There’s a funny thing that happens at the bar. Whisk(e)y-lovers get all up in arms about the ‘right’ way to drink whisky. Where ‘this guy’ might only drink his whisky ‘this’ way, ‘that’ guy would bet all the barley in Scotland that you’re wrong for drinking it any way but ‘that’ way. So, who’s right?
Neither. And Both.
There are 2 different thing’s we’re talking about here – drinking whisk(e)y and tasting whisk(e)y. Drinking whisk(e)y is what you do with your friends at the pub. Or at home with dinner. Or when you’re enjoying a nice evening out. Tasting whisky, on the other hand, is completely different – it’s how we learn what we really like. How we tell differences between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ How we learn not just the what, but the why.
The best way to drink whisk(e)y, really, is whatever way you choose. Different countries have different ‘common’ ways to enjoy their whisk(e)y. In the US, cola is king. In Canada, on the rocks is the way to go. In Ireland, sometimes water, sometimes ice, but very common is white lemonade (something like citrus Squirt). In Scotland it’s not uncommon to enjoy a glass of warm milk with whisky in it. In Japan, fill a glass with ice, add whisky then add club soda till the drink is the color of a light American lager beer. The ‘right’ way, huh? Not so much.
Tasting whisk(e)y doesn’t really have a ‘right’ way either, but it’s important that you do it the same way every time. Have a system. Follow the mold and don’t break it. What you’re looking for is consistency. You want to know what to expect – to have a baseline – so when you get to the taste you have some frame of reference. A whisk(e)y can (and often does) taste different on different days (different times of day, different seasons, different food pairings, different emotions, etc) – you want to take out as much of the guesswork as possible. Whisk(e)y isn’t cheap – and getting more expensive every day. There’s no reason to waste time (or money) on a whisk(e)y you don’t like. My system for tasting whisk(e)y doesn’t need to be your system – my system is what works for me. I’ve developed it over the last 10 years after talking to other whisk(e)y lovers, distillers, blenders, bottlers, sommeliers and chefs.
Whisk(e)y is for all 5 senses and I want to incorporate all of them when I taste it. I use a 6-step process and look for for 5 things – the appearance, the aroma, the taste, the body and the finish. Each of them is special for any whisk(e)y, and some people will gravitate to one over the others. I’m an aroma guy. I like the look, the taste etc, but the aroma is what really makes the whisky for me. As I go through my 6 steps I’m looking for all 5 but usually pay more attention to the aroma than anything else. While you taste your whisk(e)y, feel free to use my process as a starting place but you should develop your own.
Before I get to the 6 steps, there are a few ground rules:
- Whisk(e)y doesn’t exist in a bubble. You shouldn’t taste only 1 whisk(e)y at a time. I’m not suggesting you drink 5-6 whiskies, but you should give yourself at least 2 tastes. This will help you negotiate through the aromas and flavors – something to compare to in real-time instead of trying to remember what ‘that one’ tastes like by comparison.
- Glass doesn’t matter. Don’t you plastic, but the glass the whisk(e)y is in won’t make that much of a difference. More important is that the amount of whisk(e)y in the glass is appropriate for the size of the glass. For example, I’m not going to put 4 oz of whisky in a 5 oz glass, or 1/4 oz in a 16 oz glass. My preferred glass is the Glencairn – a tulip shape, clear crystal glass. It works for me because I’m an aroma guy and the shape accentuates that. There are other nice ones too, but don’t worry too much about it.
- Take notes! While you’re tasting, there are a lot of things to pay attention to; not just the flavor and aroma and that stuff, but the bottling strength, the color, who you’re with, the age statement and more. Keep a notebook handy.
- Have your tools ready. Try to keep stray aromas away (food, perfume, etc), use clean glasses, etc.
OK – on to the 6 steps for tasting whisky
- Observe The Whisk(e)y. Not just what’s in the glass, but the bottle too. What does it say? Where is it from? What’s the proof? What color is it? Is there an age statement? Does it tell you anything about the casks used for maturation? Is it a distillery bottling or an independent bottler? The whisk(e)y in the glass – how does it look? Does it cling to the glass? By looking at all of this you begin to put a picture together in your head. You know what to expect and are ready for something out of the ordinary.
- Nose The Whisk(e)y. Some say that aroma is as much as 70-80% of flavor; nosing the whisky before you taste it is important. Leave your mouth open a bit when you nose a whisk(e)y – you want to let fresh air enter your mouth and nose, not just the whisk(e)y vapor, which can overpower your senses. Hover your nose over the glass, not deep inside it and not too far away – maybe an inch or so off the rim of the glass. Don’t breathe in to quickly or too deeply. Nice, easy breaths. What do you smell? Sweet? Salty? Smokey? Oily? Fruit? Green? Most noses can smell better through one nostril than the other – switch sides. What do you smell now? Still the same? Roll the whisk(e)y around in the glass so the liquid clings to the glass then evaporates, releasing more aroma.
- Taste The Whisk(e)y. This one is the most difficult, and is the most disputed. Some people will say you shouldn’t taste the whisk(e)y until after step 4 – that you’ll overpower your senses too early. Some even say that, if you’re tasting 3 or 4 or 5 different whiskies, you shouldn’t taste whisk(e)y #1 till you’ve nosed all the whiskies in the group. In any case, I do each along the way. It’s difficult because there’s so much to pay attention to. Take a small sip and hold it in your mouth a few seconds before swallowing (I try to hold the whisk(e)y 1 second for each second of maturation; 12 seconds for a 12 year old whisk(e)y, etc). After swallowing, breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose – you’ll get another hit of aroma that way. You’re looking for a few different things. First, how close is it to what you nosed? Is there anything that surprises you about it? Do you get any deeper into the flavor? Anything stand out for you? How bout the mouth feel? Would you describe it as thick or thin? Does it coat your mouth? Is it creamy? Or oily? Do you feel anything on your lips? How does it finish? What are you left with after you swallow? Is it warm? Spicy? Does it finish short, medium or long? Taste is not just taste – really appreciate everything in the glass.
- Dilute The Whisk(e)y. Yes, put water in the whisk(e)y. Why? Because water does to whisky what air does to wine. It opens up the bouquet and aroma. Alcohol is an antiseptic – it will kill (or at least must) your senses of taste and smell. By adding water you’re bringing down the alcohol by volume (ABV) which allows your nose and taste buds to get more out of the whisk(e)y and (almost) every distiller in the world will encourage you to add water to their whisk(e)y when tasting. Again – remember that tasting is different than drinking. When you’re drinking the whisk(e)y you can do whatever you want. Water? Ice? Cola? Ginger Ale? Milk? Sure! It’s your whisk(e)y. It’s not my place to tell you the right or wrong way to drink it. But when you taste it, water is good. Some people try to make a big deal out of using something called “branch” water, something that is considered the “process water” by distillers. It’s the same water that’s used in making the whisky at a specific distillery, the water that eventually becomes whisk(e)y. And – it just doesn’t matter. As long as you’re using good, clean, fresh, room temperature, still water, it’ll work just fine. I prefer spring water over mineral but use what you’ve got. When I go to the bar and ask for a whisk(e)y, if I’m tasting, I’ll ask for it ‘neat’ (no water, ice or any mixer) with a ‘water back’ (a glass of water on the side) and a teaspoon or a large drinking straw. I have a lot of faith in bartenders, but not when it comes to adding water to whisk(e)y – I’ll take care of that myself, thank you. With any new whisk(e)y, my rule of thumb is about 10% – however much is left in the glass, 10% of that again in water. Some like to sound all high-and-mighty about ‘just one cube’ or ‘just a couple drops’ – how big are those cubes? How much whisk(e)y is in the glass? ‘Just a couple drops’ will react very differently with 1oz and 2oz of whisk(e)y and the whole idea is to be as consistent as possible – take all the guesswork out. Maybe 10% is too much already, maybe it’s not enough, maybe it’s just enough – but at least you know exactly how much you put in and how it reacted. You’ll know for next time. Adding water to your whisk(e)y will also give you a nice little show – something fluid dynamics people call “Schlieren Effect.” Kind of like when you put oil into water, the 2 different thicknesses swirl around each other. Look at how the water swirls around in the whisk(e)y – we call that ‘releasing the serpent.’ The only thing I’ll adjust for is in higher proof whiskies. Most whiskies are bottled at 40, 43 or 45% ABV and 10% will work pretty well for those. As the ABV rises I adjust accordingly, adding a little more water.
- Nose The Whisk(e)y Again. Now that you’ve added water, how has the whisk(e)y changed? Is there more or less aroma? How is it different? Do you get more of the sweet, more of the salty, more of anything else specific?
- Taste The Whisk(e)y Again. How has the flavor or body of the whisk(e)y changed? Is it thicker? Thinner? More flavor? Less? Has the finished changed?
It’s not about doing it my way, it’s about doing it your way – and doing it the same way every time. Enjoy your whisk(e)y and branch out – find new ways to enjoy it. Keep branching out. Drink it how you like it, taste it so you get to know it, and enjoy a dram with me.
About the Author:
The Whisky Guy is an educator, host, blogger , habitual traveler and more, having worked in the whisk(e)y industry for over 10 years. He can be reached through the Contact page and you can find out more by visiting the About page. He always supports enjoying whisk(e)y responsibly.