Appreciate Your Whiskey
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”
So I just kind of occurred to me that I have decided to start up a blog, mostly about whiskey reviews, but never really explained to anyone how to properly do this. With that being said, I want to take a moment to tell everyone (who might be interested) how to do a whiskey tasting; and so that my readers can understand how I come up with these notes.
Now the biggest and possibly the most important thing for everyone to know about tasting and nosing a whiskey or any spirit for that matter, is that there is no right or wrong. The reason for this is because our cultural background and regions we live play such a big role in the development of our palates. Notes that may seem obvious to you can be totally foreign and hard to explain to someone in Scotland or India. Not only that; but the environmental factors of the region that the whiskey is being distilled and aged will influence the spirit as well. Diluting the spirit can also add or “open up” more complexity of the spirit or it can take it away muting the flavors and aromas. Now on to the tutorial…
Now ideally while doing a tasting you are going to want to use a snifter. The reason for this is because the bowl shape at the bottom and narrow opening of the glass helps funnel the aromas of the whiskey to your nose. If you try doing this with a standard rocks glass, the wider opening will allow too many of the notes to escape. Not that is makes it impossible, but can just make it a little more difficult to discern.
Diluting a whiskey is the act of adding distilled water or using ice in the whiskey to cut down on its harshness; but if honestly, I think it is only necessary if the whiskey over 80 Proof (40%ABV). First of all, I really do not consent to the use of ice in a premium spirit. Ice is too cold and will (in my opinion) close up the whiskey and take away from the spirit. Not only that, but ice tends to melt really quickly in whiskey if you haven’t noticed, and before you know it, your dram is going to be super watered down. So that is why I recommend using water to your higher proof whiskies. I usually start with about 1 teaspoon and go from there as needed. If and when you do use water, make sure that it is room temperature (again, you do not want to close up the spirit) and most importantly, make sure your water is DISTILLED! Using regular tap water can and will ruin everything. If you have water coming from a city source you are going to get that nasty bleach/fluoride taste in your whiskey; and water coming from a well source (for you more “rural” folk) has additional minerals and metallic flavors that will burst through. Now resting your whiskey is highly encouraged, especially before nosing. Resting is exactly what it sounds like; you let it rest after being poured. It doesn’t need to sit for a longtime; usually letting it settle for 2-3 minutes is enough time for the alcohol to dissipate a little bit.
This probably the easiest part about the whiskey tasting process and does not require much explanation for the obvious reason; however I did want to share a couple of interesting facts about the appearance of whiskey. Quickly for those of you who don’t know, whiskey is normally a white spirit after distillation, and picks up its brownish hue from the time it spends aging in wood casks. However there are other forces at work in this department. Most notoriously is E150a a.k.a. caramel coloring *cue dramatic music*. Some distillers add this to their product for one simple and unnecessary reason; aesthetic appeal. When you are trying to pick out any kind of whiskey you are naturally going to gravitate to the darker bolder looking bottles, because it looks like it has spent more time aging and will have a richer profile. Now caramel coloring does not affect the flavor at all, it is simply there for your viewing pleasure. Another step that affects color is chill-filtering and is a step that is also under scrutiny from aficionados around the globe. Chill-filtering is a step that is used to remove excess fatty acids and proteins from the product before bottling, giving it a very clean and clear appearance. However some claim that this step adds unnecessary production costs and can affect flavor as well. So if you ever pour or are served a dram that seems a little hazy, don’t fret, it just means it was not chill-filtered and is a more “natural” spirit.
This is where you appreciate and try to pick apart and indentify the aromas of the whiskey. Now whiskies are usually at least 80 Proof so there is going to be some sharp alcohol on the nose, get over it, besides if you let it rest like you were supposed to, it shouldn’t be as harsh. Now grab your snifter or wine glass, get your nose in the glass and you are going to want to give it 3 whiffs.
- Like I said this first whiff is going to be strong on the alcohol, but your nose is going to quickly adjust to the harshness and should be able to ignore it.
- Now the notes are going to start coming out; what do you smell; lighter whiskies are more likely to have some fresh and sweet floral notes. Medium whiskies might have notes of burnt sugars and spice. Or does it have a heavier aroma of smoke and salt.
- You have picked out the base notes; now try to break them down even further. Think back to familiar scents: i.e. citrus, dark fruit, grass, cinnamon, peat, oak, vanilla, and molasses. It’s all there for you do track down and discover.
After you have identified the aromas take a sip, not a big one though, you don’t want to overwhelm your palate with alcohol and numb your palate. Let it coat your mouth and tongue, or try the “Kentucky Chew” method. Take a sip of the whiskey and then inhale through your mouth. Now that there is air mixed with the whiskey in your mouth, lightly swish it around your mouth. Begin continually puckering and unpuckering your lips while slowly swallowing the sip (should look like you are making a kissy face). As dumb as this sounds; it really does help flavors develop on your palate.
As you taste your whiskey, take note of the body of the spirit. How does it feel in your mouth; is it light and syrupy? Or does it have a heavy velvet/honey feel as it coats your mouth? Or if you wish, turn your snifter on an angle and rotate the glass and then turn it back upright. Watch the speed of the “legs” drip back down the glass and the size of the droplets. Well aged whiskies will have slower and thicker legs while younger spirits tend to be thinner and faster moving. Also the longer the legs are, will also tell you that there is more alcohol inside.
After you swallow the sip, wait a couple of seconds for the finish to come through. This is the after taste that will linger on your palate, and if it is a quality spirit, will hopefully last for quite a while. In my experience this is when you can really savor the earthy notes of oak that comes from the time the whiskey spent aging.
There you have it, all the tips and tricks into properly enjoying a great whiskey. I know it may seem like a lot to take in; but distillers pour their heart and souls into the whiskies that they produce, and often is a labor intensive process that can literally take decades to create the whiskey then envisioned. I think we truly owe it to these artists as it were, to take the time enjoy their life’s work. Show respect and don’t ruin something so complex and skillfully crafted by drowning it in Coca-Cola…unless it is Jack Daniels…that shit is nasty.