From the editors

Whisky doesn’t need to be intimidating

  • It’s only 7.30am and yet this intense, dark liquid has cast a spell over me, its aroma of juicy, tropical fruits set against a subtle smokiness inviting my mouth to water. Juicy and slightly oily, with a hint of caramel and stone fruits, it’s the perfect antidote to an early start. Elegant yet bold, it’s a real enlivener… though that may have something to do with the caffeine.

    I’ve been a tea devotee all my life but this was my eureka moment. The morning I unexpectedly tumbled down the coffee rabbit hole. Not into just any coffee warren either – this one led to a wonderland of filters and brews, a realm of infinite flavour combinations.

    Until recently, filter coffee has had an infamously insipid reputation in the UK. I blame the movies. And McDonald’s. In fact, any chain of 1990s fast-service restaurants that served lukewarm pots of pathetic, anaemic liquid resembling pond water in polystyrene cups. It’s a reputation that, in part, propelled the rapid popularity of espresso. Like many others, I was stuck in the habitual routine of ordering my same old coffee – a black Americano, blissfully ignorant of coffee’s more intricate flavours and aromas I’d been missing out on.

    Finding flavour: Filtration accentuates more intricate coffee aromas and flavours than espresso

    It began in Brighton, at the Flour Pot café in the North Laine, and is all thanks to a passionate barista (they only exist in the local, independent establishments, where training is usually free, incidentally) who persuaded me to swap my usual for a chance on filter. ‘It’s got more flavour, it’s cheaper, and is served in a bigger mug.’ Always one for a bargain, I was sold.

    The coffee was delicious – bold, citrusy and oilier than my usual Americano. However the epiphany arrived a few weeks later with an early London meeting at Ozone in Shoreditch. The roaster is a New Zealand export, where coffee culture is taken as seriously as rugby or cricket, and the sentiment is just as strong in Ozone’s always-lively London outpost.

    I’m keen to continue my newfound interest in filter coffee, so ask the waitress if they serve any. Her face lights up. She hands me a menu. ‘These are all the filter coffee options we have on today’.

    Brew Bar: For novices, Ozone’s filter coffee options can seem overwhelming

    ‘Umm…’ I look at her blank-faced as the panic sets in. ‘What’s V60?’ Filter coffee just got complicated.

    The café is buzzing. A queue is forming out of the door. The pressure to swiftly select an option from a menu that may as well be written in Greek is overwhelming. I’m tempted to quit while I’m ahead and revert to the safety of my usual. Yet the waitress smiles warmly, and patiently explains. V60, Aeropress, Syphon… all different types of equipment used to brew filter coffees, each extracting different qualities from the grind. Each coffee option is single estate, the three today hailing from Rwanda or Bolivia. If you’re still not sure, here are some flavour cues to help you decide.

    Feeling the heat, I hastily opt for the ‘Batch Filter’ of the day, which I’m informed is Bolivia La Llama. Peach, orange juice, caramel. Fine. This is way too complicated for me; I’m clearly out of my depth, and in the midst of trendy Shoreditch, far too intimidated for my liking. I can see now why people stick to their regular cappuccino. And yet… The friendly waitress returns with my coffee – a good-sized mug – and a piece of card. ‘Enjoy,’ she says. ‘Any questions, let me know.’

    And here it is. The epiphany. In this one card, all my anxiety about how scary and complex the rabbit hole might be, has faded into excitement. Here is a full explanation of what’s in my mug, something to peruse and absorb while I enjoy my coffee.

    The location of the farm where the coffee is grown is laid out clearly, pinpointed on a wee map of Bolivia. I know nothing about coffee varieties or processing, but I discover that this coffee is a Yellow Caturra variety, it has been grown at an altitude of 1650masl (meters above sea level), harvested in July 2018 and has been washed. As a complete newb, none of that means anything to me. But the coffee is delicious, and just as described in the tasting notes, it’s fruity, juicy and beautifully smooth.

    Brewing enthusiasm: Ozone’s simple information cards help patrons explore the world of coffee

    I feel grateful for that card. Without it I would have been lost in a sea of jargon, my filter coffee journey halted. This is a speciality coffee roaster, and yet Ozone makes the effort to break down the complexities of coffee for every patron, even novices like myself. Why are speciality bars not doing this with whisky?

    It is just as intimidating, arguably even more so, with scientific terms and production processes creating a perceivably insurmountable barrier for beginners.

    Visit a bar serving any manner of whisky selection and you’ll likely be handed a tome listing every bottle available, usually arranged by region. It’s easy for the well-versed to navigate, but what does region, or age, matter to a newcomer? If my first filter coffee experience was tantamount to ordering a Monkey Shoulder in my local pub – intriguing, simple, no fuss – furthering my whisky journey by visiting a speciality joint where options are limitless, jargon-filled and ill-explained would have been frankly scary, overwhelming and discouraging.

    A simple note, clearly detailing the whisky’s key aromas and flavours, the distillery’s location, and a few facts about how it’s made – cask type, peated or not, single malt or blend – could spell the difference between being blindly overwhelmed and tentatively intrigued. Accompany that information with warm, patient and enthusiastic service, and chances are even the most novice of drinkers will be started on their own journey of whisky discovery.

    A little information can be so empowering. As I sipped my La Llama I felt a sense of attachment to that small farm in Bolivia, gratitude for its beans, and enthusiasm to explore the coffee rabbit hole further. Imagine what a little information could do for whisky.

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