Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Slow-Whisky Movement?

Ever heard about the Slow-Food movement?  Basically it's a rejection of fast-food (think McDonald's and other perpetrators of gastronomic urban blight) and the embrace of a lifestyle where people take time to prepare and enjoy natural, flavorful, non-genetically modified, locally grown food.  Clearly, it is a reaction to the hurry-sickness of many people's lives that involves eating on-the-run, relying to heavily on the microwave, canned goods, bags of potato chips and generally the ridiculous fast pace of modern life.

According to Wikipedia, there are now lots of other slow-movements:

and even . . . Slow-Sex!

Anyhow, as I have read more about this cultural phenomena, I wondered how it might apply to the appreciation of whisky.  What about a 'slow-whisky' movement?  

Just as we can easily get caught up in our hectic lives and not really be in the present moment, always worrying about the future or dwelling too much on the past, so too can our enjoyment of whisky be hurried.  

You may find yourself obsessively worrying that you should be buying a renowned single malt when you, deep down, just want a widely-available, blended scotch that is generally not receiving any accolades.  A fact that bothers you greatly.  You may rush your drinks, almost as a chore, because you want to finish that bottle while the flavors are supposedly 'optimal,' because if you wait too long, the oxygen exposure of the half-full bottle will cause those flavors to become irreparably diminished.  At the same time you are scanning, at the speed of light, a tasting note of the whisky in question while thinking this is not what you are tasting and somehow feeling you "just don't get it."  Who knows what else is going through your mind, but one thing is certain, your mind may be racing like a freight train with all manner of whisky related thoughts, when all you should be doing is relaxing and enjoying a dram in an unhurried, present moment.  How we get there is the mission of what I call the Slow-Whisky Movement.

Tenets of the Slow-Whisky Movement
No. 1:  A couple of hours after your last, non-spicy meal, seek out a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.  Preferably in the evening when your abode is quiet.  No T.V. or radio.  Blackberry, smartphones, turned off and preferably buried in the backyard.  Get comfortably ensconced in your favorite chair.  Next to you will be a glass with 1 1/2 oz of your favorite comfort scotch or whisky of the moment.  Make sure it is what you want, not some recommendation of a fool whisky blogger or a critic's windy must-buy malt suggestion of the moment.

No. 2:  Close your eyes.  Focus on your breathing.  Listen to it.  When your mind wanders, come back to your breathing.  Just be aware of it.  If a thought comes into your head, that's ok, but again, be conscious of your breathing.

"Full Catastrophe Living" is a book written by Jon Kabat-Zinn that espouses the use of secular meditation (mindfulness) to deal with life's stressors and crises.  A passage highlighted below from this book is instructive in our quest to belong to the slow-whisky movement:   

Do this for three minutes.  That's it.  I just want three minutes of your time.  After that, open those eyes.  You feel relaxed.  Calm.  Peaceful.  Good.  You are now ready for the third tenet.

No. 3:  Reach for your glass of whisky.  Hold the glass and look at the color of the whisky.  Is it dark?  Light?  Reddish?  Really look at it.  Don't worry about the 'proper vocabulary' because there isn't any.  Just you and a glass of whisky. 

Roll the glass around a little.  Does the whisky have legs?  

Bring the rim of the glass to your nose.  Close your eyes and gently sniff twice and move the rim of the glass away.  What do you think of?  Old leather books?  Grandpa's steaming tea in a Thermos?  Cherry pipe tobacco?  The sea?  Eucalyptus oil?  Hospital bandages and pungent ointment?  Bring the glass back for one more sniff.  Again, do some free association?  

No. 4:    Eyes closed, take the tiniest of sips.  How does the spirit behave on the palate?  Sweet?  Sharp?   Spicy?  What else is there?  Cherries?  Oak?  Honey and sea salt?  Kosher pretzel.  Let your mind wander into the past to good thoughts.  Childhood food and baked goods.  Note the range of flavors.  Marvel at them.

No. 5:  Swallow.  What remains?  Smoke?  Iodine?  Coarse salt?  Malty notes?  Spiced honey and oat cakes?  Balsa wood?

No. 6:  Slowly repeat steps 3 through 5 until your 1 1/2 oz dram serving is gone.  Once it is gone there will be no refills.  One key aspect of the 'slow-whisky' movement is the restriction of your enjoyment to one modest serving of whisky.  In this way, you will relish and catalogue in your mind every nuance, fabric, weave of flavors of the spirit.  Remember!  No refills.

Follow these main tenets and drinking any whisky will be a much more immediate and special experience.  You will experience a greater range of flavors, that would be lost with subsequent refills.  It's kinda like listening to two versions of "What I Did for Love."  One great with fantastic range of voice delivered by Shirley Bassey and the other, not as great by Jack Jones.

Take a listen!  I am serious, just listen, expand your mind, open it, don't be judgmental, just listen to an incredible voice:

Now that is what the first and hopefully only 1 1/2 oz serving you enjoy at one sitting, as a participant of the 'slow-whisky' movement.  

If you break the rules and pour yourself another dram, the palate loses it's ability to discern the great range of flavors.  What's left is a flattened tasting, less exciting, kinda like Jack Jones' rendition of the same ballad:

Welcome to the burgeoning 'slow whisky' movement!  Don't be a Jack Jones!  Stop at one drink and enjoy a taste experience on par with listening to Shirley Bassey!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission, except for the book "Full Catastrophe Living" by John Kabat-Zinn who holds copyright it.  The book is quoted only for the purposes of education, and as a means of illustrating the subject matter.  Photograph of McDonald's burger and fries taken by anonymous Flickr member BigFreaky who is holder of all copyright to said photograph.


  1. Very nice post, Jason, and so true...
    It's what Thich Nhat Hanh would say, if he started drinking whisky.
    I will work on this "drinking meditation". Hey, TNH's "five contemplations" with regards to food translate very well to whisky. He advises against drinking altogether, but I think he'd admit that if one were to drink alcohol, this would be the way to do it:

    This whisky is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard, loving work.
    May we drink with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
    May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to drink with moderation, without refills.
    May we keep our compassion alive by drinking in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
    We accept this whisky so that we may nurture our brotherhood, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings."

    Way to go, you little Canadian Whisky Buddha!

  2. Great stuff Jason. I am guilty of being caught up in the "fast-whisky" movement. I am trying to slow down. I recently discovered also that about 1.5 oz. is plenty of whisky for an evening.

    This is kindof what I just posted about, only you've got a different take on it (and more constructive than my rambling!).

  3. A little too "new-agey" for me. I need a drink!

    1. Good idea! Try steps 1 through 5 . . . Just joking!

    2. I thought it was 12 steps. At least your approach is more efficient.

  4. I suspect you've addressed issues facing many whisky fans with this topic. Methinks that far too many folks rush through the enjoyment of a meal, an event, a dram, or a bottle of wine - relatively untouched by the experience. I see folks often anxiously hunting for some confirmation of aroma and flavor and perhaps self image, instead of simply enjoying the essence of the moment and the experience on their own, as they find it. Well said and nicely done, Jason. Thanks. JK.

    1. I am afflicted with what I call "hurry-sickness," a malaise of modern life. At times, I struggle not to rush through every activity. I also notice that sometimes when I talk to people, they are not really listening but rehearsing what their response will be.

      So, I guess these experiences are the impetus for this post.

      Thanks for taking time to comment.

  5. A very Buddhist like approach. Perhaps we can adapt a Zen interpretation of it, which looks at the immediacy of the action, without ritual and contemplation, in order to find meaning and truth. I don't see this as a contradiction of a 'Slow Whisky' Movement, but rather a way to appreciate the moment without dogmatizing it (the Zen emphasis on not mistaking the written scripture for the truth, but finding enlightenment through self-actualization). Thoughts?

    1. All I am trying to get the reader to do is break the ritual of drinking scotch down to its basic parts, be conscious of that activity and see the benefits. We obviously can do this with reading, walking, and many other activities. There is benefit in that too. Certainly there are Zen overtones. But, I am sure this practice resonates with other systems of belief and mainstream religion. For example, a Torah scholar reading text deeply for hours may feel a mystical moment or sense of deeper understanding. Same is true for Christian readers at times.

  6. Jason, this is an awesome and important post. It reminds us of the larger picture and aims to connect us with what is truly important, not only in whisky, but also in life.

    Indeed, this post of yours is becoming a meme coursing through the blogosphere. Ryan of Value Whisky Reviews cites it in his final post:

    Other Ryan - of - cites it in his post about how knowing more about whisky affects his palate and his passion for blogging.

    The Debly "slow-whisky movement" appears in the discussions following Oliver Klimek's fascinating post "Why Private Whisky Blogging Is So Important" - which concerns how non-professional bloggers have the freedom to do more important writing:

    (OK - I may have cited it there). But the point is that I consider this post a prime example of the kind of important writing that Klimek is talking about.

    Just FYI.

    1. Hi Josh!

      I was not aware that the post on a slow whisky movement had generated such interest. I've been in Mexico on vacation this past week and so have not been reading any whisky blogs.

      Any how, thanks for the kind words.

      If you ever make it up to my neck of the woods, I think I will have to pull out the best stuff I have and serve it to you.


    2. Jason, I find I refer this post to others again and again. But in so doing I find that you omit a step that is important to me: write down your tasting notes. The act of writing leads you to observe more deeply and more carefully. Here's how I put it to an acquaintance in a recent e-mail

      Writing out your tasting notes is a very useful enterprise. I got the idea from sketching what you see in the telescope's eyepiece in amateur astronomy. You are supposed to sketch, not just to keep a record of what you have seen - but also as a way to induce you really LOOK. When you observe merely to satisfy your conscious mind you gloss over details. Our minds have evolved to constantly pick out the most salient feature and skip the rest. The act of recording the observation causes you to observe more deeply - to actually pay attention to the details that you suddenly need in order to flesh out your depiction.

      Like astronomy, whisky tasting is best done in solitude, at night, in the quiet still and dark. And like the astronomy eyepiece, the whisky glass is circular porthole into the depths of time and space and the deepest mysteries of the universe. The act of sketching actually forces you to truly OBSERVE. Thus take notes when you critically taste. A wonderful blog post on this topic is Jason Debley's Slow-Whisky movement:

      It's an essay in the zen meditative approach to drinking a dram. The ultimate goal is, for me, to understand the whisky on its own terms as it evolves in the glass through interaction with air, time, (and water - if you go there - and I often do) and progresses across your palate. And then to understand how this in-the-glass evolution and the on-your-palate progression fits into the larger context of your perception, desire, tastes, and cognition. This should lead you to a deeper sense of your drams significance in a larger context. Then you'll find that your tasting notes become interesting reading. And if they are interesting for yourself - they may be interesting for others too."

    3. Joshua, I hear where you are coming from, but for me, the act of writing or note taking would distract from the experience. I would quickly become worried that my notes are not 'correct' or missing something.

      But, for you this is not the case. And that, my friend is totally okay. It's all up to the individual.

  7. Dear Jason,
    That's the way the old people drink whisky, another thing is to drink out side on a wooden bench against the side of the house.
    Have you read Neil Gunn Whisky & Scotland. You will like him.
    Come to Islay, (unless it's the festival) we drink like this all the time.
    Kind Regards

  8. Allan Boyd (from Aus)May 10, 2012 at 12:24 AM

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for that.
    Funny thing...
    I was doing that to a recently purchased Laphroaig without thinking !
    Then I made the mistake of having another. You are spot on... not as nice.
    thanks again.

    OO ROO


    1. Hello Allan,

      Nice to hear from a reader in Australia!