Mellow Out With A Sipping Liquor

Snifters of brandy liquor

The Host's Perspective

Since the primary focus is on planning and hosting a dinner party, your drink offerings should complement the activities you have planned. Traditionally cocktails and/or glasses of wine are served with appetizers. A wine that you think pairs nicely with the food is served with the meal, and coffee and dessert usually follow, although the French often add a nice touch by inserting a cheese course between the dinner and dessert.

The host is now faced with a dilemma – how to get your guests to change locations. Rather than trying to wrangle them away from the dinner table, in your best Carson the Butler voice announce that you will be serving drinks in the living room.

The drinks, of course, will be sipping liquors, but from the time your guests arrived they knew where the evening was headed. They saw your bar setup on the sideboard, credenza, or at the end of the kitchen counter which included dazzling bottles of liquor along with lineups of snifters, “rocks” glasses, etc. Once they spotted this, they knew there would be treats towards the end of the evening.

Now that your guests are seated away from the table in comfortable chairs, it is at this point you want the fewest distractions possible. I lower the lights and I turn the music off. This creates a mellow mood and convivial atmosphere which should encourage interesting conversation. You are now prepared to have that “Boston Legal” moment whether there are just the two of you or you are entertaining a roomful of friends.

Briefly describe to your guests what is available by first noting the type of drink and then the brand, and then start taking drink orders. At this point I would like to note that drinkers of sipping liquors can get a bit fussy, so there are several terms and descriptors you should know. For example: “Neat” is no ice or mix and served at room temperature. “Up” implies there is some work in the final product and it is usually chilled. “Straight up” means the drink will either be shaken or stirred in ice, and then strained. And “on the rocks” means ice.

They might request their drink with water. If so, ask what ratio they prefer (liquor:water). It can be equal parts of liquor to water, but most of the time the ratio is 5:1; however, there are some who simply like to add a teaspoonful of water to 2 oz. of whisky.

When you are out on the town, remember the Clare Boothe Luce quote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Scotch. Glenfiddich. Neat. This drink order will get you more “cred” than any that is lengthy and detailed unless you are ordering a martini. Then you can get fussy.

The Drinker's Perspective

If this scene is new to you, I would like to give you some information about selection and how to enjoy your drink. Usually no mixes or other ingredients are added to a sipping liquor, so appreciating a spirit on its own is an acquired taste, and this often takes some time. Be patient, and in time you will be ordering your drink with specific instructions, so it will arrive prepared to your specifications.

First of all the potency of the drink needs to be respected. If you aren’t already aware of this, a liquor rated at 100 proof means it is 50% alcohol. Read the label on the bottle. Most whiskies are in the range of 80 to 100 proof, so if it reads 86 proof, it means it contains 43% alcohol.

Once the host has served you your choice of drink, you can begin by sniffing it and noting the aroma. If it is a liquor you are familiar with, it should bring back past memories of pleasurable times. If it is your first time drinking this particular liquor, take great care to study and memorize the sensations you received from “nosing” the drink. This will serve you well when it comes to discriminating between brands because there are so many choices available.

Taste the drink. I like to mix the first few sips with a bit of saliva. I roll the drink around in my mouth making sure it comes in contact with the roof of my mouth, and then I swallow. Note the taste and then the afte effect and how long it lingers.

You should sip at a leisurely pace. That’s why it’s called a sipping liquor, so sip and wait, sip and wait . . . experience the drink fully. Titrate your sips, and don’t get ahead of the desired effect. The sensation should be one of a warm inner sense of well-being where your whole consciousness is focused on the drink. You will also notice that your thoughts have now become more profound.

What To Drink?

The classic sipping liquors are the whiskies and the Cognacs (or brandies). I think the whiskies offer the greatest variety. The differences are noted below:

Whisky – the general term means a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash and aged in wooden barrels.

Scotch whisky – more on this later, but this is whisky made exclusively in Scotland.

Bourbon – on this side of the pond our American whisky is usually made in Kentucky. It must be pure (no additives), distilled at not greater than 180 proof and bottled at not less than 80 proof. It must contain a grain mixture of at least 51% corn and is aged in new charred oak barrels. It is stored in bonded warehouses under government supervision. Many consider this perfect for sipping because of its sweet and mellow flavor. Contrast the Kentucky version with the Tennessee version (an example being Jack Daniels). One last thing to remember: “All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon.” And one final note: There is a Bourbon Hall Of Fame for people who have made important contributions to the industry, and I’ve read where Pete Rose is out politicking to get into this Hall Of Fame also.

Irish whiskey (and yes, it is spelled whiskey) – this is most any whiskey aged in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland. Any cereal grain can be used, but if you use two or more it must be designated as “blended.” Because of the relaxed rules, Irish whiskey ends up being a more diverse product.

American Rye whisky – is set apart from other whiskies because it must be made from a mash that is at least 51% rye: otherwise it is very similar to bourbon.

The Best Of The Best

Scotch whisky – the quintessential gentleman’s drink. It is more than a spirit. It is the signifier for the country where it is made, and it is the most complex and varied of all the wood-aged spirits.

There are only three ingredients involved in its preparation (water, malted barley and yeast), and then it is aged in oak. Sounds simple enough, but what is amazing is how much complexity can be generated. Diversity is created because of the variations in the processes of creating the whisky. The whisky now needs to be matured at least three years before it can be called “Scotch.”

There are blends and there are single malts. A blend is a mixture of single malts and grain whiskies. The totality of the mix is the result of carefully balancing its constituents. The single malts are the product of a single characteristic and distillery. In other words, the whisky must be mashed, fermented, and distilled at that site. Single malts are intense expressions of a specific place. As you drink, they whisper, “Nowhere else makes a whisky like this.”

As for drinking Scotch whisky, the famous blender Tommy Dewar once said, “Minds are like parachutes – they work best when open.” Taste it neat first. It’s going to be a bit “hot” on the nose and palate. Adding water softens the alcohol, kills the burn and allows layers of aromas to be released (in the same way a landscape comes alive after a rain shower).

An interesting note:
Here is something you might find interesting. If you’ve developed a taste for wine, and you want to experiment with Scotch, the following match up well:

  • Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling – fragrant and floral Glenlivet and Glenfiddich
  • Chardonnay – the vanilla butteriness of Glenmorangie
  • Red wines – sherried malts (aged in sherried casks) such as Macallan or Glenfarclas
  • Barbecue – try smoky malts such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin.

Cognac – It is a variety of brandy named after the town of Cognac in France. It is actually a wine produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name. The product is distilled to drive up the alcohol content, and most is bottled at about 80 proof. There are artisan Cognacs that are pure (no additives) and are bottled at natural strength with the proof considerably higher at around 140. They are très expensive.

Cognac must meet strict legal requirements before a French brandy can be called a Cognac. It matures in the same way as whiskies and wine when aged in barrels, and most are aged considerably longer than the legal requirement. There are three basic designations for Cognac: V.S. (very special) aged for no less than two years in French oak casks; V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale) aged for at least four years; and XO (Extra Old) aged for at least six years. In France the big four – Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Martell – consist of 80% of the Cognac market, and Hennessy accounts for ½ of this.

Cognac should be drunk in a snifter which is a “footed glass that is wide at the bottom (so the Cognac can breathe) and tapers at the top (to concentrate the aromas).” If a gentleman or lady asks “care to join me for a snifter?” he/she is talking about Cognac or brandy in this special kind of glass. When presented with a snifter, unlike wine, you can cup the glass in your hand. Roll the liquid in the glass to let it breathe and to release its aromas. After your guests have been sipping their Cognac for a while, step out of the room for a few minutes. When you return you will notice that the room now has this wonderful bouquet which adds to the experience of drinking this liquor.

A good snifter can be expensive. If you are hesitant about spending the money, go into your child’s room, take his/her fishbowl and pour the goldfish into the sink. Wash out the fishbowl and pour in some Cognac. Also pour some Cognac into a rocks glass. Let them sit about 20 minutes and then sample each. Notice the difference. This should demonstrate your need to make this purchase; plus, drinking Cognac out of a snifter is so much more civilized.

P.S.: But don’t forget about the goldfish.