The Finer Points of Tasting Whiskey

Walk into any bar, restaurant, or liquor store and the offering of spirits are staggering. There are literally thousands of vodkas, gins, whiskeys and liqueurs available for the consumer. While wine and beer tastings have been popular for a number of years, whiskey tastings are only just beginning to find an audience. The reason? The idea of drinking spirits straight can be extremely difficult for an individual to grasp. Many might find the idea of slowly sipping a single malt scotch or a bourbon to be overwhelming. Enjoying spirits straight, meaning without any mixers, has always been thought of as an “acquired taste”. However, while your taste buds might not be acclimated to a single malt scotch if you have never had one, there are some basic practices that you can employ to make the experience an enjoyable one and open up your palate to the wonderful flavors the spirits world has to offer.

If you are tired of ordering the same old vodka tonic or cosmopolitan and want to try something new, then the following tips might make the experience of tasting whiskey more rewarding.

Why the apprehension?

One of the reasons that drinking high proof spirits such as whiskey online  whiskey can be a bit of shock to the system is the fact that it is high in alcohol content. Many whiskeys are 80 proof which means it is 40% alcohol by volume. There are some scotches and bourbons that can reach upwards of over a 100 proof. Compare that to wine which is approximately 12-15% alcohol by volume and beer which can run anywhere from approximately 4% to 10% alcohol by volume and you can see why spirits pack a punch. That punch can be immediately felt in your mouth as the “burn” of alcohol can overshadow any of the flavors that are present in the spirit.

The Tasting Process

Now you know that the alcohol is going to have an effect of your taste. So how does one go about getting beyond that and actually tasting what the distillers have so carefully created for your enjoyment?

Tip #1-Know what are you drinking.

You are about to taste a bourbon for the first time. Do you even know what bourbon is? What it’s made of? This knowledge will help in the tasting process and while you do not need to be an expert on bourbon to enjoy it, a little baseline knowledge always helps. Bourbon is a whiskey with the predominant ingredient being corn, the secondary ingredient being wheat, rye or a combination of both. Knowing that small bit of information will already prepare your brain to process the taste. Additionally bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels. Again, this image can conjure up additional taste descriptions such as woody or dry, even a burnt taste. Charring brings out the sugars in the wood. Know that might conjure up images of vanilla or caramel. Just a little knowledge will help prepare your senses on what to look for when tasting.

If you are not sure about what you are drinking, check the bottle or ask your server or bartender. A little information can go a long way. My one caveat to this tip would be to initially avoid reading too many reviews online or in publications. Remember that a review is simply one man’s (or woman’s) opinion and specific, detailed descriptions might have too much influence on your mental palate.

Tip #2-The nose knows

Most of your taste comes from your sense of smell. As in wine or beer tasting, it is a must to smell or “nose” the spirit before a drop touches your lips. This will bring out flavors in the liquid you might not experience otherwise. With spirits, however, it is vital not to inhale deeply. The reason being that by quickly inhaling the spirit will only fire the odor of alcohol into your lungs and mouth leading to a burning sensation. This shock to the system will make it difficult for the actual aromas of the spirit to come forth. Instead, put your nose into the glass just below the rim and allow the smell of the spirit to slowly enter your nostrils. By slowing the “nosing” process down, it will allow your senses to first become acclimated to the alcohol but also allow the smells of the spirit to become apparent.

Tip #3-Let the whiskey come to you

Similar to smelling the whiskey, tasting should not be throwing back a shot as if you’re at college frat party. As the spirit enters your mouth, allow the liquid to flow over your entire tongue interacting with all your taste buds. Again, this will allow flavors to come forth.

Additionally make note on how the liquid feels in your mouth. Is it viscous, creamy or crisp? Is it a little oily or thin? Known as “mouthfeel” this is one aspect of the spirit that will get lost if you do not take your time.

At this point it is important to mention that it is not necessary to swallow the spirit if you are truly conducting a tasting, especially if you taste multiple spirits in one sitting. Most if not all of the flavors in a spirit can be enjoyed but spitting out the liquid. This author has very rarely, if ever, spit out a fine a spirit but if you feel the need then do not worry that you are missing out on the full tasting experience.

Tip #4-Pay attention to the exhale.

Whether you have swallowed the spirits or deposited the liquid into a receptacle, pay close attention to the first exhale you make. With the actual liquid no longer in your mouth you will be able to pick up flavors that are not otherwise present. In addition, take note of the length of the finish. Does it linger or is it short?

Tip #5-The addition of water

Many distillers will tell you that adding just a tiny amount of water will “open up” a spirit, specifically whiskey but can also be useful in gin, vodka or rum, tequila. Beside from slightly lowering the proof the addition of water can “open up” the spirits so additional flavors can come forth. For a 1 ounce pour the addition of just a drop or two of water will suffice. Taste the spirit both straight and with water and you will have two different experiences.

 

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