The simple act of tasting a whiskey is sufficient to raise a storm of argument and debate. As a child, I had no difficulty tasting a Coke. I poured it, raised the glass to my lips and promptly without guidance despatched the contents. It tasted just fine. I was clearly a prodigy as the simple act of tasting whisky has been raised to Thesaurus busting verbosity. A black art only given to those few who can detect a hint of Mint, Nutmeg, Cinnamon or Cloves in a glass that to others tastes only of whiskey. I could also recall in an instant the taste toffee, chocolate and caramel, Strangely, all of my 8-year-old friends shared this ability, every one of us. We were clearly a gifted species on my street.
So for those of you less geeky, I produce the following post, confident that in time you will instantly recognise hints of apple, pear, almond and vanilla as they waft across your nose or settle on your tongue or linger like a smile as the winter sun goes behind clouds. Alternatively, there is sufficient rigmarole here to allow you to blag your way through any whiskey tasting whether you can detect cloves, orange zest or not.
The Easy Bit
Pour a decent measure whiskey 1 oz or more. Hold your Glencairn glass horizontal. Turn it very slowly to coat the sides with whiskey.
Let it sit for a while and examine the colour. If Amber is 0 yellow is -3 and Brown is +3 where would you place this Bourbon.
Now, wait. The old Scottish rule is;
A minute in the glass for a year in the cask
Now let it sit a bit longer, gently swirling the fluid around the glass to expose the contents to the air.
If it is a higher proof whiskey don’t swirl it around, just let it sit. Swirling releases too much alcohol vapour and as it hits your nose you won’t get the subtlety of the aroma.
Do the legs fall slowly, full and thick, hints of an older Bourbon or do they descend fast and are thin like a younger spirit. A higher alcoholic bourbon ought also to give full slow-moving legs, only the taste will confirm your observations.
Before I nose or taste, I bring to my mind my reference, nose and taste which I hold in my memory.
Raise the glass reverently to your nose which, wait for it, you insert into the top of the glass. Now, wait to let the aroma come to you, open your mouth a little and slowly take a breath of air through your nose. What can you smell?
I go through this list to jog my drink addled memory.
Sexy, Susan, Flirts, Frequently , Near A Central Hotel
Sweet – Vanilla, Caramel, Chocolate
Spices – Nutmeg, Ginger, Pepper, Cloves
Floral – Hay, Grass, Flowers
Fruits – Apple, Pear, Berries, Orange
Nuts – Almond, Walnut
Age – Leather, Cedar, Tobacco, Coffee, Tea
Cereal – Bread, Toast
Herbs – Mint
Then I check for Off Notes – sulphur, vegetal, cheese
Take a sip of decent proportions. Swill will it around with your tongue so that it coats all of the mouth. Press it against the roof of the mouth, Chew it and force it through your teeth, finally drawing air over the tongue, Pause and consider all that you notice, running through my checklist again. Notice how it feels in your mouth, waxy, well coated, bitter. given the amount of indelicate mouthing be cautious not to choke or spit it out or of appearing like a calf chewing the cud – not a good look.
Go through the checklist again.
Now consider what you might expect to notice.
The Mash Bill, how does the Corn, Rye, Barley or Wheat appear?
is it a young spirit, Floral and Fruity or an older whiskey strong with Oak, Tannins and other barrel notes?
Are the flavours robust or muted? Is the whiskey thin and subtle or full and substantial? Ollie Hardy or Stan?
Now finally, after my second sip, how do the flavours dwell and which new flavours arise? What score do Give the Nose, Taste, Finish and Body?
I may now add between a drop of water to 3-4 teaspoons depending on the alcoholic strength and repeat the process of smelling and tasting. I almost invariably add water but often only a single drop.
What is my overall conclusion? What mysteries does this Bourbon live me puzzled about and believe me there are often a few. Oh for the certainty of my youth.
At each stage, I take notes, against the same headings with a column to the right third for with water. After the final sip, I give it my score. See the page on my scoring approach.