How to Taste Whiskey

Discover eight steps to unlock the complexity of whiskey, from the right glass to smelling it without burning your nose. And is it OK to add water, ice?
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 Ever wanted to learn more about whiskey? Here are eight pointers for tasting like a pro.

“Tasting” isn’t the same as “drinking.”

The goal is to evaluate and enjoy the whiskey, not get smashed. Sip a little bit at a time (no shooting!) and consider using a spit bucket, just as you would for a wine tasting.

Ditch the wine glass.

Glencairn whiskey glass
Glencairn whiskey glass

Which glass to use is often a matter of personal preference. Some whiskey pros, such as those at  New York City’s Flatiron Room, which specializes in whiskey, opt for Glencairn glasses, which have a bulbous bottom ideal for swirling but narrow at the top to concentrate aromas. Others (including me) prefer a simple rocks glass, since the wider-mouthed shape allows alcohol fumes to dissipate and lets aromas come forward.

Observe the color.

Hold the glass up to the light, or over a piece of white paper. Whiskey can range from pale straw to vibrant amber or deep, nut-like brown. Usually, the darker the color, the more concentrated the flavor.

Give it a smell, gently.

In other words, don’t cram your nose into the glass and hold it there, as you might with wine. Whiskey starts at 40% abv, and alcohol levels often go much higher. You don’t want to anesthetize your olfactory nerves. Smell it gently, with your mouth slightly open if you prefer, and savor all that gorgeous caramel, fruit or smoke.

How do you nose whiskey? Some pros use a “dip-in, dip-out” movement, where you put your nose into the glass (not all the way!) and then back out again. Others hover their nose above the opening of the glass and slowly move closer as the aromas unfold.

4 Ways Rye Whiskey is Going Against the Grain

Less common methods? At a recent spirits tasting event, one expert demonstrated “drive-by nosing,” in which you draw the glass horizontally across your nostrils. And a spirits producer showed what I call the “round-the-clock” method, where she rotated the glass in a circle around her nose. She claimed the scent changed at 12, 3, 6 and 9-o’clock.

“Sip small and savor.”

Those are the wise words of Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, which makes Bourbon and rye. “When learning to taste whiskey, I think the key is to drink whiskey differently than beer or wine, especially when drinking neat,” says Hletko. “Sip a small volume, very small, and let the flavors be experienced with the least amount of alcohol possible.” Give your palate a chance to adjust to the alcohol levels, he says, then take another sip.

Don’t forget the finish.

Tasting whiskey is often about the aftertaste, or the “finish.” After you swallow or spit the whiskey, the flavor should linger on your palate, evolve and then fade away.

However, some pros have developed techniques to maximize the intensity or length of the finish. The most famous of these is “The Kentucky Chew,” attributed to the late Booker Noe, and popularized by Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe.

The technique is to roll the whiskey (particularly Bourbon) around in the mouth and “chew” on it, which allows the spirit to reach all the surfaces of the mouth, which pick up different flavors. During my first visit to Kentucky a few years ago, I had the chance to “chew” with the legendary Noe. It’s fun, but kind of noisy.

Add water or ice, if desired, and repeat.

Try a couple of drops of water to see how that unlocks different aromas and flavors. Add more to dilute higher alcohol whiskeys. Meanwhile, a chunk of ice will cool the whiskey and slowly dilute it. This is best used when enjoying a full pour, rather than a brief tasting. Take the time to experiment with different amounts of water.

“I really appreciate a whiskey that opens up and evolves during the time it is in my glass,” says Allison Parc, founder of French whiskey brand Brenne. “I like it to tell me a story.”

Try a flight.

When you compare multiple whiskeys, you really start to see nuances between different bottles. Try to sample different categories (Bourbon versus rye; Scotch versus American whiskey) and then focus on a specific category (a flight of rye whiskeys).

Published on May 18, 2017
Topics: Tasting Basics
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of Shake.Stir.Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made In Equal Parts (Chronicle Books, coming fall 2016) as well as Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books, 2013).   Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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