How to Taste Whiskey – Pt. 1

It’s probably the height of arrogance for me to write a post about how one should taste whiskey. There are loads of people out there who have already covered this base, and they are far more knowledgeable on the subject. For me, whiskey is first and foremost about stories and anecdotes. The tasting of the alcohol is simply the fuel that allows the stories to flow more freely (oo.. how poetic! I’ll have to remember that bit).

But, for the sake of those out there who have never thought about “tasting” whiskey, it’s good to put this information out there. And since I will be posting various tastings on this here site, it’s a good idea to give you all the process I will be using.

First and foremost, let’s get one thing out of the way. There’s a huge chasm between the idea of tasting whiskey and the idea of enjoying whiskey. One activity does not necessarily have to include the other. If you enjoy making cocktails out of the various whiskeys available on the market, then have at it. But it’s impossible to get a clear taste of whiskey once you adulterate it with bitters, ginger ale, or sour mix.

Additionally, tasting a whiskey involves more than simply putting it into your mouth and swallowing. It’s an encompassing experience, using the same amount of our senses as we use when consuming any other food or drink. So let’s define tasting as the act of learning the characteristics of the flavor of whiskey through the use of the senses. But which senses? The same ones used for tasting wine and judging food – seeing, smelling, and tasting.

The eyes gives us insight into the drink. It can tell us how young it is, or the kind of barrel in which it was aged. Generally speaking, the lighter the whiskey, the younger it will be. Whiskey straight from the still is often white, while there are some whiskeys out there that have been aged so long than they have a deep red to them. Bourbon gets it amber red color from the new and freshly charred oak barrels used in its aging process. If bourbon did not use new barrels, or if they didn’t char the new barrels they did use, the Kentucky spirit would have a completely different color.

Finding the nose of the whiskey is even more important than the look of it. Some would say that the aromas of the whiskey is more important than the taste. From my reading, I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for blenders to base their recipes primarily on aromas. But if you’re not a blender, the nose is of secondary importance, behind taste.

To release the aromas of whiskey, a little water may be necessary. The best way to think of this is that a bit of water wakes up the whiskey that has been asleep from anywhere from 3 to 25 years. But how much water? According to Michael Jackson, you want to add just enough water dilute to around 30% alcohol by volume. Roughly speaking, this translates to a .5 to 1 water to whiskey ratio if your drinking 80 proof whiskey, or a 1 to 1 water to whiskey ratio if you’ve found yourself a whiskey that’s 100 proof. This is simply a rule of thumb, and one should expect many exceptions to this, especially in the older whiskeys.

A quick side note – ice should be avoided, as well as chilled water, as they close down the aromatics of the whiskey. The water added should lack any obvious characteristics of its own. For example, you wouldn’t add mineral water to your whiskey. It is said that the best water to add to the whiskey is the water found at the site where the whiskey was distilled. Since I’ll assume that the vast majority of you out there are not millionaires, and cannot fly off to Kentucky or Speyside simply for a drink of whiskey, let’s just stick to bland water.

So what are you looking for when you smell a whiskey? That I’ll leave up to you to decide. From my point of view, there are no wrong answers to this question, because tasting is a very personal experience. If you place your snoot in a dram and the aromas remind you of Newark, then by god, that’s what you experienced. Yes, there is a vocabulary used by professional tasters, and usually they are simply variations of more broad terms (woody, fruitful, medicine, smoky, citrus-like). The aromas you find will likely trigger some sort of sense memory. The skill of a professional taster is to put a very specific and accurate word to describe their own sense memory. Or to put it another way, an amateur taster may say that a drink smells a bit fruity and a bit woody. A good taster will say that a whiskey carries a strong oak smell with an undercurrent of raisins. A great taster will say that the whiskey had been in two different casks, one that used in bourbon and the more recent one used in the making of sherry; additionally, there are hints of currants and peaches, as well as a little bit of vanilla.

All of these answers are right. The reason the last taster was able to put more words to the aromas was because they do this activity more often.

That’s the end of part 1. Tomorrow, I’ll post about whiskey glasses, and what to do once you actually put the whiskey in your mouth. And, as always, feel free to correct any of my mistakes by addressing them in the comments of this post.

Part 2 is here


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