Whisky Business: A Q&A with Gabe Cardarella

Whisky expert Gabe Cardarella gives us a crash course in all things whisky (including why you should give blended whisky a chance).

How did you get into whisky initially? 

Like everyone else, I’m sure my first experience with whisky was “here son, try this”, which was shortly followed by a vow to never drink whisky again. Then in college revisiting the likes of bourbon, or anything with Coke that was under seven dollars. My appreciation for whisky began to set in as not only my approach to whisky matured, but so did my palate. I soon was able to discern different nuances, flavours, mouth feel, which intrigued me to discover more about whisky.

Eventually, I found myself representing a large American whisky company in California, and after having visited a number of distilleries I began to realize that an ambassador’s job was not only to know the intrinsic for whisky production but also as a raconteur – sharing the unique stories of the whisky in which one would represent.

Gabe Carderella

I’m lucky to work for Dewar’s, because when I talk about our whiskies everything I say is true. I get to share a great story over amazing whisky. That’s what makes a good whisky a great one, and representing a product I’m truly passionate about allows me to be the best ambassador I can be.

Can you explain the difference between single malt and blended scotch whisky?

Simply put, single malt whisky is the product of a single distillery, whereas blended whisky is the product of multiple distilleries. For example, all the liquid you try in a bottle of Aberfeldy 12yr is from one single set of stills in Scotland, whereas with Dewar’s 12yr it's from up to 40 distilleries. There are a lot of folks that look at single malt as superior to blends, but there are two points to make here:

Single malt whisky IS blended whisky. Blending is the very difficult job of a master blender who is responsible for layering whiskies from different casks to ensure that the whisky is consistent in character. So, when you try a bottle of Craigellachie 13yr in Toronto, it tastes exactly the same as it would in California. There’s no recipe, just the nose of a very talented master blender who’s blending together multiple casks from a single distillery.

I would argue that blended whisky is more complex; that’s the point! Don’t shy away from a blend over a single malt, your palate will be disappointed.

What does the age of scotch mean? Is an 18-year-old scotch always better than a 12-year-old scotch?

All scotch must be aged for a minimum of three years, and if it has an age statement on the bottle, that age must mark the youngest liquid in the bottle, but, as I mentioned above, like single malt vs. blends, age is not always a reflection of quality.

Don’t shy away from a blend over a single malt, your palate will be disappointed.

Around 70 percent of whisky's character is from maturation in oak casks, but the amount of time you lay the whisky to rest in oak varies from distillery to distillery. Scotland’s weather is incredibly ideal for ageing whisky (not for sunbathing), which is why the country has its own name for its whisky (scotch). Its weather is consistently cold damp - “dreich” as they put it. But that weather allows the casks, which act as lungs, to consistently breathe over time. This allows the cask to draw out flavours from the oak without drawing too much oakiness. Age a whisky too long and the oak character will dominate it.

While old whiskies are hard to find, they’re not always better than its younger counterpart, but they are nice trophies on the back bar. The thing to remember is it’s about maturity, not age. Whiskies are bottled at various ages to showcase what a blender or distillery is capable of - all of them have their own personality.

What do you look for in a good whisky?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad whisky, just some are better than others.

When I taste a whisky for the first time, I like to discover what the distiller is trying to tell me, or rather "nerd out" on the whisky. First, I look at the colour which indicates the type of oak it's been aged in, gold for American (primarily bourbon) and amber for sherry (American/Spanish). These colours indicate flavours and aromas you may expect, such as coconut and vanilla with American oak casks and with sherry casks, flavors and aromas such as opulent spices, raisins and sultanas.

While tasting and nosing is very personal, this prepares your sense of smell and palate to be on the lookout for certain aromas. I’ll swirl the glass of whisky to have a look at the tears. Thin tears indicate a lighter whisky, and thick tears would indicate perhaps older and more full-bodied whisky. After nosing the whisky, I’ll revisit what type of wood and what bouquet of aromas I detect then. After tasting, I’ll add water and repeat the process.

Awfully nerdy, but it allows me to decide how I like to enjoy that particular whisky. Is it with no water, one drop, two, or maybe even an ice cube? Every whisky is different, but again, all great. That’s the fun part. Discovering the whisky and the way you like to enjoy it.

The thing to remember is it’s about maturity, not age.

Which whiskies would you recommend to someone starting out?

The great thing about Dewar's portfolio is that they are all incredibly approachable, meaning you’re safe with us. Folks often think of scotch as having a level of smokiness that may be too aggressive for them, which is fair, some whisky is very smoky. However, our whiskies are well rounded and sweet. Apples, oranges, honey, oak, vanilla. All flavors that bridge the gap from sweet whiskies from North America. I’d recommend starting with Dewar’s 12yr. This whisky impresses bourbon drinkers all the way to those snobby “I don’t drink blended whisky” friends of yours.

How do you recommend drinking whisky? With ice? With water?

Approach is personal. Water will allow the softer character to reveal itself, whereas ice will chill the whisky and make it more refreshing. I love Dewar’s 12yr with a healthy amount of ice actually. Its Double-Ageing process allows it to stand up to dilution without losing its character, but makes it a refreshing take on scotch, perfect for when I’m home in Miami.

All over the world, I see folks enjoying scotch in exciting ways. In China with green tea on the rocks, or one of my personal favourites – Dewar’s 12yr with coconut water.