Whiskey is an extraordinarily complex beverage. Actually, it’s much more of a classy, sophisticated art form that takes some practice to appreciate. Luckily, each and every one of us has the tools to be a connoisseur. All we need is our eyes, nose, and tongues. And we don’t have to be experts to enjoy all that whiskey has to offer. Some purists will say there are definitive ways and rules for tasting whiskey, and they may be right, but in general a few helpful tips will allow you to get more from the golden-brown elixir.
Whiskey is a bold drink. A strong drink. As stated before, it can take some time and practice to develop your palate to fully appreciate all the subtle complexities from the whiskey, so be sure have some patience before giving up or saying it’s too strong. It’s similar to wine tasting, but the alcohol content is so much higher that you need several tasting sessions to get past the burn of the alcohol to be able to recognize more hidden and intricate notes. Once you do, your olfactory system (the parts of your nose and mouth and brain that create your sense of smell) will reward you with nostalgic and sensory pleasure that you are sure to thoroughly enjoy and remember.
Whiskey, from Scotch to Bourbon to the many other types in between, enables you to relish both the past and the present simultaneously, and for that reason we should all give it a chance. Now on to a few tips to help you reach that state of whiskey euphoria.
The first and most important piece of advice is to let the scents and tastes come to you. Each of us experience flavors and aromas based on our own pasts and chemical makeups. Whiskey will not taste exactly the same for any two people. So, it is of vital importance to not let others’ opinions affect yours. And it is also just as important to let the flavors come to you rather than search for certain details.
As stated before, the olfactory system is nostalgic and complex, so certain smells and tastes will remind each of us of specific things in our lives. And that is part of the beauty of whiskey. It is so unique and complex that each person that tastes it will have a personal experience. The other tip is to write your notes and experiences down so that you can remember that whiskey later. This is not totally necessary but if you are trying to be an aficionado, it helps.
Many people do not realize that the shape and design of glass from which you taste the whiskey has a fairly significant effect. Most people are used to seeing whiskey served in tumblers, low glasses with wide openings at the top. But these are not the way to best taste whiskey. You want a tulip shaped glass, like a wine glass, with a narrow opening and some sort of stem on the bottom. This allows the aromas to stay within the glass and the stem allows the drinker to grip and swirl the drink more easily without imparting extra heat from your hands onto the drink. The most common proper whiskey tasting glass around is the snifter, as it provides everything you need to get the most out of your delicious drink. So be sure to use one of these or something very similar.
To Water or Not to Water?
There is some controversy between whiskey purists as to whether or not you should add a little water to your whiskey. And the answer is actually simple, it’s up to you and your preferences. If you want to taste the purest form of the whiskey you pour, you always want to taste first without any water.
After that, you can add a few drops of clean, room temperature water to release extra aromas and open up your whiskey. All experts recognize that water opens up the whiskey by releasing or masking new tastes or scents, so it is not sacrilegious to add a little water to your whiskey. You should just make sure to try and taste the whiskey first before you add water, and always taste with or without water at room temperature as ice can really change or hide the flavor profiles of the whiskey.
Step 1: Pour the Whiskey
Quite obviously, to taste the whiskey you must pour some in your snifter. You only need about an ounce to taste the whiskey at first. After the initial tasting and appreciation, you can pour more or add more water while you drink your beverage after a long day.
Step 2: Swirl and Observe the Whiskey
After you pour it, you want to swirl the whiskey around the glass and then let it sit. All whiskey has been in a cask or barrel and then a bottle for such a long time, swirling it releases many aromas and showcases the full complexity of the drink. After you swirl it you want to let it sit for several seconds as well. This is very important as it concentrates the aromas for you to smell. But before you do that, you want to look at it.
The first sense you will use when experiencing whiskey is your sight. What color is it? Is it a deep brown or more of a golden color? Is it cloudy or more clear? How viscous is it (meaning do the legs run faster or slower)? These can all tell you things about the whiskey. A darker whiskey could have been aged longer or can have more artificial coloring added into it. A cloudier whiskey means it wasn’t filtered. A slower running whiskey means a higher alcohol content. Now, none of these should affect your taste, just maybe your recognition of how each whiskey even looks different from the next.
Step 3: The Nose
This is the part where your senses really take over. Smelling the whiskey is how you truly begin to experience the drink. After all, the tongue just reminds our brain of what the nose already told us. After your whiskey has settled in the glass, it’s time to begin sniffing the snifter. You want to hold the glass almost parallel to the ground up to your nose. Don’t bury your nose in the glass as the whiskey has such a strong alcohol content that will be the only thing you pick up. And that still may be the only thing you smell at first. Don’t worry, your nose will adjust and you’ll begin to pick up many, many more scents the more you smell and the more experienced you are at tasting whiskey.
You’ll want to inhale several times, at varied paces, from different parts of the glass. As stated before, whiskey is so complex, as is your olfactory system, doing all these varied sniffs will enable your brain to pick up different aromas. Some molecules are harder or easier to detect depending on how hard you inhale. Many of the heavier, more oaky or barrel scents reside in the bottom of the glass towards the liquid. Most of the lighter, more volatile scents like floral or spicy or malty aromas hover near the top of the glass. So, try to smell the whiskey five or six times to really allow your nose to work. And remember, do not search for certain aromas.
Our sense of smell is possibly the most powerful way our brain recalls or relates to memories, so let the scents come to you. Your brain will recognize them and the whiskey’s unique complexity will reveal itself to only you in that moment. Inhale and enjoy!
Step 4: The Palate
The final step, after all these fancy instructions, is to do what you wanted to in the first place. Take a drink. Or more precisely, take a very small sip of the whiskey. Let it roll around in your mouth a little. Let it touch all parts of your tongue from front to back. Now that we’re getting a little inappropriate, let it massage the inside of your mouth for several seconds. This may burn somewhat or you may only taste alcohol, and that’s totally normal. But the next several tastes will reveal many more flavors.
When you’re done lightly swishing, swallow the whiskey as you exhale and you’ll feel that little burn it always gives. After that is very important, and it’s called the finish. Try to taste and recognize the very distinct flavors it leaves behind on your palate. You will get better at this with some practice. Many experts believe the finish is what sets whiskey apart from all other alcohols. This is the part where you can really taste the delicate intricacies of the drink. Taste your ounce or so with several sips, trying to recognize and savor something different with each sip. The whiskey will tell you a story, specific to your chemistry and past, and it’s powerful and beautiful. So, take your time and savor your brilliant libation.
Scotch or Bourbon?
There are many types of whiskey, or whisky, out there. They are all alcoholic beverages made from fermented grain mash and usually stored in wooden barrels. This gives the drink its distinct brown color. The two most recognized variations worldwide are Scotch and Bourbon. Scotch whisky, spelled without the e, is made in Scotland with mostly malted barley. It typically has a woody, fiery, somewhat leathery taste with a little extra burn on the back end. Bourbon whiskey, spelled with the e, started in Kentucky and is made with mainly corn mash. It has a sweeter and more smoky flavor than Scotch.
There are also many other whiskey variations like rye, Irish, Tennessee, Canadian, and Japanese, among others. The only thing you can do to discover the difference is to try them all! And we highly recommend that…
Whiskey is an exceptional invention. A finely crafted achievement of mankind that is worthy of the finest and greatest appreciation. It punches you in the palate and then uses your senses to transport you into the most exquisite state of nostalgic bliss. Its powers should be enjoyed by all. And this article hopefully helps you to appreciate it that much more. Remember to take your time when tasting whiskey, let the aromas and tastes come to you, and give all types of whiskey a shot. So, go sit down and have a snifter, and enjoy its complexities thoroughly!