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3 tips for drinking whiskey from an expert and a novice

Whiskey flight at Blind Donkey
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman Whiskey flight at Blind Donkey

Just like the taste of rum conjures memories of tropical vacations past (hopefully rather than ill-fated nights of drinking), whiskey makes me think of chilly weather and bundling up. Low 60s on a winter night in Los Angeles? That's perfect whiskey-drinking weather...not that I really needed an excuse. When The Macallan offered to do an educational tasting for us at Time Out Los Angeles, let's just say I was eager to learn more about the beloved spirit.

The rest of LA is just as infatuated, it seems. It's definitely cool to be a fan of whiskey these days, though it's not always easy. You might need to learn to control your facial expressions when you start drinking it neat. It might take a while to grow on you. But if you put in the time, and consider these helpful tips, I think you'll really start to love it.

1. Get smart. There is a lot to know about whiskey, specifically, scotch. I like to learn by sipping, but Kieron Elliott, The Macallan's brand ambassador, has some facts you should know up front:

"Sixty to seventy percent of the taste, body, aroma, texture—everything in that glass comes from the contact with the wood," Elliott says. "Trust the companies who spend a lot on their wood policy. Last year, Edrington (Macallan's parent company) spent $34 million on the wood policy alone." Elliott also recommends you know the basic attributes of the two main scotch-producing regions: Speyside and Islay. Speyside has the most distilleries, and they make "gentler and/or sherried scotches," Elliott says. Islay malts (say "Isle-ah" when you ask for it) have "a heavy, medicinal smoky flavor due to the biological makeup of the peat they burn," Elliot says. Outside of those two, the style of the whiskeys from other regions like Highlands, Islands and Lowlands fall somewhere in between. Got it? Happy exploring.

2. Or, find a bartender who knows what's what. If you're curious about whiskey but you're not sure where to start, you are in luck. There are several fine whiskey bars all over LA with knowledgeable bartenders who can help you find what you like. An in-depth lesson, however, is not something you should ask for on a Friday or Saturday night when the bar is packed. Don't be a jerk. Save it for a Sunday night to close out a weekend, or a night during the week when people won't be shouting their Red Bull-vodka orders over your shoulder all night long. Elliott recommends several of the bars that made our list: The Daily Pint for their amazing selection; Seven Grand for their great selection of American, Scottish and international whiskeys; and the Beverly Hills Hotel and Four Seasons for older, rarer and very expensive whiskeys. The ultimate? The £10 bar at The Montage Beverly Hills, which sells one of the most expensive drinks in LA—a two-ounce pour of The Macallan 64 for $64,000 (yeah, that's a Guinness World Record).

3. Try it in a cocktail. I would venture to say that any bar you go to in this city has at least one whiskey cocktail on the menu. If you're not ready to order a dram or if you're just not in the mood, whiskey cocktails have dramatically improved, thanks to how in-demand the spirit is. For those of you with a growing bar cart at home, whiskey cocktails are pretty easy to make and a rewarding way to test your mixology chops. Lately, in the name of warding off colds (again, not that I really need an excuse) I've been making penicillins at home. It's a few steps above a Jameson and Ginger, they taste a helluva lot better, and they're very easy to make: mix 2 oz. of an easy-drinking scotch with about 1 oz. each of lemon juice and honey-ginger syrup (or muddle the ginger for extra credit). Add a a spritz or a little float of smoky Laphroiag or other Islay scotch on top, with a piece of candied ginger as a garnish/dessert at the end.

If you're onboard the whiskey train, welcome. LA is a great place to be a fan. Now don't even get me started on mezcal—it's like tequila and whiskey got together in a smoky bar and had a lovechild. Swoon.

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