The Fundamentals of Tasting Whisky

Do you drink whisky? Or do you taste whisky? There’s certainly a time for each, but if you want to get more out of your whisky, there are things you can do to taste at a higher level. When you do, you learn more about what you like, and about what other whiskies may appeal to you, and which ones probably won’t.

I have a theory about tasting whisky that I call the “Karate Kid” method. You’ll recall the iconic scene from The Karate Kid where the young man seeks to learn karate from the old master, and instead is put to work waxing his cars, painting his fence, and sanding his deck. He then learns that the work has built muscle memory of reflexive karate moves.

Similarly, you’ve been training to taste whisky all your life, every time you smelled or tasted food, plants, even chemicals and appliances. Read a whisky review; generally the reviewer will tell you what they smelled or tasted, like cereal, berries, bonfire, or mint, all of which are things you know. Now slow down and smell your whisky, take your time…and see if you don’t smell things you recognize. You’re likely better at this than you thought you were!

If you’re going to get serious about getting the most out of whisky, take a tip from the the folks who taste it in the lab at distilleries: focus. The longer you can focus without distractions, the more likely you’ll be able to make those scent and taste associations that can frame the whisky for you. So turn off the TV, silence your phone, avoid strong aromas (perfume, candles, cooking) and make sure your hands are free of scent. It helps to have some kind of white background to hold the glass up to and check the color of your whisky. Get comfortable, here you go.

Pour half an ounce of whisky in your glass; best to start with one you’re familiar with. Gently lift the glass to your nose until you smell the whisky, and hold it there. Breathe normally, and think: what smells like this? Pull it apart, smell the different components. Biscuits? Cornmeal? Smoke, raisins, sulfur, fresh-cut lumber, honey? Pepper? Take a ten-second break and return to it. Swirl the glass a bit to stir up fresh aromas and smell some more.

What Type of Glass Should You Use?

Now take a sip and hold it on your tongue, let it spread around. Now breathe, and swallow. Was it hot, bitter, sweet, acidic? Did it feel thin, full, creamy? And what do you smell now? Don’t judge your senses, just think about what you smell and taste; that’s what the pros do. Take another sip, and “chew” it, moving it slowly around your mouth, and breathe shallowly. What you’re trying to do at this point is to get more airflow into your mouth and up the “chimney” of your nose, to carry the aromas of the whisky to your sense of smell.

If it’s hard to get any aroma, or if the whisky is just too hot, add a few drops of water and swirl the whisky in the glass. The water will break out the aromas, and likely change the flavors as well; again, something the master blenders do.

Do you like it? Does it taste like other whiskies you like? That’s the point to this, and to reading reviews, finding other whiskies you like…because there might be one you like a lot more!

Now that you have the idea of tasting down, let’s talk about your drinking! Generally, when you’re tasting, the whisky’s at room temperature, either neat, or with just a few drops of water. When you’re drinking for more general pleasure, things open up. Let’s talk about temperature. American pioneer Colonel Davey Crockett said whisky, “makes a man warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.” There’s no reason why you can’t give the whisky a little help in that endeavor.

Room temperature is great in the winter and cooler months; you may enjoy the body temperature whisky in a flask even more. But if you’re in a climate warmer—hotter, really—than Scotland’s, chances are good that you sometimes want cooler whisky. If you don’t want to use ice, there are various chilling devices: cubes of stone, steel balls that you can chill and put in your whisky, or you can just keep some glasses in the freezer.

Speaking as an American, sometimes that just doesn’t do it. On a hot and humid summer day, you may feel the urge to drown some cubes in bourbon. Fine! It’s your whiskey. But stay smart: use big, hard, cold chunks of ice, stuff that will chill more than it dilutes, not some crushed slurry that will quickly melt. Use block ice and get handy with a pick or mallet, or get some of the large sphere or cube ice molds.

Now that we’ve broken the ice, so to speak, let’s recognize that there are many people who will tell you that you can only drink your whisky neat: no water, no ice, no cocktails. It sounds like a commandment from the Whisky Gods: Thou Shalt Not Dilute.

Ignore them. There are no Whisky Gods. Drinking whisky neat is fine and, as noted above, a great way to go in the winter. When you first taste a new whisky, you should start out with just the whisky in the glass. But as we noted above, adding water to whisky is exactly what whisky blenders do! As far as that goes, what does “neat” mean? That the whisky is not diluted, and unless it’s cask strength, it’s already been cut to bottling proof with water at the distillery. You’re too late.

What kind of water, how much? Some will say distilled, deionized water only; some will say spring water; some will have precious bottles of water from the same source as the distillery. Simply, a neutral water is best, any source with no overt chemical or mineral aromas or flavors. Add it in drops; an eye-dropper or pipette is one affectation of the whisky geek that actually makes sense, and good bars often offer them. Just remember: taking the water out of whisky is what distilling’s about in the first place. Don’t add too much!

Neat, warm, with water, chilled with ice: relax, have a drink the way you like it. It’s your whisky.

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