How to Taste Whiskey – Pt. 2

Yesterday, I touched on the eyes and nose of a whiskey. In regard to the look of whiskey, Matthew noted in the comments that there reputedly a fair amount of brands who put caramel coloring into the mix, in order to make their whiskey look more appealing.

This is true, to a certain point. Just this past Saturday I purchased a cheap bottle of corn whiskey (for research, don’tcha know) that has a orange-brown tint to its color. This clearly (no pun) comes from coloring that has been added to the mix, as the color of a whiskey comes from the wood in which it was aged. As corn whiskey is not required to be aged, and in fact, it is cheaper to not age whiskey, then it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to figure out that if this cheap whiskey was not aged, the color had to come from somewhere else.

There are bottlers of higher end whiskeys that color their drinks as well. From what I’ve read, all blends have coloring added. However, many of the single malt whiskeys who do not, explicitly say so somewhere within their documentation. A lack of caramel coloring is a selling point. For any whiskey you purchase and taste, a bit of research will likley be needed in order to determine if your drink’s color is authentic.

And yes, adding caramel coloring can affect the flavor of the drink.

But let’s move on from yesterday…

We’ve talked about looks and we’ve talked about nose. The question then becomes – what’s the best way to bring about both the look and aromas of the whiskey? A lot of this is determined by just how serious you wish to be about tasting. If you’re not that serious about it, old fashioned glasses will do just fine.

There are many, many professionals who will tell you that I am full of it when it comes to this. They will say that the only way to enjoy a dram is through the use of Single Malt glasses. They will say that these single malt glasses are specifically designed to not dilute the colors through the use of cuttings on the glass, and that the tulip shaped design of the glass helps keep the aromas. As Michael Jackson noted, a good nosing glass “is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling the spirit) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas).” If you are serious about tasting (and nosing) whiskey, then yes, getting a decent single malt glass is probably not a bad idea. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the glass needs to be crystal, but the shape of a glass does determing how well one can control the aromas of the drink. (There’s scientific proof to back up this assertion. A 2001 paper called The influence of wine glass shape on perceived aroma and colour intensity in wines came to the conclusion that a major factor in enhancing aroma is the ratio of the glasses cup diameter to the diameter of its opening. But they had is no evidence that glass style had any impact on taste, flavor or mouthfeel. And while I am a bigger fan of whiskey than I am of wine, I’m not such a fan as to make an assertion that the characteristics of whiskey are any more or less special than that of wine.)

Okay, so you have your special glass, and you’ve poured in two ounces of whiskey and one ounce of water.

Well, first make sure you’re in a room that lacks any odors that may be a distraction. That means no drinking around wet dogs and/or teenage girls who just discovered perfume.

Then swirl your glass and take a look at the whiskey, using a well lit and white backdrop for your background. You may see certain characteristic such as oils, or may start to go a bit misty in appearance. Each of these are a clue as to how the whiskey was produced.

Place your nose in the glass and take a quick inhale. Take note of what aromas you find, either mentally or literally. As you judge other whiskeys later on down the line, compare them against these notes.

Be aware of what alcohol smells like (and how it affects you physically) so you can then separate that aroma from the others.

Then take a drink. Let it sit on your tongue for a moment or two. Note the primary taste. That’s the flavor that hits your tongue immediately. Then note how the liquid feels. Is it oily or viscous? Does it come across as dry? Swallow and note the flavors that play in the back of the throat (actually, these are aromas that are filtering up to your nasal cavity, but that’s quibbling at this point). Note these aromas, and how the taste finishes. Does the taste linger and decrescendo? Or does the flavor just quit suddenly? Finally, are there aftertastes to the whiskey? How long do they last? All of these are relevant and can help shape your opinion of the drink.

As I mentioned yesterday, there are no wrong answers here, just people who have a better vocabulary to answer the questions posted above.

As an exercise, read the tasting notes found here. Notice the differences of opinion here. Each taster either found or focused on completely different characteristics of the whiskey. If you start reading whiskey reviews, you will find this to be quite common.

My point in bringing this up is we all find different things in different whiskeys. Don’t worry that you tasted something different from someone else. Your experience matters, even if no one else had experienced the same thing. This leads us to the best part of this entire process – talking with other people about it. Some will agree with you, others will not. And you will likely find yourself saying something along this lines of “How the hell did you taste chocolate in that?”

This is not only normal, but some would say the best part of tasting whiskey. Because the real point in tasting whiskey is to discuss it with others who had also tasted it.

That concludes my “How to taste” series. It wasn’t too in depth, and should be considered more of an introductory course. I’m not certain if I will get into more detail later down the line, but it’s always a possibility. Tomorrow – my first tasting notes!

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