So you’re visiting that cool whiskey distillery your friend told you about that offers free tours and tastings. You’ve worn your sweetest duds, prepared yourself for an afternoon of malt, and eaten a hearty meal beforehand. The tour guide brings you a flight of whiskey and you proceed to silently panic. Where do you start? Do you taste whiskey like you taste wine? How much do you smell the whiskey before you drink it? Did you eat enough food beforehand? Rest easy knowing we feel your pain, and we’re here to help. Tasting whiskey is actually a pretty straightforward process. Here’s how to get started.
While this isn’t paramount, the shape of your glassware can improve your whiskey tasting experience. Aim for a snifter, which looks a bit like a wine glass if the stem were stubbier and the opening were more narrow. The wide base allows you to swirl the whiskey around while the narrow opening concentrates the delicious aromas for your sniffing pleasure. If you’re at a restaurant or a distillery, chances are they’ll serve you the proper glassware. If you’re trying whiskey at home and you don’t have a snifter, you can use a wineglass. If you don’t have a wineglass, we’re concerned for you.
Unlike wine, you shouldn’t jam your nose into a whiskey snifter, because whiskey is much higher in alcohol than wine and such a maneuver might make you feel woozy. Instead, swirl your whiskey around a little and carefully whiff the scent at the top of your glass. Between swirls and sniffs, observe the color of your whiskey. Again, like glass shape, this isn’t totally instrumental, but it’s a good way for you to learn more about what you’re drinking. As you splash the whiskey around, is it taking a while to drip down the glass? That signifies it’s more viscous. What color is your whiskey? Perhaps it’s light gold, or maybe a deep brown. This could be telling of how long the whiskey is aged – darker often means aged longer.
When you are sniffing, don’t try to search for any one scent. After all, if you had a chocolate cake in front of you, would you try to search for a specific smell? Probably not: you’d let the smell come to you. The olfactory system is nostalgic, so if you think of various memories, you might get different scents and vice versa. If you’re trying whiskey with a group, don’t be too influenced by which aromas your fellow whiskey tasters are recognizing. You also shouldn’t be afraid to smell more than once – the whiskey’s nose will transform with each whiff.
When you feel like you’ve smelled enough, get ready to taste your whiskey. Take a very small sip, and pucker your lips into an ‘O’ shape. Move your tongue to your lips and suck in air. You will, in essence, be gargling the whiskey. Just a warning: the first few (hundred) times you do this, you might gag. That has less to do with you and more with the strength of the whiskey. Those of us who are chronic whiskey, um, appreciators will have gotten used to that burn-cough reflex. Alternate between gargling and rolling the whiskey around in your mouth. Again, don’t look for anything in particular, just try to passively observe the tastes you’re picking up on. If you’re thinking, I taste alcohol, that’s fine! Whiskey has alcohol in it. However, a few stabs at tasting might bring out new flavors for you. When you feel like you’ve gotten a good taste of the whiskey, swallow it. That burning feeling you’re picking up on? That’s called the finish. Is it long, short, pleasant, icky? All of those (including icky) are reasonable descriptors. Take note of them.
The Water Controversy
Some (slightly sanctimonious) people will tell you to never put water in whiskey. To us, that’s silly. Whiskey is not untouchable holy juice. A little bit of H2O can open it up adding new aroma and taste layers, so repeat the whole “swirl, smell, sip, swallow” process with water added to your whiskey. Don’t pour in a whole bottle, but a few drops should do just fine. If your whiskey is very high proof, a few more won’t hurt.
Go slowly. There’s no reason to rush through several snifters in under three minutes. Remember to drink water in between different whiskies, or even between several sips of the same whiskey. You also shouldn’t be afraid to keep track of your thoughts by writing them down. Whiskey is so complex, it’s to be expected you’ll have several notes to jot. Our final plea is to really, truly not be too impacted by the people around you. If you’ve picked up on a scent or taste nobody else has, that might just mean you have an extra special whiskey-tasting superpower. That, and tastes are subjective. Sláinte! (That’s like the Gaelic version of cheers).