Whiskey, unlike any other beverage, takes significant time to prepare. And in the arena of alcohol, more time than practically any other spirit available- save for an aged cognac or wine. That’s because whiskey is all about maturation over time, soaking up the flavors and tannic properties of oak barrels over the course of decades. It’s safe to say then, that it’d be wise to appreciate the craftsmanship and flavor profile of each deserving dram of this age-old spirit, considering how it’s consumed in a fraction of the time it takes to come to fruition.
This tasting process is one that’s, for the most part, been reserved for worldwide competitions and shared amongst those who have a deeply-held appreciation for the drink. For it wasn’t up until recently that a fine appreciation of whiskey and subsequent whiskey-based cocktails rebounded in neighborhood bars across the US. From mid-century cocktail lounges to the straight whiskey bars themselves, this spirit is certainly enjoying its time in the spotlight. It’s a great time to be a whiskey fan in the U.S. – honestly, it always has been – but with whiskey culture breaking more and more into the general populous, you best be getting your feet wet as well.
So when it come to tasting and drinking whiskey, things may appear straight forward. However, there are plenty of little caveats and idiosyncrasies involved that help you not only properly evaluate the whiskey but allow the spirit to impart it’s most delicate attributes upon you. From the glassware to understanding aromas, tasting profiles and finishes, even adding a bit of water along the way, this guide on how to drink whiskey will hopefully open your eyes to the brilliant world of libations before you, teaching you to taste and drink like a professional.
Believe it or not, enjoying whiskey the right way does, in fact, require the right glassware. Because, similar to beer glasses or even wine, the shape of the glass allows for the taster to garner the full banquet of aromas before reaching for that first sip. We’ve outlined several common whiskey glasses used for drinking already, the most popular ones of course coming from Glencairn, one of which – the Copita Nosing Glass – serving as one of the official tasting glasses for worldwide competitions. Too often, ordering a whiskey highball – or even whiskey cocktail – ends up in a tumbler pint glass surrounded by ice. This not only waters down the drink but masks any subtle flavors and aromas you’d otherwise enjoy.
Instead, at least when tasting, it’s advised to stick with a stemmed glass. This accomplishes two things:
- You’re able to appropriately swirl the whiskey around in the base of the glass, allowing it to breathe and release any hidden aromas in its complex banquet.
- The whiskey will remain uninfluenced from the warmth of your hands, keeping it at the desired temperature (between 64° and 72°F) for enjoyment.
From here, you want the mouth of the glass to be wide enough for nosing (we’ll get into exactly what that is a bit later) and the base of the glass not too deep as to prevent the heavier compounds from rising to the top of the glass. It’s also worth noting that the wider a shoulder in the glass, the more exposure your dram of whiskey has to the air, thus accelerating the oxygenation process. Needless to say, because different glass shapes may result in different tasting experiences, using two identical glasses when tasting or drinking is highly recommended.
Technically speaking, the nose of the whiskey denotes the aromas given off from the spirit upon a first, and then second encounter. Because both smell and taste go hand-in-hand it’s important to garner an accurate understanding of what exactly the whiskey has to offer. For instance, the most common aromas you’ll find are notes of oak and vanilla from the barrels, some sweet corn and more often than not floral notes that tie everything together. Of course this is highly generalized with each different batch imparting it’s own unique bouquet of notes for your pleasure.
Now, how is this accomplished? First off you’re going to need a proper whiskey tasting glass – as outlined above – to get started. Make sure the glass is clean (which seems obvious but you never know) and it’s clear of any residue or water droplets from a recent cleaning. Upon a thorough inspection, go ahead and pour a slight amount into the glass. It’s then recommended, by none other than Master Distiller Richard Paterson himself, that your swirl it around enough to coat the glass then immediately discard the whiskey. This also ensures the glass is clean and prepares the piece for the main event.
From here, pour another dram full of your whiskey into the glass and give it a good swirl, again coating the tasting glass to a full extent. It’s also important to remember to never cup the base of the glass with your hand or to wrap your hands around the glass like a koozie. Instead hold it by the stem, and vigorously swirl in around in preparation for that first introduction. Now, when you’re nosing (smelling) the whiskey for the first time it’s important to get up close and personal with the spirit by making sure you’re entire nose has entered the glass. Don’t just place the glass under your nose and gently sniff.
Now, after doing this once, take a step back and analyze what you just encountered and be sure to pay close attention to what aromas you may have picked up because you’re going in for a second introduction. Yes, once again just like last time get up close and personal with the whiskey, paying attention to any new aromas, denoting the most common and prevalent. Do this again for a third time, with an additional swirl of the glass in between, and your ready to start tasting.
Now for the fun part. After garnering an idea of what the whiskey nosing notes might offer your palate, it’s time to compare and contrast. And in case you’re wondering, yes, a prevalent aroma on the nose doesn’t always translate into the same prominent tasting note come drinking time. This is always a more awkward moment for those whose prior experience with whiskey equated to stomach churning shots at the bar. Instead, here’s an opportunity to appreciate the aging process and subsequently accrued flavor profiles from different aging methods and barrel variants.
To get tasting be sure to have some still water on hand, and add just enough to the glass – in some cases only a couple drops from a pipette to the glass before tasting it. Why you may ask? Because not all whiskies are bottled at the same ABV, making the higher ones a bit more “hot” (boozy) on the palate. The ideal ABV for whiskey is 80 proof, or 40% ABV. At this percentage, you’re able to enjoy all the fine attributes the whiskey has to offer without that cringe and puckering that comes with an over-the-top alcohol percentage. So, now comes time to take that first sip. No need to be modest either, allow for a sizable amount of the whiskey into your mouth and gently swish around. Notice how it taste on the front of your palate, under the palate, top of the palate and, finally, the back of the palate when you swallow. Shortly thereafter, take a deep breath to allow the full residual tastes and aromas of the spirit to come forward.
It’s after this first sip that you can takes some notes on what was initially experienced and how that compares to the aromas that came forward when nosing the glass. Questions to consider for example can involve the mouthfeel; was it relatively light to medium (thin) or heavy and full (thick, viscous)? Were there any transitioning of flavors (i.e. oaky caramel to start but finishing with floral and citrusy notes)? And especially, how everything came to a close (did it linger on the palate for sometime after the whiskey was consumed or was it relatively tame, finishing quickly?)
These are just some of the many criteria judges around the world use to evaluate a world-class whiskey. And armed with this knowledge, so can you. From here, the process is again repeated through the next taste where additional water can be added at the drinker’s discretion to continue opening up the whiskey for further enjoyment.
So Why Water In Whiskey?
Typicality the initial response on the topic of adding water to whiskey is negative. However, the right amount of water in your whiskey can really help open the aroma and tasting notes of the sprit. Ironically enough, the right amount brings the whiskey to life, leaving nothing hidden and placing everything on the table to be enjoyed.
Adding water to the piece is accomplished in stages. You want to be careful not to break the palate or the texture of the whiskey so it’s advised to only add a little bit at a time here. Of course the water needs to be cool or just below room temperature so the whiskey isn’t overly disturbed. Again, the idea here is to open up the flavor of the whiskey.
We also suggest using very soft or still water in this instance, though if you don’t have access to legit Scottish limestone water then a few drops of purified water will work fine as well. And again, it’s all about stages here. Try it first without if you wish, then add a couple drops at a time until your content with the aroma, taste and mouthfeel. Water always releases aromas, so a little bit will not hurt your dram or make you look like weak in the process.
Preparation: Neat Vs. On The Rocks
Part of any whiskey drinking experience at a respected watering hole involves ordering a drink. This situation leads us to the inevitable question: how would you like your whiskey? Out of this question comes two common answers, either “neat” or “on the rocks.” Now for the sake of respecting the whiskey we’d hope “on the rocks” would never exit your pursed lips, however, if you’re unsure what “neat” means then that only leaves you one choice.
Ordering a “neat” whiskey means just that. Keeping the spirit untouched and unadulterated without the addition of a mixer or ice. In short, it’s the room temperature, un-fooled-around-with dram straight from the bottle and into your glass. Now, we do have a beef with “on the rocks” because the expression no longer means what it meant years ago when the phrase was first conceived. It’s understood that the saying came from Scottsmen who wanted to cool down their whiskey but had no access to ice. So instead, they would resort to the cold mountain streams where they would collect small rocks from the river bed, placing them in their whiskey to cool it down, not water it down. Unfortunately, the phrase was misappropriated into the bar scene a while back, used now to denote the overwhelming addition of ice cubes into a precious glass of whiskey.
So how do we enjoy our whiskey? Neat to start things off, adding a bit of water at a time in order to open up the spirit and appreciate everything the distiller, the barrels in which it was aged, and how the location of the distillery, especially true for Scotch whiskey, play into all aspects of the tasting experience. Then, we pour ourselves another and light up a cigar.
Whiskey Drinking Essentials
- Glencairn Whiskey Glass ($13)
- Eisch Whiskey Pipette Water Dropper($40)
- Laphroaig 18 Year($133)
- Waterford “Mad Men” Edition Decanter($395)
Similar to any other leisurely activity, there are tools that are necessary to help you properly enjoy a whiskey tasting experience. First off, you need a bottle. As for what type, that greatly depends on your personal preference, however, we suggest a nice Islay Scotch. Laphroaig 18 Year to be exact. And of course a Glencairn glass never hurt either. This one in particular is a modified and more modern version of the Copita Nosing Glass, nonetheless still a winner in our book. A pipette is also in order to assist in opening the whiskey up with the help of a little still water, and this handsome mid-century-styled Waterford decanter will show off that choice scotch or bourbon in style on the home bar. Cheers.
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