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Tasting Whiskey

As the end of 2013 is getting close, I have to say it’s been a pretty good year. I’ve enjoyed my family, had awesome adventures with my friends and, of course, managed to spend some quality time with my beautiful copper whiskey still. I’ve succeeded some incredibly tasty moonshine recipes… and failed a few too. But hopefully I also learned a thing or two in the process.

I think you’ll agree that discovering and learning new things is one of the most important things in life. So I thought I’ll share with you an essential set of tips which every whiskey still owner and whiskey passionate should know: how to taste whiskey. I got most of my information from the tastings and visits to distilleries that I’ve made in the past, but also from chats both with fellow moonshiners and master distillers. Although certain details differ between different countries, areas and even distillers, some things they all agree on.

The trick to get you to spot certain characteristics is to build up experiences of tasting different things, even unrelated to whiskey, and taking 'taste snapshots' of the characteristics of the flavors. The more you do this, the more precise your whiskey tasting becomes. What I think is most important is that whiskey shouldn’t be gulped down in shots. It’s a fine drink that needs to be sipped and savored so that all the flavors have time to reach your taste buds. It’s also important to remember that tasting is a very personal and subjective thing. There’s no right or wrong answers and there’s certainly very few chances you’ll pick up the same aromas as your friends, especially if you’re not experts. 

The first thing to do is choose the right glass for nosing and tasting. The so-called ‘snifter’, a tulip-shaped sherry or brandy glass, is ideal for this or something similar; even a wine glass will do. Some come with an additional glass plate which, placed over the top of the glass, helps trap the aromas inside. The essential thing is that it has a stem and is narrower towards the top, so that it forces the bouquet towards your nostrils and lets you capture the whole aroma. The shape also helps you swirl the drink and still keep it in the glass, without wasting any of it. Make sure the glass is at room-temperature and that you only hold it by the low end of the stem, as it’s important that you don’t transfer body heat to the drink.

Pour about an ounce of whiskey, which should be enough for a tasting. Take note of the color while you are waiting during this short time - holding it against a white background is a good tip.  Swirl it around for a bit, so as to allow oxygen to get to the liquid and evaporation to begin. This is important as the whiskey has been taken out of a whiskey still and trapped in a cask or a bottle for all of its life until this point and needs a little time to express itself and start to show its true characteristics. Once you have swirled, allow the spirit to settle so that your first sensations will not be full of alcohol. 

Then on to the ‘sniffing’. Some distillers actually say this is the essential step and that the actual tasting will only confirm what your nose has already told you. But you need a pretty well-trained nose for that… I guess the most important thing is to do it right, slowly and carefully, and pay attention to every single note. Firstly, stick your whole nose into the glass and gently sniff it. The alcohol vapors will be the first thing you encounter so that’s why you need to pull back, swirl it in the glass for a bit, wait a few seconds, then go back to it. Go back a third time, bury your nose into the lip of the glass, and roll the glass from one nostril to the other. Even if you don’t recognize all the aromas, some distillers encourage you to try and associate the scents with memories, which might lead you to remember a certain room (a desk, wood, leather, age), a memory related to home (Christmas cake, dried fruit, spices), summer holidays (grass, smoke, salt) and so on. From this, try to predict what the taste of the whiskey will be like.

The next step is adding a bit of water to bring the whiskey down to somewhere between 20-35% abv – this depends on personal preference. Adding the water opens it up, gives you more information on the drink and makes it easier to identify the palate. Distillers say that especially for whiskeys 12 years or younger, water is always advisable. For whiskeys 15 years and up, don't add water before you first taste it. But no matter what the age of the whiskey is, if it still bites when you take a sip, that means it's too strong and you should add water a little bit at a time, otherwise it will just numb your nose and your taste buds. Don't use sparkling water. Any good still water will do, but distilled water is best. Don't use ice, it will only mask the flavors. Some distillers actually recommend you don’t add water at all and just try it as it is first, to then decide for yourself how much water would help you discover the remaining flavors after the first sip.

Finally, taste it! Take a small sip into your mouth and move it around. Start by putting the whisky in the middle of the tongue, then under the tongue, then back in the middle of the tongue. Keep it there a few seconds and assess the flavors, then let it go down. As it goes down, the tongue will reveal more interesting flavors. Let the flavors linger for at least 20-30 seconds. Always take a second taste, which usually reveals different layers of flavor than the first. After two-three slow tastes, tip the rest back for a good finish. The finish is the after taste that comes once you have swallowed the whiskey. Some people say the complexity of the finish in whiskey is what differentiates it from all other spirits. Also, ask yourself whether the flavors remain for a short, medium or long time. This is called the length of the finish.

If you want to compare different types of whiskey, there are two types of processes you can try: the vertical or the horizontal tasting. Vertical tasting refers to comparing two (or more) whiskeys belonging to the same distillery, while for a horizontal tasting you can choose whiskeys from different distilleries or areas, but which still have some common elements – either try two different Kentucky Bourbons or try an American and a Scottish rye whiskey, of more or less the same age.

Although this is a topic you can never know enough about, I hope this adds a small point to your list of ‘interesting things I learned in 2013’. I also hope you have an amazing new year and that we can learn more new things together.

Thank you for your love of copper whiskey stills and for being part of The Whiskey Still Company community! Wishing you all lovely holidays and a ‘shining 2014!

Posted by Jason Stone on


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