Here’s to trying new things – like whisky-tastings!

“Take your time with it. Don’t sip just yet – swirl, let it breathe, then take a sniff.”

That’s the first piece of advice I got when learning to taste whisky at Prairie 360.

I’m a newbie when it comes to whisky – I usually pick a glass of wine or a cocktail when I’m out with girlfriends. But the Winnipeg Whisky Festival’s second year is coming up this week, and before it starts I decided it was time to learn how to enjoy it.

And what better place than the city’s brand-new whisky lounge at Prairie 360, hosts of two of the festival events? When I confessed just what a novice I was, the team there was good enough to sit me down at the bar and teach me a few things!

I’m glad I had their expertise, because there are over 170 varieties on their menu – whisky, I discovered, has scents and flavours that are just as complex as wine. To help out, the menu is handily divided into sections like “Fruity & Spicy,” “Malty & Dry,” “Smoky & Peaty” and more.

When I described what I liked – lighter tastes, nothing too overpowering – they picked a Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve from right here in Canada for me.

My whisky sample - check out the glass shape!
My whisky sample – check out that glass shape!

First lesson – did I want it on the rocks (with ice) or neat? Ordering with ice is fine, but I learned you want to avoid little pieces – they melt quickly, and dilute your drink. Prairie 360 only serves with large cubes, but some people think serving it neat (no ice) is even better for flavour, so that’s what I went with. A lovely tulip-shaped glass of golden liquid arrived – and here’s their tips on how to get the most out of it:

Step one:

Swirl. This opens it up, releasing more of the bouquet and flavours. Bonus – makes you feel like a Bond villain.

Step two:

Take a whiff from a few inches away – right away I could pick up an incredible vanilla aroma on mine. 

Step three:

Sniff again, from closer this time – you’ll get a different layer of scents. Beneath the vanilla, I started to pick up a deeper, richer oak scent.

Step four:

Your first taste – take a tiny sip, so tiny you can’t even swallow it, and swirl it in your mouth. This was a revelation for me – instead of tossing it back quickly, which left me thinking the taste of scotch was burning, it got my tongue used to the drink and real flavours like the vanilla I’d smelled started to appear.

Step five:

Now you can – slowly – sip away!

After I finished tasting it, I was hooked – Prairie 360 is hosting a Festival event focusing on whisky cocktails, so I decided to give one of them a try too. I went with something old school – the Stone Fence, a drink that apparently comes from a 1862 recipe! It blends bourbon, which I learned is one of the more approachable whiskeys, with cider, sweetened ginger juice and lemon. YUM. If you’re not quite ready for straight whiskey, I highly recommend giving a cocktail a go – the ingredients pull out the unique flavours of each whisky and give some extra sweet and sour flavours to balance out the strength. It’s not all recipes from the 1800s either – the menu has new concoctions from their own bartender with local flavour names like Winnie the Pooh, Golden Boy, and Fort Garry.

The Stone Fence, complete with candied ginger on top.
The Stone Fence, complete with candied ginger on top.

TheWinnipeg Whisky Festival is February 21st at the Fairmont Winnipeg – you can buy tickets online here. There are also a great list of smaller pre-events as well – including:

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