At the start of this year, much like last year, there have been a fair few twitter and blog references to people committing the act of “heelslaying”, and you might find yourself wondering what it is all about – as did I. In 2015 I thought that it was just a fad, but this year it seems to have come back with a vengeance and the meme #heelslayer is appearing more and more, so I’ve set about asking and answering some questions about it…
What is heelslaying?
Well, apparently, when you are down to the final third or so of your whisky bottle then this is called the “heel”. Finishing off this final part of your bottle is then “slaying” that heel. So far, so good…
Apart from being a good way of freeing up your shelves and cabinets, there seems to be some science behind it. If you think about the purpose of the cork in your bottle of whisky for a moment: it is designed to seal the bottle and stop the liquid gold from evaporating away and it also stops things from getting in. HOWEVER, if you start to have more air in the bottle than whisky then it is proposed that the gas content can start to react with the liquid and the whisky can start to deteriorate, losing its alcohol content, characters and flavours. Similarly, the cork can start to break up and air can start to get in, which could cause a little evaporation, or just have some of the cork break up into the liquid itself.
Do I need to panic? Where’s my sword?
The basic rule here is that the more air that is in your whisky bottle, then the more chance that air has to oxidise the whisky. Essentially, you end up with the alcoholic’s equation of “the more I drink = the quicker I need to drink it”. You don’t need to panic just yet though as the process can take a couple of years to take any real, noticeable effect, albeit, that final dram that you’ve been nursing for a while might not last as long as you might think.
Can you prove it?
Over the Christmas period, I returned to the final remaining dram in my bottle of Fettercairn Fasque (the Tesco exclusive release from the Eastern Scottish coast), which is a very sherry-heavy whisky. (Incidentally, its a pretty good dram and has a lot of those festive flavours that usually accompany the season). Given that I bought the bottle in advance of the 2013 season-to-be-jolly, it had been sitting around for a while, so I sat with the final double measure and savoured it and made some notes on it. I then compared these notes to my notes from 2013 (because I can be sad like that) and the two notes were noticeably different, with this year’s notes indicating that it lacked the same punch, depth of flavour and finish, which had been in abundance first time around. This might be due to multiple factors, e.g. what I was eating, what I had drank before (and how much), plus the fact that it was over 2 years ago and my palate may well be different, but there is no denying that, on the face of it, the two taste experiences were different, so for me it started to lend some credence to the above back-of-a-cigarette-packet science.
What can I do – other than the obvious?
Storing your bottles upright is a good start. Unlike wine bottles where the liquid keeps the cork expanded and sealed, whisky can actually eat away at the cork and have it disintegrate into the liquid if kept in contact. This can cause unpleasant flavours to develop, as well as having lumpy whisky. Keeping whisky out of direct sunlight is important too as the sun can react with the whisky. The best place to start for this exercise though is to look through your stash and pick out the older, opened bottles, and weigh up how long they’ve been there and if they might be “on the turn”. Personally, I’ve never kept a bottle for very long (the above probably being the longest), though I do have a tendency to get sentimental towards the end of a bottle’s lifetime and save a little bit for an occasion or proper farewell. What I would hate to experience though is for that much-savoured dram to turn out to be awful, so drinking and enjoying the whisky should come first – in moderation and responsibly of course! – and then seeing the bottle through to the end should be the best way to ensure that it is enjoyed to the final drop. Of course, if it is a great whisky that you enjoy to begin with, then you ought to quickly stock up with a fresh one, hot on the heels of slaying the previous one, so to speak.
Many thanks to the AmateurDrammer for featuring this article on his site, and I would heavily recommend any reader here following him on twitter too – his Desert Island Drams series is a great display of writers’ experiences and top choice tipples.