Earl’s & Co expert insight: Everything you need to know about whisky

Whisky tasting expert Jessica Earl gives us the lowdown on how to pick the perfect whisky, even if you’ve never tried it before…

Whisky tasting expert Jessica Earl tells us everything we need to know about whisky
Whisky tasting expert Jessica Earl tells us everything we need to know about whisky

Housed within Cheltenham’s premium barbershop and nail bar Earl’s & Co, lives a charming whisky bar stocked with the finest blends from distilleries around the world.

Welcoming SoGlos into the world of whisky is managing director Jessica Earl.

Keen to dispel the upper-class stigma associated with her favourite drink, Jessica gave us the lowdown on picking the perfect whisky for your palette, and told us how she’s encouraging more women to try their first dram…

How do you begin to choose a whisky if you’ve never enjoyed it before?

It can be quite overwhelming if whisky isn’t something you’re familiar with, so aside from coming to a tasting with me, there’s a few ways to tell if you’re picking a good whisky at a bar or at the supermarket.

Firstly, think about what you like to eat and drink – are you a savoury or a sweet person? If you’re a sweet person then Irish or Japanese whiskies or even bourbons might be for you. That’s because Irish whiskies are triple distilled rather than double distilled, they’re a lot smoother in character because they haven’t got the peat element, usually. Japanese whiskies are usually rich, full-bodied and smooth with a kind of liqueur feeling to them.

But if you’re a savoury person, you might be more into complex flavours and different notes, so a Scottish whisky from Islay or the Isle of Skye will always go down well. If you want a real crowd pleaser, then go for something like a Johnnie Walker.

Now, although that’s obviously mass-produced and you won’t be supporting a local distillery, the reason it’s so popular is because it’s so good! The thing about a Johnnie Walker is that it’s only blended with single malts; so unlike brands like The Famous Grouse or Teachers – which are blends made from other blends, like off-cuts – Johnnie Walker is a blend of pure, brilliant malts.

Whisky always has a number on the bottle too, which refers to the youngest malt that was put into that blend. So traditionally, it’s largely believed that the bigger the number the better the whisky. That said, more and more over the last 15 or 20 years, it’s been down to the engineering of the whisky with different casks and processes that make a good blend.

Whisky Tasting at Earl’s & Co

How should you test a whisky?

You can ‘nose’ whisky in a similar way to how you nose a glass of wine. We teach this in our tasting sessions. First off, we make sure we always use proper glasses for testing [picks up a glass from the bar]. This one is a Glencairn glass, which is the name of official whisky tasting glasses
Basically, you hold it at the bottom and you open your mouth and breathe in through your mouth, rather than smell through your nose. So, it’s funny that the practice is called ‘nosing’ when really, you’re mouthing it!

The idea is that the smell of the whisky and the top notes will sit on your tongue, and you’ll get a flavour of it from that. Then, they try it, and my question to them is ‘do you like it?’ I don’t care what they can taste, it’s not hugely important at this stage.

Then we go into pairing it with either a cheese or a chocolate that I’ve picked to go with that particular whisky, and then we’ll ask them to try it again and see if anything has changed.

It’s at this point that I’ll give them my opinion, so we’ve had the guest’s opinion, my opinion and then we go through the expert opinion which is either Jim Murray who writes the Whisky Bible, or the expert’s opinion on the back of the bottle. Nine times out of 10 we totally disagree with the expert! But I truly believe the most important thing is if you like it.

Whisky Tasting at Earl’s & Co

Whisky has a perception of being a ‘gentleman’s drink’ which can be quite intimidating to some. Is that the case?

The industry itself, is really helping with this. They’ve got new branding and you’ll find you can walk through the whisky aisle in Waitrose or even Tesco and find bright blue bottles and pink bottles, which are much less intimidating. Haig Club for instance, which has David Beckham as the figurehead of that is also doing wonders for the industry.

But the best thing we can do is to talk about it – I will talk anybody’s ear off about how cool whisky is! It’s also it’s really funny to stitch people up who hate whisky…get them a gift voucher and get them to actually give it a try; because all of a sudden, they’re drinking drams of Japanese cask strength with a cheese! It’s really good fun.

I’m also really keen to get more women to enjoy whisky! I’ve got an entire shop full of women upstairs [in the champagne nail bar] that I’m constantly trying to encourage to try whisky, and the hardest thing with them is getting them to forget about the stigma that it’s a drink for men.

Whisky Tasting at Earl’s & Co

Is whisky getting more fashionable, like gin has recently?

Liking and drinking Whisky isn’t because you’re high class, or old, or whatever. It is a taste that you either like or you don’t.

I think it’s in a whole different league to any other alcohol, because, without sounding too cheesy, it’s an entire journey. It’s a fascination and an addiction, people just love it. People love to collect it, they love to learn about it, they love to taste it, they love to talk about it – it’s almost ridiculous how much people love to talk about whisky!

It’s in a different league to gin and vodka, which are fashionable and cool and on trend. But there’s a really famous quote from Coco Chanel which is: ‘Fashion passes, style remains’ and for me, whisky is style.

What does a whisky tasting session involve at Earl’s & Co?

We offer four whiskies, perfectly paired with cheese and chocolate and we’ll have it from Scotland, Ireland, Japan and Wales.

We find out exactly what the client’s taste are, so one person might say: ‘Do you know what, I really love Jack Daniels’ and Jack Daniels is a bourbon from America which is really smooth and sweet and that’s why it’s so popular to mix with drinks. But someone else might come in and say: ‘I love a Laphroaig’ which is from the Islay region in Scotland, so it’s really boggy, peaty and earthy.

From that, I’ll then select a few whiskies, probably about six. I’ll get the clients to smell them all and tell me which ones they like, and which ones they really dislike! The ones that they really dislike, I’ll always save back until later to see if they change their mind.

Because it’s so subjective, there’s no point in me standing there and saying: ‘this is what you’re going to taste and this is what you should smell’. I first teach them how to ‘nose’ a whisky and we have a sip and find out if they like it.

Whisky Tasting at Earl’s & Co

How can people learn more about whisky in Gloucestershire?

We sell whisky tastings as a gift voucher so you can come in just you, or with a friend and have a whisky tasting. People can buy it as an experience for someone, or you can just book it in for you and a mate! But the best thing, I think – is to come in with a friend on a Friday or Saturday afternoon and start the evening off with some whisky!

The good thing about it is that you don’t need to know anything about whisky, you don’t even need to be a huge fan of spirits, because whisky is really subjective, it’s totally personal to your palate, to the way that you smell, and to your likes and dislikes. It means there’s no ‘best’ whisky in the world – there’s definitely a ‘worst’ whisky in the world, though!

For more information, see Earl's & Co., call (01242) 257653, or visit earlsandco.co.uk directly.

By Melissa Hamblett

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