I look at my shelf and I see a wide variety of whisky. I’ve got some Scottish, some Irish, American and further afield. Dutch, South African, Spanish, Belgian, English, Australian, New Zealand, whisky from all over. Looking at the names I can see so many that I know now, some off by heart, others not so much, but there’s something missing. As I look over these whiskies and think about how I first found them I think about the whiskies I started on. These are the drams that made us.
Think about to when you first started drinking whisky. For some of us it was earlier than others (and that’s not necessarily a good thing). The days of scraping together money from behind the couch, from trolleys that have a forgotten dollar coin in the tray, change dug from phone booths. Get together with a few mates, find an older brother whose willing to get something from the shop or risk doing it yourself and you have your first bottle of whisky.
The thing is that most of us didn’t start with drinking Single Malts, Vintage Single Casks, old and rare stuff, anything that we tend to prize. If you managed to you may have waited a bit longer than I did, or maybe you just had the funds to get something a bit…. More. Most of us started drinking bottom shelf stuff, or big brand names. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Kentucky Gold and the rest. A far cry from Single Malts and far from Scottish for that, maybe if you grew up in Scotland it was different but not in Australia.
I can’t remember the first whisky I ever had. I want to tell a story about how an older relative passed me a glass of some dusty bottle from the depths of the cabinet, starting my journey into whisky as I discovered a world I had never thought existed. I want to tell that story, but it just didn’t happen. I’d say I was about….. a few years below the legal drinking age when I got my hands on a small plastic bottle of something. I think it was Jim Beam.
Fast forward a few years and though still a pimply youth I remember getting my hands on something a bit better, Jack Daniels. That was the drink of choice back in the day and not only would I drink it at every occasion it also lead me on the path to start to learn about cocktails. Fun fact, you can buy everything you need to make cocktails except from the alcohol when you’re underage. It’s odd walking to the shops after school to get some cocktail books and a shaker, but it can be done. The first cocktail I ever made was a mint julep, I thought it sounded tasty and sophisticated. To this day I hate mint juleps.
And then finally getting to bars and drinking the same thing, JD and Coke after JD and Coke for years and years. Working behind bars though while you have your favourites you also take the opportunity to sample whatever you can, and slowly but surely my whisky collection, palate and knowledge would grow, but it’s those whiskies that started me, those are the drams that made me.
Without drinking them and wanting to know what they could go into and from there delving into cocktails, without wanting to discover their origins and how they were made I never would have picked up some spirits history books, without noticing the difference in flavours between them by just plain drinking them I never would have understood that there are a huge amount of difference in them, and in all whiskies.
Without those whiskies I never would have taken those first steps that led me to work in bars, send a shot in the dark email that would end up with someone paying me to drink, talk and write about whisky and start a blog. Without them I might be a teetotaller, or worse a wine drinker. I owe those whiskies everything, and suspect many of us do too.
So why do we disparage them? Why do we disparage these whiskeys when we talk about them? Let’s be completely honest, more than once we’ve all said something off kilter about one of those brands or sneered towards the offer of a dram that we might consider beneath us. The whiskies and whiskeys that brought us into the industry and world we love and we slander them, so why is that? Do we consider these whiskeys now beneath us? Because they’re not.
We grew up on these drams, without them many of us likely wouldn’t be in the industry. It’s a real shame that too often you flick through Youtube and see these whiskies making lists often labelled something along the lines of ‘Whisky Experts Try Bad Whisky’. Did these experts grow up on rare vintage single malts that are supposedly good but more often only called that for their rarity?
Whisky is neither good nor bad, it’s all dependent on who you ask. To some, to you the reader, they might represent all that is disgusting and horrible about whisky. To others they are likely their favourite drink, the best they’ve ever had. Considering how amazingly small the whisky world is in the court of public opinion brands such as Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, Haig Club, Proper Twelve are likely to be judged as much better than your Macallans, Midletons, Rosebanks, Yamazakis. They’re more accessible, more open, and with them comes less snobbery.
These are the drams that made us. They deserve our respect for bringing us into the world and setting us on our paths to become distillers, brewers, bloggers, ambassadors, brand managers, to become a part of the greater whisky and whiskey world. For that reason I’ve bought myself a bottle of Jack Daniels, something to sit down and reminisce with. And after my article last week on music and whisky it turns out some of those bands I grew up listening to while drinking have released some new albums, so I know just how I’ll be drinking it.
So with that the question remains, what was the whisky, whiskey, bourbon, vodka, tequila, rum, brandy etc that made you? Where were you when you first sipped something that clicked something in your brain and made you think ‘now I’d love to know more about that’? And what were you listening to? Let me know and share your experiences, because that’s what whisky should be, sharing experiences.