By: Scott Ritenbaugh
The first thing to remember when hosting a whiskey tasting is that whatever you smell and taste is what you smell and taste. However you relate to what you smell and taste is how you relate to it. If you taste a bourbon and something reminds you of leather, or cherries, or honey, or a smoldering campfire on a shoreline covered with seaweed and bandages … that is what you smell and taste. Do not let anyone tell you that you are wrong, and don’t ever tell someone they are wrong for smelling or tasting what they experience. That’s the beauty of tasting whiskey: everyone relates to it in his or her own way. When you are doing evaluations of whiskey, or leading others through their evaluations, be as open and positive and descriptive as you can be. There is no wrong answer!
One thing to keep in mind as you go through whiskey tastings is that not all people can taste or describe what they are experiencing at the same level. There was a Q&A with a master distiller, once, and someone in the audience asked him how he got the cherry and vanilla notes to “pop” in his bourbon. The distiller thought a moment and said, “Well, l don’t know about all those things that people always pick out of our bourbon. I just know good bourbon and bad bourbon.” He then took a sip of his bourbon and declared, “That there, that’s a good bourbon!” If a master distiller at a major distillery that produces a leading brand of bourbon cannot detect every flavor nuance, don’t expect that you will be able to pick out every subtle note, just describe the whiskey and relate to it in your own way.
When training your palate to be able to taste or better taste whiskey, keeping a notebook with all your notes is a good exercise. It will help you remember which tasting notes went with which whiskey and why you did or did not enjoy that particular product.
Does the glass matter? Technically, yes. But the tasting experience can be done with any glass. The best glass for conducting a whiskey tasting is one that narrows near the top of the glass. This will focus the aromas to one point as you’re nosing the bourbon. When putting a flight together it is highly recommended that you put all the whiskeys in identical glassware.
Before you do anything, take a look at the whiskey. Note the color, which will help with an indication of age. Generally, the darker the color, the longer it has been aged. You’ll also want to take note of the hue of the whiskey: how brown, yellow, or red it is. You can also swirl the bourbon in the glass and see what the “legs” do. The legs are the drips of whiskey that will run down the interior of the glass, which can help you gauge the proof of the whiskey. Thin legs will appear if the whiskey is higher proof, and thicker if lower proof. Swirling the whiskey and looking at the legs will aIso indicate the viscosity of the spirit, whether it might have a thick, oily mouthfeel or whether it will have a water-smooth mouthfeel.
Now you want to smell, or nose, the whiskey. Take the glass and place it at chin level below your nose, slowly move it up as you inhale through your nose. You want to start low and bring it up slowly because if the whiskey is at a high proof, and you stick your nose right into the glass and inhale deeply, you’ll blow out, or numb your nose. If you do experience nose fatigue, a trick that many “professional” tasters use is to smell their own skin. Your own personal body smell acts as a reset button for your nose. just hold your elbow up to your nose and inhale. You’ll find that you can better smell the whiskey after doing this, especially if you are nosing multiple whiskeys.
Once you’re done nosing the whiskey, it’s time to taste it. Put some whiskey in your mouth and roll it around, letting it coat your entire mouth, and then swallow. The late great Master Distiller at Jim Beam – Booker Noe used this very technique. Named after the way Booker would “chew” his whiskey, the term “Kentucky Chew” was first coined by a whiskey writer who enjoyed a bourbon tasting with Booker. To get a good ‘Kentucky Chew,’ Booker would take a sip of bourbon, work it around his mouth and then smack his lips a few times in such a way that it appeared like he was chewing on the liquid. According to Booker, this technique allowed the bourbon to coat his entire mouth, so he could assess all the nuanced flavors and finish of the whiskey. You can break your own tasting into three parts: the initial flavors, the secondary flavors, and the finish. What do you taste initially? Go through the categories like you did with your nosing, making note of anything you pick out in the various categories. Take note of any secondary flavors that reveal themselves as you coat your mouth. Try to see if the flavor changes or evolves while in your mouth. Now take note of the finish of the whiskey. What happens after you swallow? Does it burn? Is it warm? If it warm, did you feel it down to your stomach? Did it last a long time? If so, that is referred to as a long finish.
In addition to the flavor components of the whiskey, also take note of the physical characteristics. Take time to notice the mouthfeel of the whiskey. Was it hot? Did it burn? Was it oily? All of these characteristics are always worth noting; the mouthfeel is often an overlooked part of a whiskeys flavor profile.
After you taste the whiskey it may be worth adding a dash of water to the glass. The added water will lower the proof and “open up” the whiskey. You will be able to nose and taste more subtle notes in the whiskey when those characteristics aren’t competing against the alcohol vapors.
Hopefully these tips will help you the next time you host a tasting with your own “Whiskey Friends”.