Tasting whiskey (or whisky) can be fun as hell. First, there’s the excitement of getting to open a nice bottle. Then there’s the fact that you’re learning something new — expanding your knowledge of a great spirit while deepening your own palate. It’s the perfect combination of personal growth paired with semi-drunken revelry.
That said, whiskey tastings can also prove daunting. There’s a lot of terminology and geography involved. It can get pretty granular pretty damn quickly. So we’ve put together a concise beginner’s guide to give you a solid footing. We don’t go into the intense scientific and chemical analyses here. It’s just a foundation so you know what you’re walking into the next time you want to learn while getting buzzed.
Buy A Notebook
This is a crucial component to starting out on the path of a whiskey connoisseur. Writing down what you’ve drunk — what it looked like, how it smelled, how it tasted, and how it finished helps you solidify your olfactory receptors, palate, and sense memory. The way we taste is firmly rooted in nostalgia, but we also build receptors and grow as drinkers with each sip. Keeping a tasting journal offers great assistance in that process. Plus you’ll always have a record to refer back to.
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Don’t use a tumbler or old-fashioned glass. Two reasons — you have to hold those glasses by the body and that means your hands will start to change the temperature of the spirit, and they create too much surface area, allowing oxidization to occur prematurely, and… we’re getting into whiskey geek territory.
Point being: You want to use a small-ish bulbous glass, not unlike a sherry glass in size. The bowl allows for whirling to be a more even process. The narrow top allows a more concentrated stream of whiskey. The glass should always be stemmed. Always hold your whiskey by the stem of the glass, you’ll be twirling and maneuvering a lot before you drink and these are the sort of glasses are built for tasting.
Lastly, if you’re comparing whiskey, you need to use the exact same glasses so that the external factors are unvaried. Each whiskey you’re sampling will have the same access to oxygen and allow you to smell and taste it the exact same way.
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The first information you send to your brain is what you see when you’re tasting whiskey. You’re looking for three factors here: color, clarity, and viscosity.
You’ll want to tip your glass on a 90-degree angle and twist it so that the bowl of the glass is covered in whiskey. This is the first oxygenation of the drink. While you’re doing that, take in the whiskey.
Okay, color. Make sure that whatever you’re drinking hasn’t been adulterated with a coloring agent. Caramel E150 is most popularly used. If it has, then getting fussy over the color is less important. Otherwise, the color will be affected by what sort of cask it was matured in and the age of the whiskey. You’ll usually be told what the whiskey was aged in and you’ll know the date it was barreled when you start the tasting. Write down in your handy notebook what you see. Is more reddish, more amber, more dark brown?
Next, clarity. If you’ve already added a few drops of water, does the whiskey get cloudy? Whiskey that has not been chill-filtered and is below 46 percent alcohol will usually cloud up a little bit. This is not a bad thing. That murkiness is telling you about the whiskey. Spirits above 46 percent that have been chill-filtered tend to be able to better dissolve compounds where aromas and tastes come from. If water hasn’t been added yet, can you see through the whiskey? How much light is coming through?
Lastly, viscosity. Tip your glass back upright and watch the legs fall on the surface of the glass. This is the Marangoni effect — that’s the difference between the alcohol and water surface tension. The more legs and slower they fall, the more alcohol is in the glass. If the legs are really spaced out, that tends to mean the whiskey has spent a long time in the cask. Wide legs mean that the whiskey has more fatty acids present, meaning it hasn’t been fussed with too much.
Once you’re done looking at it and taking your notes, let the whiskey sit in the glass for a minute or two. You want all those aromas to bloom in the glass after the whirl you gave it.
Orthonasal olfaction is a wondrous sense (as nerdy as that sounds). Our sense of smell is all about the chemicals coming into our heads. We are sensing compounds and our brain is computing that information from memories or cues being given to us.
There are about ten more steps for tasting a whiskey from this point on. We’re not going to cover them all because we love whiskey and don’t want to make it more convoluted than it needs to be. So let’s just look at what’s vital.
First, you want to put the glass up to your nose and just breathe normally. This is your introduction to the aromas. Next, tip the glass on its side again and smell the glass from top to bottom. Higher on the glass (further away from its contents), you should pick up florals, fruits, and wine. The middle of the glass should highlight malts, spices, and woods. And the bottom of the glass (where the whiskey is) should have hints of smoke, earth, and alcohol.
Place your glass back upright. This motion will be enough oxygenation to release more aromas. What you want to do now is figure out which nostril is open and which is closed (our nostrils run on two to three hour cycles where the more open one will take on up to 80 percent of the smelling work). Once you figured out which nostril is doing all the work, give the whiskey a nice big sniff with that one nostril. By doing this you’re allowing the largest amount of aromatic molecules to be sent to your brain for processing. Smell quickly, smell slowly, and really take in the aromas.
What do you smell? Use the notes we mentioned above as your guide — floral, fruit, wine, malt, spice, wood, smoke, and earth. Say what you smell out loud. This externalizes what you’re tasting so that those chemical aromatic molecules are more easily recognized in your brain the next time you taste. Also, write down in your notebook what you’ve smelled.
The fun part has arrived! Before you taste, take a sip of very soft water. The low mineral water will help lower the acidity in your mouth and balance its pH making for a more neutral environment for the whiskey’s aromas and flavors to shine through.
Now you drink. Retronasal olfaction means molecules wash over chemical receptors on your tongue creating tastes. You want to gently move the whiskey around your mouth to evenly coat it for a full taste.
Don’t be shy about what you’re tasting — say it out loud. You can’t really be wrong here because your palate is yours and developed over a lifetime of grandpa’s muddy coffee and mom’s spaghetti dinners. Listen to what others are saying they taste, do you taste it too? If not, no worries. What you’re looking for are specifics in a broad spectrum of major chemical reactions known as tastes — sweet, savory, sour, bitter, umami, metallic, mineral, fat, spice, wood, ash.
Just remember that your palate isn’t wrong. One person may taste currants while another might taste that as huckleberries, simply because one person was raised in Sweden and the other person was raised in Oregon. They’re both perfectly correct.
Now, how does it taste at the back of throat? Is there a burn from the alcohol? The more delicate the spirit the more flavors will reveal themselves. Sometimes, up to a minute or two later, you’ll get a sense of oak or summer cherries. Sometimes you’ll get nothing more than the burn of the alcohol.
Adding a few drops of water is crucial to tasting great drams. The reason we saved this for the end is that you should really give the whiskey a try first to get a foundation for what you’re drinking.
Always use a room temperature water (or one that’s the same temperature as your whiskey). The water should be very soft as you don’t want too many minerals cutting the whiskey. Lastly, use a pipette to add a few drops. You’re not mixing a drink here. You’re using small amounts of water to open up the spirit.
Once you’ve added a dash of water, repeat the tasting steps. New aromas will immediately be present on the nose and you’ll find new accents in the taste and finish. One of the bigger factors is the alcohol content. If the whiskey has a higher proof (think ryes), water will help dilute the alcohol allowing the finer points of the whiskey to shine through. Sometimes this is achieved with a few mere drops, sometimes you need a little more (but never more than a water bottle cap full).
Either way, enjoy the whiskey as you taste it because that’s all that matters at the end of the day. Literally, that’s all that matters. Let’s have some fun!