For people being introduced to whisky, the textbooks and the brand ambassadors teach you that whisky engages your senses. We look at the colour. We smell the aroma. We feel the mouthfeel and the texture in our mouth. We taste the flavour.
That’s all good and well. But when did you last actually listen to your whisky?
Listening is a skill. And, as any parent with young kids can tell you, listening is different to hearing. Hearing is easy; listening is not. Consider the following sage words:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. (Stephen Covey)
“The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT”. (Alfred Brendel)
There was once a time when we poured ourselves a dram at home, sat down in our comfy chair, and simply…enjoyed the whisky! We did not Instagram a picture of it. We didn’t post it to Facebook and talk loudly about it or brag about our bottle kill, nor did we take to social media and bitch about it not being worth the price tag. We didn’t go online to see how much we could sell it for, or find out if it’s available anywhere for a cheaper price than what we just paid for it. Nor did we tick a box, dismiss the whisky and forget about it, and then move on quickly in pursuit of the next dram or distillery. No, instead, we sat down with a whisky and we listened to it.
So what does it mean to listen to a whisky? Like the quotes above, it means to let the whisky communicate to you, rather than you tell it what you expect of it. How often is it that you approach a whisky you haven’t tasted before and you’ve already mentally written your tasting notes? As the liquid hits our tastebuds, we have already projected our hopes, expectations, bias and flavour desires onto the whisky, rather than let the whisky talk to us. Need a tangible example? How often do you try a new release of a heavily sherried whisky for the first time, and go in with expectations or demands that it measure up to your favourite Glenfarclas or Glendronach? And you then immediately express disappointment when it doesn’t hit that same height.
It’s a paradigm shift and a subtle change in our thinking, but we need to re-learn the art of listening to the whisky, rather than telling it what we expect it to be, or projecting what we want from it. Listen with the intention of understanding it, rather than listen with the intent of replying to it.
I’ve expressed similar sentiments in previous pieces, so my apologies to regular readers who might be thinking they’ve read this before…but the whisky category is becoming increasingly crowded, and the brands and bottlers have to increasingly “turn up the volume” with each new release to keep their audiences interested. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, and each new brand or bottling has to be increasingly louder if it is to capture and momentarily hold our focus: New wood finishes, new yeasts, higher peating levels, brighter labels, exotic brand names, new shaped bottles, darker spirit, higher price tags. But regardless of whether the whisky is exotic or plain, do we ever stop and listen? Or do we simply tick the box, add the whisky to our impressive CV’s, and promptly move on to the next whisky?
There is much goodness and delight to be found in the quieter whiskies. Yes, you have to focus; yes, you have to listen. They sometimes take a bit more work. Tasting them in a busy and vibrant whisky bar on a Saturday night may not be the best environment to truly appreciate them. But there are so many unheralded (or simply unsexy) whiskies out there which – in their subtlety, quietness, and complexity – deliver spectacular essays in malt. The trouble is, no one is listening to them.
I’m amused when, at tasting events, I find myself thoroughly ensconced with a seemingly “ordinary” floral, grassy Speysider that is delivering untold depth and complexity; only to observe that others too quickly dismissed it as plain and subsequently ran for the noisier sherry monster or peat bomb.
In quietness, there is volume. In subtlety, there is complexity. In listening, there is understanding. And – when it comes to whisky – when there is understanding, there is joy and satisfaction. As Mike Nesmith once almost sang: Listen to the dram.
[For readers/members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia, I encourage you to track down the excellent article entitled “The S-L-O-W Dram Experience”, (Parts 1 and 2) written by my colleague, Drew McKinnie, and published in the SMWS newsletter magazine in 2013. It is an excellent piece that highlights both the techniques and benefits in truly appreciating a whisky and listening to it.]