Tasting Whiskey 101

By: Shawn Simmons

An old adage about rating wines and spirits is that the drink is in the palate of the beholder--or that it is entirely a subjective exercise and the final rating depends on the tastes and proclivities of the taster. While everyone has their internal biases and preconceived notions, if you look for objective criteria when tasting wines and spirits, you can usually find them. There are real differences between good and bad rums, fresh and oxidized wines, and thin and voluptuous cognacs.

With whiskey, you have a built in advantage. The aromas and flavors are quite noticeable, and are also noticeable if they are absent. Contrast this with tasting vodka where you are straining to find the nuances of the particular spirit you taste.

Start with the color...just note what color it looks like. Also note if there is any sediment in the whiskey. Sediment is not a good sign.

Then swirl the glass a little to open up the whiskey. If it is a new bottle, it may require some breathing like wines do. Now smell the whiskey. Don't bury your nose in the glass--the alcohol will overwhelm the aromas. Just take some medium sniffs and write down what it smells like.

Common aromas are spice, vanilla, egg-based meringues and puddings, oak, and cereal grains. If you smell any off, reedy, or brackish aromas, this could spell some trouble.

Now take a very small sip. Roll it around in your mouth. Don't think about what it tastes like. The first thing you want to ascertain is what the structure is like. How fast does it open? Does it open up quickly, or take its time? Once it opens, is it a large structure--a full body, or something leaner or more delicate? Can you detect any layers--maybe fruitiness balanced by a spicy oak structure?

Now start writing down what it tastes like. The flavors can run the gamut. Write everything down you think you taste--you can come back and confirm or redact a flavor on a following sip.

Also, note what the mouth feel is like--sharp and acidic? Pillowy and silky? Fat and buttery (most whiskies are not in this category)? Note how complex the whiskey is--are there multiple layers? Are the flavors intense, concentrated? Are there subtle flavors that you wouldn't expect?

When you swallow the whiskey (or spit if you're not wanting to imbibe), what are the finishing flavors like? How long is the finish? Does the whiskey just wink out, or are you still tasting/experiencing it for a minute or two after you swallow it. If it is a really big and complex whiskey, sometimes you'll smell it during the finish as the aromas travel up the back of your nose.

At any time, if there is an off flavor, or too much of any one thing--sweetness, acidity, alcohol heat, oak, etc--note this. These are detriments to the overall rating. What you're looking for is a balance between these competing flavors and aromas.

Now summarize what you've written down in some sort of scale...1 to 5, 1 to 100, A/B/C/D/F, etc. Use the tasting notes and the rating to help you discern what kinds of whiskey you like and will order at your neighborhood bar or liquor store.

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By night, Shawn Simmons is a wine and spirits connoisseur who writes for Liquor and Drink where you can find more information on whiskey tasting and whiskey cocktails such as the Manhattan.

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