Whisky doesn’t lend itself to being easily understood. Approach this spirit and you’re entering a labyrinth of arcane language, head-spinning distilling techniques and a convoluted history of famous brands.
So thank God for Thalita Alves. As a bartender at Brisbane’s The Gresham, Alves looks after one of the best walls of whisky in the country. The Brazilian national recently underlined her expertise by taking out the Beauty of the Blends challenge at the recent Diageo World Class Australia Grand Final in Sydney.
Alves says it’s the drink’s innate complexity that makes whisky so special. “Every little change, and every little detail, gives you a whole new final product,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Alves has been standing at the leading edge of a change in Australian drinking habits, which has seen whisky consumption rise by more than 50 per cent among 25–34 year olds. “Whisky is still seen as special, but not as exclusive like before,” Alves says. “If you stop in a bar with only $10, there can sometimes be as many as 30 good products that you could choose from.”
Guiding that choice is where Alves comes in. Every night she introduces greenhorns to the art of good whisky. She reckons nobody is born enjoying whisky, and that it’s the introduction of new elements and flavours to your taste buds that kick off education. “Every time someone says, ‘I don’t like whisky’ I say to them, ‘There are over 4000 whiskies around the world; I’m pretty sure you’re going to like one of them!’” Alves laughs.
For inexperienced appreciators, Alves likes to construct a flight of whisky. First, she reaches for a Dalwhinnie, a 15-year-old single-malt scotch whisky with a dry, aromatic nose, but a soft, honeyed flavour profile. It’s followed by a Talisker Storm, which has an elegant smokiness. Alves then likes to finish customers on a Lagavulin, with its powerful peat-smoke nose. “That way, you give people that impression of different notes and flavours,” Alves says. “You’re training people to capture all those complex notes.”
But where do those notes come from? “70 per cent comes from the cask,” Alves says. “The size, the age, the type of wood – all that is so important. You might have an average malt and average barley, but put that in a great cask and you’ll have a good whisky.”
Casks are often sourced secondhand from bourbon, wine and sherry producers, and managing the spirit’s contact with the wood – sometimes across multiple barrels – is one of a distiller’s biggest challenges. Hence the importance of comparing every batch that comes out of the distillery to ensure a consistent product.
As for the discussion of ice and water, Alves is firm. “A couple of drops of water is important. It causes a beautiful chemical reaction that helps the aromas come out. A problem for flavour is a drop in temperature – that’s the trouble with ice.”
Other things to take into account: Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, and it must be aged at least three years in oak barrels and be bottled at no less than 40% ABV. To be called single malt it has to be made in one single distillery – if the distillery is in Scotland then is a single malt Scotch.
If it says "single barrel" on the label, it means that the whisky comes only from one barrel. Single malt whisky contains whisky from different barrels, all produced and aged only in that one distillery, to achieve the flavour desired – the age on the bottle is the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.
“A lot of people do get confused,” Alves says. “But to talk to people about whisky and to help turn around their misconceptions, that’s part of my job.”