A collegiate pastime introduced Sam Simmons to the world of whisky. “I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2002 [to work on a doctoral dissertation],” he says, and like a good Canadian, I joined a hockey team and a drinking team.” While the former endeavor was short-lived (he accidentally signed up for a women’s field hockey team), Sam eventually became President of the drinking team, actually a whisky appreciation club called The Water of Life Society, as well as a tour guide for the local distilleries. Since his scholarly days in Edinburgh, this “good Canadian” has gone on to become somewhat of a whisky maven, serving as a spirits judge in both the World Whisky Awards and the International Wine and Spirits Competition as well as the first UK Ambassador for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. He’s currently the East Coast brand ambassador for the single malt Scotch whisky distillery Balvenie as well as the man behind the blog, Dr. Whisky, the recipient of a 2007 Peoples’ Choice Drammie—an award distributed by the Scotch Blog for overall excellence in the whisky industry.
Wine Enthusiast caught up with Sam at a NYC dinner in honor of Balvenie’s recently released Madeira Cask 17 Year Old, a limited edition single malt finished in Madeira casks. Below, the doctor discusses sipping etiquette, whiskey vs. whisky and all-time favorite drams.
What’s your favorite bottling from the Balvenie brand? What’s your favorite whisky of all-time?
Of the 17 Year Olds? Probably the Islay Cask [which is aged in traditional oak casks]. Unfortunately, as it is extremely hard to find anymore.
Of all whiskies? Believe it or not, I do still most often reach for The Balvenie 12 Year Old Double Wood, as I have since beginning my whisky journey 7 years ago. But if I could, I would keep Glenfarclas 25 Year Old, an old Clynelish, or the incredible Glenfiddich 30 Year Old around for daily dramming.
Tell us a little bit about Balvenie’s recently released Madeira Cask.
Madeira wine has a long local tradition (in Madeira) with only a few remaining family-owned Madeira makers. Also, Madeira can mature to a great age while remaining vibrant and wonderfully drinkable. These elements spoke to David Stewart (Balvenie’s head distiller) in that they parallel key features of the Balvenie line: the family ownership, the traditional production methods and the concept of aging so integral to the creation of quality single malt Scotch whisky.
This year’s 17 Year Old Madeira Cask is fresh, energetic, and even youthful on the nose, and I find the real magic of the dram occurs a few seconds after swallowing when a rich, toasty, nutty, burnt sugar kind of flavour emerges.
What’s the most whiskies you’ve ever tasted in one sitting?
Until recently, my longest tasting was when I judged 68 whiskies at the World Whisky Awards in London last year. I was dead afterwards. And I had been spitting (more on that in a sec).
Very recently, David invited me to nose and taste through 105 different samples with him in his lab. That is the new record for me. This was not easy work. . .And we had only a morning to get through them. . . And an afternoon of 30 whiskies with Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay (The Dalmore, Isle of Jura) later that afternoon!
Is it considered bad form to spit during these tastings?
Spitting is absolutely necessary when tasting for both protecting your body and your sobriety. Nonetheless, I do tend to swallow at least a bit of each sample in judging, tend to only have one at the most when presenting, and if attending a 4-6 dram tasting like the ones I conduct across the country I swallow every delicious drop
You recently hosted a whisky pairings dinner at Eleven Madison Park in honor of the release of Balvenie’s 17 Year Old Madeira Cask. Do you have any recommended whisky-and-food pairings?
As with cocktailing, whisky can be used brilliantly or terribly. Fundamentally, fat rich foods work best in my experience: from cashews and cheese to pork belly and monkfish.
You host whisky history and distillery tours throughout England and Scotland. What was one of the best trips you’ve led?
In 2005 I led a group up to the Northern Highlands and I will never forget it, even the parts I can’t remember. We spent our nights in a castle at Carbisdale and our days visiting the ruins of the cairns and crofts of Caithness, witnessing the tragic traces of the Highland Clearances at Badbea and Croick Church, climbing Ben Bhraggie and showing our “respect” to a statue of the Duke of Sutherland (he was not a nice man), and visiting the whisky distilleries both silenced and still producing. The trip had an impact on all of us and left us with a greater understanding Scotland as the spiritual heart of Scotch whisky.
When should one (if ever) drink whiskey over whisky? What are some of your favorite whiskey brands?
While I find the variability available in Scotch whisky much greater that in American, I do still find myself reaching for a Maker’s Mark, or a Four Roses Single Barrel, or even a George T. Stagg if I need a slap in the mouth. But I think there is great potential for variability in American whiskey without the constraints of the Scotch Whisky Association. McCarthy’s out in Oregon is producing some very interesting stuff, as is Rick at Copper Fox and the people at Tuthilltown in New York. So the best is yet to come, I think.