it is very smooth, with vanilla and green apples on the palate,” she said.
“For whiskey lovers who would prefer a classic Scotch whisky, I would go for any of the range of Springbank, and for a bourbon lover who prefers the dominant peat flavor in the whiskey [there is] Smokehead,” she said.
As for an Irish whiskey, Haughton said there is a new family-run label in Ireland called Teeling Whiskey. “It’s causing a sensation over there. It’s an excellent one with a ‘twist’ as it is aged in rum casks, and it is bringing people who didn’t even consider whiskey to give it a try. And they love it,” he said. It may be hard to find as the company can’t keep up with demand.
Haughton also suggested that people stop by to enjoy the holiday spirit and good ‘craic’ at James Joyce at U obecního dvora 4 in Prague 1 and try a pickleback for the holidays.