Spirits are typically approached with more trepidation than, say, beer or wine. Not only because of their intoxicating potency, but also because of their strong flavour.
What you keep in the spirit cupboard you've compiled at home is often the result of few drams you've dabbled in at a bar – on the recommendation of a knowledgeable bartender - before committing to the purchase of a bottle. However, you don't need to be a boffin; here are some top tips to enjoying some of the world's great spirits.
If ever there was an aficionado's drink it is malt whisky. Much loved in Australia, it's followed with something approaching religious fervour by clubs, societies and appreciation groups. There's also a burgeoning industry of excellent local drops keen to take on the world's best.
The enthusiasm and knowledge of these societies can be off-putting for laymen who are ignorant of the sometimes Freemason-esque rituals surrounding the consumption of whisky.
Purists insist malt whisky should always be enjoyed neat, or maybe with just the addition of a little (perhaps a teaspoon) low-mineral content spring water. And that pair of vintage-cut crystal tumblers you love so much – whilst aesthetically pleasing – are not ideal for capturing the full complexity of aroma and flavour found in a top-notch dram. Experts use specialised glassware shaped more like a wine tasting glass, called a Glencairn glass.
What about 'on the rocks'? Well, I'm not going to say there's a wrong way to drink malt whisky but the addition of ice will dampen the flavour of your whisky – the cold will reduce the perceived sweetness and mute the aroma, the change in temperature alters the texture, and a little dilution will expose the vanilla and caramel flavours derived from prolonged wood ageing.
When it comes to mixing, perhaps go for a blended Scotch. The grain component of these whiskies often brings a lightness and freshness that's perfect for cocktails.
Top spots to learn more: the Baxter Inn (Sydney), Whisky & Alement (Melbourne)
Gin and juice
So often I get customers turning their nose up at gin. They'll tell me it makes them cry, or they like don't like the taste of tonic. I really don't want to see a customer in tears or screwing up their face, and yet I can't help but try to push gin onto them. You see, gin is the greatest cocktail spirit in the world. It has given rise to more classic cocktails than any other spirit, and it's made around the world in an increasing diversity of styles with such a large array of herbs, spices and botanicals that it would cause a botanist to blush.
The Martini, Negroni, White Lady, Aviation, Tom Collins, Southside, Gimlet, Ramos Gin Fizz and the Last Word are just a few handles to remember next time you approach the bar. There's so much more to gin than the humble (and still delicious) G&T. It's rarely drunk neat – it's designed to be mixed with and experimented with. Whether you're a Snoop Dogg fan or not, gin & juice is just a downright cool drink to order.
Top gin joints: The Rook (Sydney), Gin Palace (Melbourne)
Step away from the Coke bottle. There's far more to American whiskey than that nightclub staple, bourbon and cola. The American whiskey industry (yes, spelt with an 'e') is one of the most heavily regulated on the planet, the result of which is that the Yanks produce some mighty fine liquid gold.
Liquor stores are increasingly stocking large selections of extensively aged bourbon whiskey that is fantastic for enjoying on the rocks (the relative sweetness of bourbon means that it can handle a little ice) or mixing in cocktails.
If you've never tried an Old Fashioned before, pop down to a well stocked bar and order one – nearly every bar, swanky or not, will have the ingredients on hand to make one. It's a simple combination of whiskey, sugar, bitters, ice and a little orange peel that forms one of the most sublime cocktails known to man. Why is it so called? Because the drink is made to the old definition of the word cocktail – meaning a combination of spirit, sugar, bitters and water (in the form of ice).
Also on the rise is the drier rye whiskey – it's excellent in classic cocktails such as the Manhattan or in the hipster tipple of the moment, rye and fresh apple juice – as popularised by Sydney's Shady Pines Saloon.
Top bars for American whiskey: Shady Pines Saloon (Sydney), The Gresham (Brisbane) and Kodiak Club (Melbourne).
Tequila & mezcal
Lick, sip, suck: it's a tequila ritual many of us have experienced, almost as a rite of passage into hard liquor. Fortunately the practice is dying out thanks to a greater appreciation of the quality of agave-derived spirits.
Gone is the perception that tequila and mezcal are cheap and nasty – it takes, on average, eight years for the agave plant to reach maturity in order to make tequila, as opposed to an annual harvest for grain, grapes and sugarcane used to produce other spirits.
Quality aged (añejo and reposado) tequila can be sipped neat. If you're into bold, smoky flavours, mezcal – made from agave roasted in an earthen oven – is a growing category worthy of exploration. When it comes to unaged agave spirits (blanco, joven, plata and silver) mix your life away – outside of the usual suspects like the Margarita, try a Batanga (tequila, cola, lime and a salt rim) or a Paloma (tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda).
Top bars for a tequila tipple: El Publico (Perth), Tio's Cerveceria (Sydney)
What's your top-shelf spirit of choice and what advice would you give to a novice drinker?