How to Get Into Scotch Whisky, According to an Actual Expert
In a widening ocean of mixologists, Jason Gray prefers to be called a bartender. Not to cast a shadow on the former—he just isn't one. While his libations are often lauded for their balance and luscious drinkability, the Norfolk, England, native refuses to ascribe to a particular style. "My style is chatty," he grins. He is old-fashioned in the sense that he rose to his brand ambassador status (for blended malt Scotch whisky Monkey Shoulder) without joining a single bartending competition ("again, nothing wrong with that," the polite charmer points out), opting to earn his stripes through experience, determination, and a genuine appreciation for the job.
Gray grew up surrounded by pub culture. His first gig as bar keep was in a neighborhood joint called The King's Head, "surrounded by 70-year-old men and serving them flat ales." During a stint at Nottingham University, he again found a job at a bar. "My parents didn't have much, they were farmers who knew the value of hard work," Gray shares. "If I needed money, then I had to make it myself." Here he learned to make classic cocktails and his outgoing personality had him spending more time at work than actually studying.
After deciding that academics weren't his cup of tea, his love for skateboarding took him to Barcelona—"the Mecca of skateboarding"—where he made his hustle behind the bar yet again. A skateboard-related, career-ending injury had Gray standing at a crossroads. While his bum knee had him closing the door at skateboarding forever, bartending is proving to be quite the lucrative earner. "I can be anyone I wanted to be," Gray realized.
With his growing confidence in this skills and at the prodding of his peers, Gray tried his luck in highly competitive London. He admits that "the pay wasn't good," but he absorbed the knowledge he learned there like a sponge. When he finally moved to Asia by way of Australia and Singapore, he had already made quite a name for himself. With projects and consultancy work, plus his responsibilities in spreading the word about Monkey Shoulder, he is very much in a position to give back. Gray supports the community that has been so nurturing towards him by caring for his own. He talks of opening a free gym for bartenders, pointing out the exhausting elands of the job.
Gray is also generous with advice and gives one that applies not just to those who wish to excel in his particular trade. "Leave the nest," he insists. If things do not work out, then you can always return, Gray promises. But, he points out, "I would not have gotten to this point if I had stayed put."
Ask the Expert: How can we love whisky?
Jason Gray will not think less of you if you're not a whisky lover: "To be completely transparent and honest if you do not now LOVE whisky; you aren’t broken or misguided. Nor will you be judged for not having a passion for it. However you may have been looking at it through a time machine telescope. Scotch whisky has changed...in a very BIG way."
He narrates: "In 2005 a man named David Stuart OBE decided it was a good idea to blend together 27 casks from three Speyside Single Malts. This became one of the most prominent Blended Malt Scotch whisky’s on the market. With the backing and stamp of approval from top bartenders across the world Monkey Shoulder has now progressed the Scotch whisky category into a new found golden age where it’s not frowned upon to say that its made for mixing. Since 2005 Monkey Shoulder has progressed on to its next Master Blender, Brian Kinsman and his team of ambassadors who have continued to grow and strengthen the love for Scotch whisky."
These are Jay Gray’s top five ways to love Scotch whisky:
1| Play with your whisky.
Whisky isn’t boring and it isn’t stuffy anymore! Pick up a cocktail book (my preferred method of absorbing information) or go on the Internet and learn how to make a cocktail! Here’s one for those just getting into it:
Lazy Old Fashioned:
Pour into a rocks glass: 60 ml Monkey Shoulder, 1 teaspoon of sugar or sugar syrup, 3 to 4 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Stir over ice 18 times with the teaspoon and enjoy!
Then, pour 60 ml of sugar syrup into the bottle of Monkey Shoulder with 25 dashes of Angostura bitters. Shake it up, put it in the fridge, call your friends over to enjoy with you!
2| Learn about your whisky (from a professional alcoholic).
I always find that the easiest way for me to learn anything about alcohol is from a bartender (as a bartender for 10+ years literally everything I have learnt has been from my peers!). My biggest suggestion is to make friends with the nearest cocktail bartender and simply ask them about their back bar. Bartenders are friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them about their favorite whisky or whisky cocktail.
3| Take your whisky with you.
Don’t be greedy with your whisky! It’s made for sharing so take it with you to your friend's house party and show them how to enjoy it!
4| Make it your own.
Once you’ve learned some classic cocktails and you’ve got some bartender lingo under your belt its now time to be creative. Use your tasting notes from the whisky to create cocktails around it. For Monkey Shoulder, I get orange peel, cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger—that’s a lot of flavors to complement when you think about it!
5| Show the world your whisky.
I’m told the Internet is a pretty big place (Instagram has over eight million users!!!). Now that you love your whisky, why don’t you share it with the world? Show them photos of your favorite bartender, cocktail, or how you like to drink it! I’ll always support your mission to spread the love!