Proud Glasgow native Dave Broom takes his favourite beverage seriously. But the author of The World Atlas of Whisky and regular contributor to several whisky magazines rarely takes his distilled grain neat. Usually he adds a splash of water. Other times he mixes it up in a cocktail, as he did (repeatedly) for his latest book, Whisky: The Manual.
Among other things, he sampled 102 widely available brands in combination with a variety of mixes: club soda, ginger ale, cola, coconut water (big in Brazil) and lightly sweetened green tea (huge in Asia). The verdicts, often surprising, are helpfully presented with a 0-to-5 scoring system. Recently relocated to southern England from Scotland, Broom spoke with The Globe about rescuing a wonderfully versatile spirit from the clutches of neat-or-nothing single-malt bores.
You encourage readers to play with whiskies, including pricey single malts. Is there not a prison in Scotland reserved for people who would mix, say, Lagavulin with Coke, as you did for the book?
That's the reason I live in England. (Laughs.) To me, Lagavulin with Coke was a surprise. I tried Coke with Ardbeg and it didn't work. With Laphroaig – it didn't work. Lagavulin is just a great mix. I'm not imposing a new set of rules saying that every time you have a Lagavulin you have to have it with Coke. What I'm saying is that here's an opportunity to widen the experience.
Most Scotch fans of my acquaintance view blended brands, such as Famous Grouse and Grant's, as inferior to the single malts that are used, along with non-barley "grain" whiskies, to craft those high-volume products. But you vehemently disagree.
Absolutely. The reason that there are – what? – 115 distilleries in Scotland now is because of blended Scotch. Blended Scotch made Scotch a global category. Examine the logic of that. If single malts are so wonderful and complex and grain whisky also has a flavour to it, when you combine all these varying degrees of complexity to make a blended whisky, why would it diminish them? Would it not enhance them?
You make a vigorous case for enjoying whisky with a splash of water versus neat. It seems to be the only rule you insist on.
There are some whiskies which are best maybe with a large lump of slowly melting ice or some which work really well neat. But the majority will need a drop of water. Appreciating it is about pleasure, not pain. People take a drink of whisky and it's a bit like scenes in cowboy movies where somebody asks for a shot of red eye and they grimace. The guys who made the whisky don't want people grimacing. To calm down the alcohol, to stop the burn, to allow the whisky to spread across your tongue, add a drop of water. Don't be scared.
Of 102 brands featured in your book, 10 are Canadian. That's impressive given the passé reputation Canadian whisky has been trying to overcome. Has Canada bounced back?
I'm a big fan, and I think your distillers have been way too modest about the quality of Canadian whiskies. You can have them on their own or with ice. They're great with ginger ale. Some are fantastic with coconut water, not always great with soda. At the same time, there is a really excellent top end developing. The world is thirsty for them.
Dark Horse from Alberta Distillers is just fantastic rye, as is Lot 40 from Hiram Walker. I'm a big fan of Canadian Club. I think John Hall's Forty Creek, the whole range, is impeccably made. I'm a big fan of Wiser's as well, and Danfield's from Black Velvet in Alberta. Apologies to those I haven't mentioned. And there's a beautiful rye from Collingwood that came out last year.
You found that Canadian whiskies seem to perform well generally with coconut water, the big mix in Brazil. Seagram's VO was especially surprising. Should I be rescuing that dusty VO bottle from my father's 1960s-era bar?
I was thinking that this might be one of those brands for which there isn't any hope, and I put it with coconut water and it was just, "Oh, my God, what's happened? This is incredible. It's transformed." I would show it to friends and everybody had the same reaction. The only thing about coconut water is that you have to have it cold because warm coconut water ends up tasting like miso soup.
I love Scotch with green tea. Tell me why the marriage works.
You've got to get the right level of sweetness in the tea. It can be too sweet or too dry. Chinese green tea – as opposed to Japanese, which can be too vegetal – has occasionally got jasmine in it. You'll get floral notes. You'll get a lot of soft fruits coming through in oolong teas as well. It just responds really nicely in this case. And they complement the spices in the whisky. Dewar's 12 Year Old, for example, is just a fantastic mix.
I was surprised you were lukewarm about Jack Daniel's with cola. "Jack 'n' Coke" is pretty much the official highball of American trailer parks and football tailgate parties.
Not for me. I think Jack with ginger ale is a lovely, lovely drink. I think it works better. To me it doesn't work as well with Coke.
Was there one combination you tried for Whisky: The Manual that really stood out, either because it was sublime or intolerably bad?
At this point I would normally say Lagavulin and Coke but I've already mentioned that one – the combination of the iconic smoky whisky from the Scottish island of Islay and sweet cola. I think Bowmore 12 Year Old and coconut water took me by surprise in a great way. It had this kind of samba on a beach in Islay going on.
We're seeing a surge in whisky cocktails. Are there classics – beyond the manhattan and sour and julep – that deserve wider recognition?
Scotch-wise, the Blood & Sand is a phenomenally good drink, which I cover in the book. That's an absolute beauty. The Sazerac, obviously. There's another one that I hadn't heard of that I came across in a bar in Tokyo called the Hunter, which is so easy. It's two parts bourbon to one part cherry brandy and a dash of Angostura bitters. And you think, "Well, that's going to be weird," and it's just a great drink. I'm a huge gin drinker as well, and one of my favourite cocktails is the Negroni, but replacing gin with rye whisky or indeed smoky Scotch can make a Boulevardier. It's a serious drink, but, boy, is it good.
This interview has been condensed and edited.