Tasting Whiskey Like a Pro — Whiskey is not Wine
So you’ve been enjoying whiskey for a while now, and you’ve decided you’d like to take your enjoyment to the next level. There’s no need for whiskey tasting to become a snobby activity that annoys your friends and family, but there are some basics that will give you a new appreciation for the subtle nuances of the various whiskeys you sample. This article will have you nosing and tasting whiskey (or whisky) like a pro.
While it’s not required for you to invest in expensive glassware in order to properly taste the whiskey within it, having the right glass will add to the experience. The ideal glass should taper inward at the top, similar to a wine glass; in fact, a wine glass makes an excellent tasting glass for whiskey, too. If you’d like a specialized glass, you can always invest in a set of whiskey-specific tasting glasses like the Glencairn glass shown below; to get nearly the same function at a (usually) lower price, a snifter is ideal.
Often referred to as brandy snifters, the bowl of these glasses is shaped quite similarly to a wine glass, though they often have a more narrow mouth to help concentrate the aroma. The most obvious difference, though, is the much shorter stem. While the stem of a wine glass is intended to prevent your hands from warming the wine, a snifter’s shorter stem encourages cupping the bowl, thus warming the drink and allowing the volatile aromatics to waft upward to be appreciated by you. Since this is not necessarily desirable for whiskey, holding the snifter by its foot is recommended.
Proper glassware in place and whiskey poured, the first step in tasting whiskey is to “nose,” or smell, the whiskey. Start by swirling the glass — if you’ve tasted wine, you should be familiar with this process. Now, if you’re used to wine tasting, you’ll be tempted to get your nose into the glass for a whiff; please resist this urge. Instead, take a sniff just above the top of the glass to avoid the burning sensation you’ll get from the alcohol. Make a note of your first impression, as this will be the strongest. What smells do you notice? Whiskey snobs often use a lot of flowery words here, but you’ll find your notes more useful if you can relate it to smells with which you are familiar. As a side note, you’ll get better at describing the aroma the more you practice, and in addition to whiskey you should pay attention to smells anywhere you can.
Now swirl again and take a look at the whiskey in your glass. Does it leave a thin layer dripping down the glass after you swirl? Wine drinkers call this “legs,” and it’s an indication of the whiskey’s viscosity. What about the color? Darker colors can indicate longer aging, or a more charred cask. Lighter often means a younger whiskey.
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to take a taste. Swirl and smell multiple times, as you’re likely to pick out different aromas with each sniff. Try not to be influenced by reviews you’ve read or comments made by fellow tasters. Let your own nose be the judge, and make note of any aromas you notice.
This is the part you’ve been looking forward to. Now it’s time to take a small sip. Swirl the whiskey around your mouth, noting what you taste. Pucker your lips and suck in some air through the whiskey — the sound might remind you of your college days, but this helps to aerate the whiskey. Take your time, and enjoy the flavor. Write down anything it reminds you of. Now swallow, and notice the “finish.” This typically begins with a burning sensation, followed by the aftertaste. Make note of any sensation or taste you notice here, as well as how long it lasts. Just as with the nose, your taste is what matters here, so there are no wrong answers.
Water or Not?
Don’t listen to those who tell you to never add water to whiskey. A small amount can help it “open up” with additional flavors and aromas you might not have noticed. A few drops are all it takes, though you can use a touch more if necessary, especially with higher proof whiskeys. Don’t use heavily chlorinated tap water, though. A good spring water or mineral water (still, not carbonated) is best. Tasting whiskey with and without water will allow you to observe the difference; chances are, you’ll notice more than just dilution.
Now you’re well on your way to being an expert whiskey taster. Take your time, enjoy the experience, and don’t overdo it. Drink water between tastes, and practice often. And remember, the more things that you taste and smell other than whiskey, the more aromas and flavors you can call on for reference, so try to be conscious of flavor and aroma of anything you eat or drink.