“It can take many visits with a whisky before knowing if it’s awesome or a mess. Other times, you know instantly.”
Those are the no-nonsense words of Jared Himstedt, a no-nonsense sorta dude. Himstedt is the co-founder and head distiller of Texas’ Balcones Distillery, in Waco. He spends his days distilling and tasting some of the most unique expressions of American single malt, bourbon, rye, and specialty whiskeys in America. Yes, he knows exactly how enviable that gig sounds.
When I met Himstedt for the first time, he was perched on a high stool in a tasting room, surrounded by thousands of tasters of his own whisky, drawn from every single barrel in the Balcones warehouse. His scraggly beard, long black hair, black jeans and t-shirt combo, and the knife on his belt spoke to something both punk and Texas. His nose was deep in a glass. Lines furrowed in his forehead as he contemplated the brown elixir before him.
“For me, I know when I’ve found a truly spectacular whisky when my mind doesn’t immediately go into dissecting it,” he said during that first meeting. “When my first thought is that it’s badass, rather than picking it apart into its notes and narrative, then I know this dram is onto something.”
After befriending and learning from Himstedt, plus years bartending at Berlin’s world-famous Victoria Bar, and a dozen distillery visits from Scotland to Kentucky, I’ve realized that recognizing good whiskey is a skill just like carpentry or writing — one you can develop and build upon with experience. It’s also, above all things, fun. Because even if your palate is as nuanced as Himstedt’s, it’s wasted if you’re not enjoying yourself.
Let’s dive into how to taste whiskey like a pro.