Tim Wright

Mixology

The Playbook: How to Drink Whiskey With Young Kim

Young Kim is a whiskey sommelier who presides over the 1,200 bottles of brown stuff at the Flatiron Room in New York. Her favorite cocktail is an Old Fashioned, but keep maraschino cherries away from her. Between teaching a whiskey tasting class and evening service, Kim sat down with Playboy to talk whiskey no-nos.

What are the most common mistakes people make when ordering whiskey?

Like calling your girlfriend by your ex’s name, nomenclature is often the thing that trips patrons up. “Some people,” Kim says, “might come in and say, ‘Hey, can I have a Japanese Scotch?’” With so many different types of whiskey, it’s easy to get terminology confused. So, the basics: Whiskey (or whisky, as it is spelled in Japan and Scotland, where the country’s legendary frugality extends to vowel usage) is an umbrella term that covers spirits made from grain that are fermented and distilled. “Scotch whisky, single malt whisky, Japanese whisky, bourbon, rye. It’s all whiskey.” It has to be bottled at over 40-percent alcohol by volume in the United States and Scotland, Kim explains, but the grain is the thing. “Barley, corn, wheat. There’s a rice whisky in Japan.” The word itself comes from uisce beatha, which means “water of life” in Irish. Stay hydrated, folks, it’s good for the skin.

While Kim almost always drinks her whiskey neat, she allows that it’s acceptable to drink it on the rocks if you’re inclined. “But,” she cautions, “ice shocks the flavor because it lowers the temperature. If you put a lot of ice in there, you can’t really taste anything.” Flavor contracts at cold temperatures, which is why, if you’ve ever slurped the melted remnants of a bowl of ice cream, perhaps you’ve noticed it tastes sweeter and more potent than when you were eating it frozen. It’s also why you’re going to want that Bud Light Lime icy cold—so you won’t really be able to taste it. If your goal is to savor the flavor of a whiskey, it’s better to order it neat. Or, if Kim is drinking cask-strength whiskey, meaning it’s undiluted and therefore has a higher percent of alcohol by volume, she’ll add a drop or two of water, preferably distilled. “What a drop of water does to whiskey is what air does to wine—it opens up more flavor.”

Kim is a consummate hospitality professional who will serve you a Pappy Van Winkle 23 and Mountain Dew Code Red should you order it, but her plea to Playboy’s readers is simple: Respect the whiskey. “Somebody once ordered a Johnny Walker Blue and Coke. I gave it to him separately—a Johnny Walker, a Coke, and ice. I said, ‘…If you want, you can mix it. But please try it by itself, too. Or, you could mix just a little bit.’ Which is a message—like, please don’t mix it.” Another time she fielded an order for an Old Fashioned made with The Macallan 18. “If it’s Macallan 18, I’m not going to mix it with anything. But we made the drink. What can we do? I think we cannot really judge people.” Kim, who is from South Korea, gives an example: ”If I go to an Italian restaurant, the chef might say, ‘Don’t add anything. This is perfect.’ But I want some hot sauce in there, so I’m going to put hot sauce. You can’t tell me not to. So [in] the same way, I don’t want to tell my customers what they should do.”

How can we best appreciate whiskey?

As with wine, smell before you sip. But unlike wine, says Kim, “you cannot put your nose directly into the glass because whiskey is over 40-percent ABV, and it’s going to shock your nose.” In order to get more aromatic notes beyond alcohol, place the glass at the side of your nose and smell with one nostril, mouth slightly open. Then repeat on the other side. Even so, you’ll only get about three good sniffs in before the alcohol numbs your nose.

Kim recommends a three-sip approach to tasting a new whiskey. “When you meet the whiskey for the first time, you have to get to know it.” (Kim often speaks of whiskey in terms that would not be out of place in the office of a couple’s therapist: “It’s like a relationship. The more you get to know about whiskey, the more you’ll enjoy and like it.”) With the first sip, Kim puts a little bit of whiskey under her tongue and allows it to warm to the temperature of her mouth before rolling it to the top of her tongue and swallowing. The second sip, placed on top of the tongue, coats the mouth again and primes it for the third sip, when “you actually can get a lot more taste or flavor out of it” now that you’ve taken the time to get to know one another. In the eternal words of Usher, just take it nice and slow. 

You can count on distinct flavor profiles from certain types of whiskeys. Rye is spicy. Scotches from Islay (pronounced EYE-luh) are especially smoky because the barley is dried using burning peat. And since the island was once under water, the peat—compressed, decomposed vegetation dug from the ground—bears signs of its marine past. Kim describes these notes as “hospital-like—Band-Aids, iodine.” Bourbon tastes of vanilla, butterscotch and caramel because by law it must be aged in charred new American oak. (Contrary to popular belief, bourbon can come from anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky. “But,” Kim warns, “you can’t say that in Kentucky because they will kill you.”) If Kim can leave you with one takeaway, it’s that whatever you taste isn’t wrong. “Everybody finds different flavors, and everybody likes different things. If I say ‘blueberry,’ you can say ‘chicken.’ That’s totally fine.”

For those ready to graduate, is there a really special whiskey that you’re excited about?

Kim is digging Yamazaki Mizunara Cask, a single malt that is aged in barrels made of a rare type of oak that grows only in Japan. “It’s a completely different animal,” says Kim. “It’s spicy, but not rye spicy. The spice is coming from the cask. It tastes like a Japanese temple.”

If someone ordered Yamazaki Mizunara Cask and Diet Coke, would she serve it?

“Separately.”

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