I grew up in a house of Mormons, and Mormons have pretty strict rules. So strict that coffee is not allowed, which meant that there sure wasn’t alcohol around for anyone to introduce me to.
But, I was allowed to drink Coke, because Mormon rules are weird, so I was a Coke fiend.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I actually tasted alcohol, and it was by mistake. A friend offered me a Pumpkin Ale, and I learned quickly that Pumpkin Ale and Ginger Ale don’t share the same category.
Coincidentally, I haven’t had Pumpkin Ale since.
My gradual arrival to drinking things “Neat”
When I finally introduced myself to alcohol, I also found my way into coffee. I was drinking lattes, with a side of Coke, and hard apple ciders.
It was how a Formon (Former Mormon) rebels.
My Latte & Coke even inspired a special drink in my name: The Alejandro, which included cold brew, milk, and Coke.
I found that my enjoyment of coffee and whiskey followed similar paths. I enjoyed a little bit of coffee, with Coke. And I enjoyed a little bit of whiskey, with Coke.
My problem with truly enjoying whiskey and coffee was, though I liked the idea of both, I could only stomach one or two sips of the real stuff.
Eventually, the more I drank of each, the more I enjoyed them.
As my tastes changed and I became more accustomed to the flavors, so did my drinks. First, I dropped Coke altogether. I switched from lattes to a smaller version called a cortado, and my go-to whiskey drinks became a Whiskey Sour or Old Fashioned.
Soon enough, I dropped the milk altogether and went straight espresso. This is when I experience what coffee really was: a complex drink full of different flavors, and different coffees have different distinct notes.
Coffee no longer just tasted like coffee, some tasted more fruity than others, some more acidic. I gained an appreciation for coffee and a want to try many different varieties.
Whiskey took a little longer, years really. It’s easy to get accustomed to coffee when you drink it 2+ times a day, but while drinking coffee throughout the day is a norm, whiskey is best kept in smaller doses at specific times of the day.
The Wall of Ethanol: Whiskey’s Bite
The one thing whiskey has that coffee doesn’t is a bite. And not just a bite, it’s an overwhelming presence of alcohol that shouts loud enough to ruin the experience after a few sips. I’ve heard this described as the “Wall”.
It’s a wall that hides behind it an experience of smells, flavors, and textures. You can see the array of vanilla and spice through slits in the Wall, but until you can get past it, you’re stuck with the overbearing alcohol.
But, I knew through my experience with coffee that it takes time, patience, and many glasses to get used to the overwhelming notes and appreciate the more subtle notes.
I remember vividly the night I got past the Wall. I was at Hard Water in San Francisco, where they serve whiskey by the ounce. I already enjoyed an ounce or two when I noticed a texture change. Rather than my tongue freaking out to the singe of alcohol, it had rested, and I could feel the whiskey’s texture. Some were like water; they were thin. Others were more like syrup with richer flavors.
The whiskeys’ tastes started to stand out more, and I could distinguish one whiskey from another. This is where I fell in love with whiskey.
I came home from that trip with a new appreciation for whiskey, and finally, I could experience a glass without forcing myself to swallow it down. It opened up a whole new world of whiskey.
Whiskey by definition can be no lower than 80 proof, but some will go up to the 120+ proof. The 100+ proof whiskeys we’re too much for me before, but now that I’m accustomed to the Wall, I find myself enjoying them more than the 80-90 proof range.
Finding the right drink
While I found my way to black coffee and whiskey neat, not everyone does, and that’s fine. I appreciate the drinks I enjoyed along the way because they were right for me. Even now, I enjoy a great cocktail from time to time.
Enjoying whiskey neat is no more right than enjoying it with ice, in a cocktail, or with coke. The right way to drink it is how you enjoy it, and the right whiskey to drink is the one you enjoy. I’m a light roast coffee & Bourbon fan, and my coworker likes her coffee dark and her whisky Scotch. That’s great because we know what we like.
Today, I brew my own coffee twice daily, and I often hop up the coffee shop for a shot of espresso. And when it’s time to pour a whiskey, I’ll grab my Glencairn and find a bottle on the shelf suitable for the mood.
I’m probably looking at you, Booker’s.