If our language was whiskey. . .

This month’s Mixology Monday, kindly hosted at Jimmy’s Cocktail Hour, is all about whiskey. Note, simply whiskey, not necessarily whiskey cocktails. I should have lots to say about this month’s topic but somehow I don’t.

Of course there are many things I could cover. I could choose a favorite whiskey cocktail and write about that. I could write about my family’s ritual of drinking tea with whiskey in the morning on Christmas Day. I could write about a favorite whiskey, maybe Lagavulin or Laphroaig.

Of those two I probably prefer Laphroaig – particularly the cask strength Laphroaig. The thing about Laphroaig is that while drinking it you can never quite decide what to make of it. Laphroaig lacks the easy appeal of Lagavulin. Clearly a fine whiskey, but not quite a crowd pleaser. Each taste brings something that attracts you, but in the background lurks something hard to fathom, possibly even rough and unpleasant. You quickly decide that Laphroaig is very nice but not quite perfect. Yet that imperfection is where the attraction of Laphroaig lies. Laphroaig is a little like a woman who has a beautiful face with an obvious flaw, and somehow it is the flaw that makes her looks. Without the flaw she would not be half so good looking because there would simply be nothing to wonder about and hence no interest. Laphroaig challenges you to think. It has personality and is endlessly interesting. Its a whiskey you could happily grow old with.

Of course given that most people reading this are cocktail bloggers they have probably tried Laphroaig and Lagavullin already, and for people who haven’t tried them a verbal description is hardly sufficient. Maybe I should write something about a whiskey not popular in the west, maybe the Suntory Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt from Japan.

It was drinking the Suntory Yamazaki in Constellation, a little Japanese bar in Shanghai, that got me seriously interested in cocktails. The barman, Mr. Jin, suggested I try a Suntory Yamazaki with water and ice. This way of drinking whiskey is known as ‘mizuwari’ in Japan. I was brought up to think that good whiskey was best unpolluted by anything. I was not keen on Mr. Jin’s proposal. He was persistent though, and further proposed making two glasses using identical ingredients. One would be mixed to taste good, and the other would be mixed to taste average. He would let me taste both, then give me the good one and drink the average one himself. Intrigued, I let him do his thing.

He filled both glasses with freshly chipped ice. In traditional Japanese bars the barman works with an ice pick to produce individualized ice for each drink. They will carefully carve a single snowball sized rock for a scotch on the rocks, chip off a flurry of small shards for highball type drinks, and so on. All this is done with ice so cold it is dry to the touch. It is a world away from the soggy machine ice you find in most bars. When I take people to Constellation they are amazed at how long the ice cubes take to melt. After filling the glasses with ice Mr. Jin began stirring one glass with spoon, thoroughly chilling the glass. He poured the melt out of that glass and added more ice before adding whiskey to both glasses, thoroughly stirring the first glass and giving the second a perfunctory stir, adding a little more ice to both glasses and finally topping them up with water.

The taste difference between the two drinks was enormous, and the thoroughly chilled one was very good. That drink totally changed my ideas about Japanese whiskey, and about drinking whiskey with water. These days I think that whiskey needs a few drops of water to bring out the full flavor. The Japanese whiskeys that are designed to be drunk mizuwari style taste good cold and with an even bigger dose of water.

Hmm. . . having written a couple of paragraphs I am still not convinced there is anything I can say that a glass of whiskey couldn’t say much better. But continuing with the Japanese theme, the novelist Haruki Murakami wrote an interesting little travel book about a trip around the distilleries of Islay and Ireland. The book is called “If Our Language was Whiskey”. At least I assume that’s what it’s called. The name in Chinese is “如果我们的语言是威士忌” .

If our language was whiskey. . . What a amazing world that would be. Imagine smiling people inhabiting a bottle green landscape. Some are gathered in fields where they appreciatively pass glasses back and forth. Others sit alone beside crystal springs and quietly savor. Proposing marriage is as simple as selecting just the right single malt and passing it across to the object of your affections. Everyone is content.

I suppose that just for Mixology Monday our language really is whiskey, so I will finish up with an appropriately named whiskey cocktail. Oddly enough for a whiskey cocktail this one was inspired by a potable bitters from Poland I picked up the other day. The brand is Balsam and the label says it is flavored with wolfberries, honey, and other unspecified herbs. This is a sweet bitters, something like Jagermeister but milder. Perhaps it most closely resembles Averna from Italy.

Balsam makes a nice sour but I thought I would try and make a whiskey drink from it. I did an experiment with some scotch but it didn’t work very well. The honey notes meant the drink ended up tasting like a Rusty Nail but without the easy mixability and balance provided by Drambuie. I decided to try adding some vermouth and mixing it with Jameson Irish whiskey. I figured the Jameson would mix better with the Balsam than scotch and produce something less sweet than if using bourbon.

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If Our Language Was Whiskey

1 oz Jameson

1 oz French vermouth

1 oz Balsam (substitute Averna, or maybe a reduced quantity of Jagermeister)

1 dash Angostura bitters

1/2-1 tsp Benedictine

Stir over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze the oils from a lemon twist onto the drink and rub the twist around the rim of the glass.

The mildly astringent Jameson balances out the Balsam. Plenty of herbal flavors. I added a little Benedictine as an afterthought. It complements the herbals in the Balsam but also adds complexity and helps everything mesh together.

I may play around with the recipe some more in future. Right now I am wondering whether an idea as weird as using Laphroaig as a modifier could work. Maybe I will remove the Benedictine and add a splash of Laphroaig, or mix the drink with Laphroaig instead of Jamesons. Mixing Laphroaig with Jamesons would be cool if it worked since Haruki Murakami visited both Islay and Ireland on his trip.

Update: I tried making the drink as above but with two teaspoons of Laphroaig. It was pretty good, probably more interesting than the original version. You notice the Laphroaig more on the initial taste than on the after taste. This could be worth continuing to play around with. Perhaps it could use a different bitters though, or the Balsam could be reduced. The Balsam isn’t bad, but there is something almost too smooth and mundane about it.

One Response to “If our language was whiskey. . .”

  1. What is this stuff? « Bittered Sling: Learning about cocktails Says:

    [...] far, I’ve been able to find exactly one cocktail recipe involving the stuff, and that needs Bénédictine, which I haven’t got. The author of this [...]

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