A few months ago, we met with the singular Anthony Bourdain when he passed through New York to talk whisky—or, specifically, Scotch whisky. Even more specifically, what his rules might be for drinking it, as part of Bloomberg Pursuits’ ongoing “Rules” series: what you’re doing wrong when you order steak, cocktails, and so forth.
On Tuesday, a stream of messages from Bourdain popped up in our Twitter feed. They included links to a recent podcast in which he recounted adding glacier ice to a glass of whisky in Antarctica. The internet jumped on it, and then Bourdain jumped on the internet.
In our interview, Bourdain, who consults for Scotch maker the Balvenie, was adamant that there should not be rules for drinking whisky. Instead, he talked about the biggest misperception people have about Scotch, why a bottle of bad whisky isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the rule he sometimes breaks. We thought this a good time to share his thoughts.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when ordering whisky? First off, there is no wrong way to drink whisky. But for most people, I think drinking whisky takes some time before you learn to fully appreciate it. So I would say don’t go out looking for the best whisky right away. Take your time. Depending on your age, you’ll most likely be starting with crappy whisky. And that’s OK. You’ll eventually drink enough good whisky that by the time you drink a truly great whisky, you’ll hopefully be able to understand the difference. And that’s a magical moment.
You never go too overboard about the flavor notes in your glass?I’ll be the first to tell you I’m no whisky connoisseur. I know what I like, and I can tell a good whisky when I taste it, but I’m not one to go on and on about the intricacies of its being. A whisky-drinking experience shouldn’t be scholars sitting around talking about vanilla and taking notes, in my view. I want to be surrounded by people enjoying their lives, listening to good music, and having a congenial conversation. Whisky should be part of a larger picture.
One thing I have learned since starting this little venture with the Balvenie is that not all Scotch is smoky. It’s a common misperception when it comes to Scotch whisky in particular, and one that is completely wrong.
Is there any time of day that you shouldn’t drink whisky?I think whisky can have its place at any time of day, but my preferred experience tends to be in the late afternoon, sitting at an empty dive bar, surrounded by nothing but my thoughts, some good tunes, and a friendly barkeep.
How do you feel about water or ice with whisky?If we’re talking Scotch, I admit to heretical behavior. If a Scotsman is not watching, I will sometimes put one rock in my drink. But the true professionals like [Balvenie malt master] David Stewart don’t mess with ice—they add water to open up the flavors.
Do you ever cook with whisky? You can cook with whisky, for sure. It can be fantastic in desserts, like a pecan pie or a caramel sauce. The Balvenie 12-year is not bad in a steak au poivre—you can swap it for brandy, and it’s pretty damn good. But for the most part, I reserve it for drinking.
Is there a particular pairing you prefer? It’s hard to beat enjoying Scotch in Scotland. Scottish cheese, game, deep-fried haggis with curry sauce—I love that, and even more so with whisky. Aged grouse with bread sauce and veggies, with a great side of whisky, makes me happy.