The package that arrived on my doorstep last Monday was fairly inconspicuous, a box wrapped in brown paper marked “Fragile” that looked the part of a 1920s parcel. A gentle shake—my preferred security check—revealed absolutely nothing. Curious, I thought.
I ferried the package to my bedroom and closed the door. My heart actually started to race a little as I dug in: There was a cardboard container with “Away from the Ordinary” embossed in gold letters, and inside, six tiny bottles that each fit easily in the palm of my hand. Their liquid contents varied—some clear, some caramel colored—and each had a numbered tag with a typewritten code of sorts. “Longrow Red. 13 YR. 51 ABV.” “Coopers Gold. 26 YR. 51 ABV.” Aha! I realized. I’m Alice, and this is my whisky wonderland, shipped from the United Kingdom for my tasting pleasure. Drink me, the bottles whispered.
As of mid-March, when much of the United States committed to flattening the COVID-19 curve by staying indoors, a virtual world emerged: grandparents joined Zoom birthday parties for their grandkids, and the faithful showed up to “dance church” on Instagram. The world’s best chefs did low-key cooking demos from their home kitchens. Celebrities took turns reading chapters of Harry Potter for all to enjoy. It was, and continues to be, the hardest time and the simplest time. We have taken stock of our health, our livelihoods, our priorities. Time seems to drag on for some and blaze by for others. (Just look at anyone working and homeschooling their kids.) And as we seek to fill our time consciously, by learning new skills or being available to answer a two-year-old’s constant stream of “Why’s”, there’s one outcome I know for certain: Virtual happy hours have been a COVID-19 blessing.
Since my family and I entered quarantine in New Jersey, I’ve signed up for a few virtual wine and whisky tasting sessions in the past month to see if they can recreate some semblance of place. (I’m a social creature who misses crowds and conviviality.) The parcel of whisky bottles on my doorstep came from the Scottish travel company Away from the Ordinary, known for its luxury bespoke trips that live up to the branding—private distillery tours paired with fly fishing, introductions to artists, musicians, aristocracy. Outlander tours, be still my heart. Since I couldn’t technically go to Scotland anytime soon, the peaty aroma of scotch was coming to me, courtesy of founder Aeneas O’Hara, who had hand-picked six rare or underrated whiskies for a small group to try together, via Zoom, during a one-hour tasting session. So that we were prepared, his team sent ahead a mini education in whisky tasting with a cheery note about “bringing a little Scottish hospitality directly to your home!” Well, thank you, I thought. I could use a dose of that during a pandemic.
On the night of the tasting, I bailed on the toddler bedtime routine and snuck off to a room with a door so I could socialize—aka drink in peace—for an hour. With my tiny bottles lined up neatly on a desk, water, and two glasses at hand, I logged on to Zoom and saw the broad grin of our guide, Aeneas, and our crew of (coincidentally assembled) working moms eager to drink some whisky. What followed was one part education, one part hang: Aeneas walked us through a progression of “Whiskies I Don’t Think You’ve Tasted Before” from across Scotland, starting with a “new make spirit” (straight out of the still and 60 percent alcohol) from Dornoch in the northernmost reaches of the Highlands, down to light, smooth “summer whiskies” from Speyside and over to a smoky, peated dram from Campbeltown.
It was “verrrrry relaxed,” as Aeneas said, free of any pretense one might associate with a scotch tasting. We sniffed and sipped and talked about the heritage of the distilleries and their locations; we also learned a bit about each other, and joked as we reacted with pinched faces to the new make. “Whisky is for sharing—it’s a convivial thing,” Aeneas said. “Though it tastes better in Scotland.”
And there it is: This virtual whisky tasting will never replace a trip to the source. A Zoom happy hour won’t supplant in-person gatherings. There is something lost in our simulated realities—but something gained as well. These nights at home with new friends and new tastes inspire wanderlust in a major way. After my whisky session, I spent an hour Googling words I couldn’t pronounce like “Bunnahabhain” and the legend of “Port Ellen whisky $1,000 a bottle—why?” Scotland may be off limits for now, and for who knows how long, but for me, there’s no quicker way to the heart of a culture—and a people—than through a shared toast.
5 tips for an at-home whisky tasting
Have a pretasting whisky (no joke). “The first mouthful of any whisky you taste, on any day, is a shock to the palate as it is high-strength alcohol,” according to the Away from the Ordinary team. So start with a sip of something light—a Speyside style—to warm up.
Try not to eat anything spicy right before your tasting. Super flavorful food will change your perception of the whisky, so skip the Doritos and Indian food.
Keep a small jug of water at hand. “Water that hasn’t been fortunate enough to be turned into whisky is still important,” they say. A few drops of water can open up each whisky’s flavor.
Make a plate of palate cleansers. Plain dark chocolate and bread work well.
Prepour if you can. In an ideal world, pour each whisky into its own glass 30 minutes before the tasting, and cover the glasses with lids (“business card, envelope, beer mat”). But don’t stress it if you only have one glass.
>> Next: A Distillery Is Opening in One of Scotland’s Loveliest National Parks
Laura Dannen Redman Laura Dannen Redman is the digital content director of AFAR based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home.