Why Do We Enjoy Whisky?

A Matter of Good Taste

Last month I was confronted with a question I had astonishingly not been asked before. Why do you drink whisky? Because it makes you pretty – well, certainly not. Let's take a little time to consider this question.

In our youth, we drank whisky for the external effect. The emphasis here is on the word ‘drink’, not ‘enjoy’. In the adolescence or stuck-in-adolescence phase of Homo sapiens, the individual cares more about the external effect than about the inner experience during social encounters.

Instead, it's 'Show me what you drink and I believe you what you seem to be.' In the brain of the counterpart and potential partner, a mix of thoughts arises which is mainly influenced by hormones of various kinds and also by alcohol. If you drink too much alcohol, the counterpart may even become prettier ;-)

In my younger days, a few decades ago, the American Way of Life dominated social life here. That means the pursuit of personal happiness, rock and pop music, cars with V8 motors, space flights and a general approval of prosperity and progress. This way of life always demanded a glass of whisky, or whiskey, like Dean Martin, Humphrey Bogart and Sean Connery showed us in the movies. That there are differences between scotch and bourbon we only learned later.

But most of us first had an unpleasant encounter with a bottle of whisky. On some occasion at some place you were sitting together with your adolescent friends, and suddenly there was a bottle of whisky on the table. One guy took it from the bar of his dad; another one had relations to American or British soldiers, who could 'hook you up' with the fanciest whiskies in the largest bottles for little money. And so the tragedy began.

On the next morning, the least you had was a throbbing head, and already at night your stomach rightfully caused you problems. After all, drinking whisky is not as easy-going as drinking beer. In contrast to today's youth, who often (not always) satisfy their desire for high doses of alcohol with vodka and sweet mixes, we had to deal with serious hangovers back then. They are mainly caused by the fusel oils in whisky, which are, however, essential for the taste of whisky. In contrast to vodka, which is pretty tasteless and has no fusel oils, whisky thrives on the maturation in oak casks. Over a maturation period of several years, the casks give whisky its unique aroma.

And it was this very aroma that kept us from further harm during the following years. Since once you got the smell of a whisky in your nose, your brain warned you through the amygdala (the center of fear in your brain) with an urge to gag. Unfortunately, this mechanism doesn't work anymore with the young vodka drinkers.

As people get older and wiser, they usually become less interested in appearances and more interested in introspection. And once you have found a partner for life and you have established a career and got a house, there's less and less time to be extroverted during social encounters. Often there's no more alcohol at all involved during the few occasions since you still have to drive.

And then comes the moment when a good friend offers you a dram from a whisky bottle again. But instead of declining with thanks like you used to, this time you believe your counterpart and his statement on the high quality and you try the dram you are offered.

What follows then we all know. What an epiphany this piece of craftsmanship is! You can't compare today's high-quality whiskies with the blends we used to drink.

And once you get to know the multitude of flavours of modern whiskies and whiskeys, you are hooked for life. Today the emphasis is not on external effects but on the inner experience. The focus is not on the group any more, but on your own sensation. This brings us back to the beginning. The pursuit of your own happiness.

I don't want to claim that whisky is a drink for introverted people. But in contrast to vodka, whisky is less and less drunk for its effect. It's about personal pleasure, yes, but you can experience it alone at home after a hard day's work, but also with a friend or in larger groups.

The fact that you can experience such sensory pleasure instead of the mere effect of alcohol made whisky the most popular spirit worldwide. There might have been hypes of other spirits along the way. But as fast as these stars rise (tequila, mezcal, vodka, rum, gin) they often fall again. These spirits may have the social drinking in common, but they usually lack the sensory pleasure component for at home.

For centuries, each year whisky has conquered the hearts of new generations. And the reason is not good marketing. The principal taste properties of the specific grains combined with several years of maturation in oak casks meet the principal sense of taste of Homo sapiens. That's how it was and how it will most probably stay in the future. Forever whisky!

 

Horst Luening, November 2016