Everyone who loves whisk(e)y has their own way of tasting new labels for the first time. Most of them will swear their way is the best way but after looking at what every expert I’ve read up on has had to say, there is one constant that does not change. However you choose to taste a whisk(e)y, make sure you taste it that way at every tasting. Nothing helps get a true feel for a whisky than consistency.
Allow me to preface all of the following by openly admitting that I am no expert. I’m just a guy who loves good whiskies and enjoys tasting new ones every chance I get. As you’ll come to learn if you decide to spend any length of time on this site; I don’t believe in bad whisk(e)y. Sure, there are some flavors I prefer over others. There are even some flavors I outright can’t stand. That doesn’t make the whisk(e)y bad; it just means I don’t like it. Someone else may find it to be the best they’ve ever had. Just as there are no bad whiskies; there aren’t really any “bad” ways of tasting whisky. The trick, as I mentioned before, is to be consistent.
That being said; here’s my usual process for tasting something new and potentially fantastic.
Things you’ll need:
The first thing, of course is a glass. Different people argue over the best glass for tasting. There are those rumored to focus the nose of a whisk(e)y to enhance the aroma. There are those which open up at the top to allow the whisk(e)y to breathe. Some prefer just a plain old rocks glass. Me? I used to think a Glencairn glass was the way to go and while it truly is a great glass for those who want to focus the nose and get a feel for how a whisk(e)y will taste prior to drinking; if you’re at a bar, chances are they won’t have one. For the sake of consistency, I enjoy the idea of using a brandy snifter. At home, I have a stemless snifter with a rocker bottom that I’ve grown to adore. When I go out, just about anywhere with a scotch or bourbon I’m willing to drink will have snifters available.
The second thing you’ll need is the ability to decide on what you will be tasting. This, for me, is always the hardest part. Do I go with a new label from a distillery I know I love or do I find an off the wall distillery that I’ve never tried? Usually, the budget dictates this response for me. I’m not nearly popular enough yet to get whiskies for free, so I have to get it the old fashioned way (beg my wife to allow me to buy a bottle).
Lastly, you’ll need a pen and piece of paper if you’re wanting to do a serious tasting. Jotting down notes about the whisk(e)y (I recommend a small notebook that fits in your pocket, not only can you take whisk(e)y notes in it, but you’ll look ever so astute) helps you remember the name of what you tasted, your thoughts on it, and the price point.
If you’ve read my tasting guidelines then you have a general idea for where I look to determine my opinion of the whisky. Here I hope to explain why I look to these places and guide you through a process of tasting a new label. Feel free to skip around if you know what you’re doing.
Popping the cork:
I don’t put much stock in the single malt vs blend competition. I used to, then I discovered Compass Box and my opinion of blends pulled a 180. But if there’s any whisk(e)y elitist statement I do agree with it’s this: if there’s no cork, there’s usually not much flavor. I’m not sure why I feel this way. Some screw tops have been fantastic whiskies; but none of them have ever made themselves a permanent home in my liquor cabinet. I think it’s because one of my favorite things to do with a new whisky is smell the cork the first time it comes out of the bottle. You just can’t get the same experience with a screw top. It just doesn’t happen.
Before I pull the cork for the first time, I turn the bottle upside down to saturate it. I want fresh whisk(e)y on the cork when I open it so that when I smell the cork I can get a good idea of how the sweet amber inside will taste. Some people skip this part of tasting but to me it’s a ritual that I enjoy. It’s like getting to first base with the new label you’ll soon be enjoying.
I like to take notes here on what I’m smelling off the cork. I compare them later to what I smell out of the glass.
The First Pour
This is where my anticipation usually starts bubbling. I pour the whisk(e)y into my tasting glass and look through it to see the color. I swirl it around a little to get a feel for the body (watch how quickly it drains from the side of the glass back down, the longer it takes the more body it should have). It’s exciting. You’ve already gotten to first base with your new label and now you’re starting to picture her naked.
Take notes on the color of the whisk(e)y and what you anticipate the body to be. It gets you ready for the next parts.
If you don’t know, nosing is the process of bringing the whisk(e)y you’ll be tasting just under your nose and wafting in the aroma (or just smelling it directly, your choice, really). You may or may not notice a tingling sensation in your nose hairs when you do this. Don’t worry, it’s normal. Try to pick out at least 2 distinct smells from the aroma of the label you’re tasting. The more you do this the more you’ll eventually be able to pick up, but two is a good goal to start. Compare what you’re smelling now to what you smelled when you sniffed the cork. Comparing these will help you train your nose to…well…nose.
Congratulations, my friend, you have rounded third and are moving in for the score. There are a lot of notes during this part of the tasting process. The first sip, you’ll want to hold that in your mouth for a few seconds, I recommend at least five. Don’t pay attention to the flavors just yet. You’ll get to those. Right now, just admire the body. Is it what you were expecting? Is it a dry sensation? Does your mouth feel overwhelmed by the flavors. These are all signs of the body. You’ll either like the way the whisk(e)y feels in your mouth or you won’t (yes, that’s what she said). If you like it, note why. If you don’t, note why. Pay attention to how body feels compared to how strong that tingling sensation in your nose was. This is how you train yourself to guess at the body of the whisk(e)y just off the nose. It’ll help you avoid spending a small fortune on a bottle you won’t enjoy if the bar you frequent let’s you smell a whisk(e)y before purchasing.
Now it’s time for another sip. This time, just as if it were a wine, move it slowly across the whole of your tongue. This will bring out all the different flavors it has to offer. Make notes on what you taste. There’s no wrong answer here. If you think you taste it, you probably do. You may describe it as one thing and someone else may describe it as something slightly different. That’s fine. Compare those notes to all your other flavor notes. The more you do this, the easier it’s going to become to identify flavors by smell.
Now it’s time to slide in to home. Take a third sip. Hold it for a few second. Move it around your mouth. Swallow. Now pay attention because, for me, this is what makes or breaks a whisk(e)y. It’s time to talk about…
For me (and some of the women I know), this matters more than anything else. If the finish is over too quickly it can ruin the experience, but the same is true if the finish takes to long. When tasting a scotch or bourbon or any other whisk(e)y, it’s vitally important to determine what kind of finish you like. I enjoy it when the label I’m tasting takes me back through it’s greatest hits of flavors, leaves me with a hip new track I wasn’t expecting and then retires to allow me to smoke a cigar and think about how great our time together has been (or is being, depending on how much I want to drink that night).
1. Be consistant: This is the most important thing you can do for yourself when tasting a new label.
2. Take notes: It’s important you don’t just take notes about what you like in a whisk(e)y but also the things you don’t like. By paying attention to both of these it’ becomes much easier to learn to identify whiskies you may or may not like. It’s an expensive hobby, loving whisk(e)y. Do what you can to train yourself to identify what you will and won’t like.
3. If you’re lucky enough to have a whisk(e)y bar in your area, and that bar is lucky enough to have a whisk(e)y expert behind the bar; treat him well. Chances are he’s run the gambit of different bottlings and labels to season his taste buds and be able to offer you sincere advice. When you tip a true mixologist, someone who understands the flavors behind what you’re drinking, tip according to their expertise as well as their service. This makes them far more likely to share their special secrets next time you come by.
Every culture that invented it’s own form of alcohol called it an elixir of life. Remember that.