q+a with canadian whiskey historian, davin de kergommeaux
Meet Davin de Kergommeaux: the authority on Canadian whiskey, award-winning author, and whiskey judge whose new book, Canadian Whiskey, Second Edition, is about to be published. de Kergommeaux knows all there is to know about whiskey from Canada, and here, he shares some of his thoughts on tasting, pairing, and more. Read on, friends... *sips a bit of Dark Horse*
GD: First off, why whiskey?
DdK: Several decades ago when people talking about red wine being good for you, my doctor suggested that I should drink a small amount every day. I wasn’t teetotal but I didn’t drink a lot back then and I told him I was not a fan of wasting a whole bottle of red wine just so I could have a few sips. He told me, “It’s not the wine, it’s the alcohol.” So I started sipping Johnnie Walker Red, which is what I kept on hand for guests. I started to try other whiskies and discovered that I really enjoyed them. There was almost nothing about whisky on the web back then, so several of us started a website called Malt Maniacs and it just took off.
GD: Can you share, step-by-step, the proper way to taste whiskey? What are the main differences between tasting whiskey and tasting beer or wine?
DdK: I love this question because really, there is no proper way to drink whisky. It depends on the occasion and the dram itself. A lot of people are intimidated because they think that somehow they are doing it wrong, but really, that’s not the case. How do you eat tacos? Is there a right way to enjoy a hamburger? We drink whisky for the pleasure of it and you do that is up to you.
You can simply pour a dram in a tumbler or a special whisky glass, then sip on it neat. If you want to experience more subtle flavours, then add a few drops of water. Diluting cask-strength whisky can make it more approachable but some people like the kick in the face of full strength. In summer I sometimes fill a Collins glass with ice cubes then top it up with whisky and just sip on it.
On the other hand, for analytical tastings, if I am writing tasting notes or judging a competition, I always taste the same way. I use a small tulip-shaped glass and before I start, I calibrate my palate by tasting a whisky I know really well. Then I can compare everything else to that known quantity. I generally like flights of about five whiskies. First I nose each whisky, looking for similarities and differences. I may change the order of the whiskies in the flight, going back and forth and putting the more subtle whiskies first. I try to record my first impressions because after a few sips your palate becomes less responsive.
When I nose, I open my mouth to encourage retro-olfaction. I make my nosing notes before tasting the whiskies, and make more notes. I take small sips and I swallow so I can fully appreciate the flavours. I do not spit. Rather, I taste just a few whiskies any given day (perhaps 2 flights of 5 whiskies over a day).
The main difference between whisky and wine & beer is that whisky contains a lot more alcohol. Wine and beer are meant as drinks to quench your thirst, while whisky is too strong for that. This is why wine and beer pair so well with some foods, while good whisky-food pairings are harder to find (although I love oysters and peaty Scotch, or almost any whisky with sweet chocolate.)
I spent 2 years studying how to taste wine – really just for analytical tasting and I learned a lot about focusing on one family of flavours at a time, so when I taste whisky I still fall into that discipline asking myself “are there any fruity notes in here? Flowers? Vegetal notes? Tannins? citrus and so on. For beer, I look for a great mouthfeel and lots of flavour. Regardless of whether it is whisky, wine or beer, the most important quality is that the flavours be in balance.
GD: What’s the best way, in your opinion, to serve whiskey?
DdK: For rare whiskies, I prefer to start straight up. I guess this works for shooters too, but I never do shooters. For a casual dram while chatting I like to add ice. I HATE those whisky stones, discs, whatever. Slow dilution is part of the benefit of using ice cubes. A few drops of water often improve the whisky by making it more approachable and by releasing a lot of hidden flavours. The world’s top whisky writer, and a great authority loves to mix Lagavulin 16 with Coke. That’s Dave Broom I’m talking about. Again, how you drink it depends on the occasion and the whisky itself. To me the best part of whisky is that it is a wonderful social lubricant and I prefer to focus on the people I am drinking with and not be distracted by analyzing the whisky. Analytical tastings, I do in private and they are not all that much fun.
GD: What’s your go-to whiskey-based cocktail?
DdK: I am not a big fan of cocktails as I tend not to like sweet drinks. That said, I do enjoy an Old Fashioned.
GD: Other drink of choice?
DdK: I really enjoy a slightly dirty gin Martini made with juniper-forward London dry gin.
GD: What’s your most memorable whiskey experience?
DdK: Oh boy! A few years ago, just before Whisky Fest, I was rodding around New York in the back of a stretch limo with John Hansell, Lew Bryson and a few other whisky writers. The limo was equipped with glasses and an unlabeled bottle of “bourbon.” It was bottom-shelf stuff, for sure, but we were all excited about the upcoming show and about seeing each other in person – rare for us – and we just had a blast. It was constant stories and laughter all lubricated by something the limo company thought was good whisky.
GD: Is there a whiskey you haven’t tried but would like to?
DdK: Not that I can think of, but I would love to have another dram of Black Bowmore.
GD: Favourite whiskey and food pairing?
DdK: Almost any whisky and sweet chocolate; Lagavulin 16 and raw oysters.
GD: Favourite whiskey and music pairing?
DdK: Music and whisky are kind of separate things. For serious drams I prefer quiet, for social drinking I’m good with whatever people are enjoying. I have broad musical tastes. I think the whole idea of pairing anything with whisky is kind of forced.
With wine you have wonderful interactions of tannins and the blood in red meat, or with spicy fruit and certain spicy sweet dishes, but with whisky, not so much. It is like whisky is trying to be wine and not quite measuring up. I remember the days when whisky was wonderful all on its own. It is meant to be a pleasure on its own, not an accompaniment to something else.
GD: Where is your favourite spot for a drink?
DdK: I really love the Carousel Lounge in the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. Everything from a Bloody Mary to an Old Fashioned to a Martini is a genuine artistic creation.
GD: You’re a trained sommelier; what’s your preferred style of wine?
DdK: I like a rich tannic red with a rare steak. I took the sommelier program but really I was already focusing on whisky. I’d not call myself a sommelier anymore. It is a profession, not a certification and I don’t work with wine at all. Had a fabulous Trius Cab Franc icewine the other day, though.
GD: On another note, what's the best meal you've ever eaten? Where? Why was it so damn good?
DdK: Maybe not the most succulently delicious, but I once had the very good fortune to be treated to a tribal kava ceremony deep in the jungle of Vanuatu. They had virgin boys chew the kava roots then spit the pulp into clean sweat socks and strain it to extract the juice. They served the kava from coconut shells broken in half. Almost incidentally, we ate wild boar roasted on an open fire along with root vegetables cooked in banana leaves. We sat on logs surrounded by brush, and the dogs were jumping up trying to steal food off the palm-leaves we used for plates. It was insanely exotic. While we were sitting there a coconut fell out of a tree and landed right beside someone and everyone burst into laughter. The kava tasted just like earth and I had to drink it just for the experience. Later in Port Vila we tried to repeat the experience at a local “pub” called a nakamal, kind like a primitive bar. They served kava, but in glasses. It wasn’t the same. Not even close.
GD: Most incredible place you've ever travelled to? Dream destination?
DdK: Guyana. I’ve been there several times most recently this past fall to visit the El Dorado rum distillery. We saw the leaky old square wooden Coffey still they use to make some of the rum. Guyana is not particularly tourist-friendly, but the experience is so vivid. Of course, it’s loaded with beautiful plants and smells, and such friendly people.
Years ago a few of us got a guide and canoed up a network of little streams in the jungle, threading our way through the canopy. It was hanging down right into the water, with monkeys swinging from vine to vine over our heads. And the sun was so bright it was almost blinding.
Guyana’s still a bit rough, but spectacular, and not ruined by over-development yet. And for those who prefer to be pampered, there are posh lodges like Baganara Island where they serve cold beer and hot local food while the kids swim in the mighty, pirhanna-infested Essequibo River.