What You Really Need To Taste

Drink:  Evan Williams 1783

With bourbon, as with any food or drink, before you can even try to commit to a preference or opinion, you try the product.

Children will tell you that they don’t like something just by looking at it.  They don’t like peas because they’re a vegetable.  They don’t like cauliflower because it’s on their plate.  In the whiskey aisle, you can be easily enticed or put off by a bottle alone.  But that’s not fair to the whiskey and it’s certainly no way to judge the liquid inside.  To form a reasonable opinion, you must sample it.  You must taste it.

At times, people in the whiskey world will tell you that tasting is easy, that anyone can do it.  Then they will tell you about the special glassware you can purchase and how it will help bring the scents right to your nose, or something to that effect.  The problem I see with this is that you can’t tell someone that something is easily within their grasp then follow it up with the special equipment they’ll “need” to do it.  I went skiing once and absolutely loved it.  To ski, however, there really is set equipment that you need.  Ski boots and skis come to mind.  You’ll not make an easy time of the slope on a pair of sneakers.  With whiskey tasting, you don’t need special equipment at all.  In fact, you probably have all the equipment you need already.

What you don’t need:
1.  A special, fancy, and/or expensive glass.
2.  An expensive whiskey
3.  A vast background in food and beverages
4.  A large vocabulary
5.  A 100 point rating system

What you do need:
1.  A whiskey
2.  A glass
3.  Eyes (optional)
4.  A nose
5.  A mouth

That’s it.

1.  The Whiskey:

There are plenty of options in most liquor stores.  As I live in suburban Connecticut, my options may be more varied and convenient than yours.  But somewhere relatively close to you, surely there is a liquor store that carries at least one whiskey.  If you’ve never done a tasting before, or consumed whiskey at all, it doesn’t have to be anything special.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that cost directly correlates to quality.  It doesn’t.  Anything under $20 will do fine.  Even a nip will do and those typically go for only a couple of bucks and have the bonus of being the cheapest way to sample a product you’re interested in (except for a friend who’s willing to give you some of theirs for free).  You can even find a bar, or a restaurant with one, and try something there.

When trying to decide where to start, don’t make the mistake of asking someone, “What’s a good bourbon?”  The answer to that is wholly subjective.  A better question might be, “What’s a good bourbon to start with, and what should I expect from it?”  I might tell you, “Evan Williams 1783 might be a good place to start.  Around here it’s a mere $17, it’s fairly smooth, has a good depth of flavor, a noticeable oak influence, and while it isn’t ‘sweet’, it falls on the sweeter side of the bourbon flavor wheel.”  We’ll get more into that later.

2.  The Glass:

Many times in pictures, in reviews on blogs or on Youtube, you’ll see or hear about the special glass being used for the tasting.  Typically it’s a Glencairn glass, but it can be other types as well.  Even a standard wine glass.

I have a set of six Glencairn glasses that I purchased two years ago for when Jake, the only friend I have who really likes whiskey, and I do tastings.  As our journeys have begun to take different directions, he and I view the whiskey world differently.  Jake is more into Scotch and likes to try and be wowed by special releases, one-offs and rare spirits (and their price tags).  I tend to try and be wowed by the time-tested, bottom shelf, solidly produced products that sit quietly unassuming, waiting to be discovered by those in the know.  I have become very aware of marketing and just how much I succumbed to its song and dance, charming bills right out of my wallet and into someone else’s hands.  Like peoples’ houses you visit who have a few (or a lot) of those As Seen On TV products lying around collecting dust.  Borne of a weak moment in front of late night TV, they are now just a reminder of marketing’s siren song.  When I behold my Glencairn glasses now, occupying valuable cabinet space, that is how I feel.  It was a fledgling moment.  Fresh into the whiskey scene, I wanted to do it right.  All the big names used Glencairns in their tastings, so I had to do the same.

But after two years I’ve learned a lot about my relationship with bourbon.  I found that my nose gets claustrophobic in a Glencairn, and numbs quickly.  It’s almost like all of the smells are bottlenecked into a tight exit and, as they’re moving past, it becomes difficult for me to sort them out.  What helps me is a wider rimmed glass, like an Old Fashioned Glass, with enough surface area for the whiskey to spread out and gently drift its smell upward.  to that end I have a Jameson glass that I bought really cheap (that link is only to show you the glass; I paid like $1 at a liquor store when it was on sale).  I actually had the glass long before I got into whiskey, and it was convenient as I already had it on hand.  So it’s what I used and I found that, over time, I preferred it to the Glencairn.

Now don’t hear me saying that a Glencairn is bad, because it isn’t.  It’s just not my preference, which is what I’m getting at.  For now, if you’re going to start sampling whiskey, just use what you have at home.  Don’t buy something special just to taste whiskey in.  I found too that, even if I tasted a bourbon in my Glencairn, when I sat down to just have a glass I’d use the Jameson lowball.  So use what you’ll be drinking out of.  It’s ok.  It’s also convenient and cheaper.

Maybe this is because I’m a blue collar worker with one child in the house and another on the way and no second income.  On the rare occasions I get to try something new, I don’t have the time, finances, or inclination to grab for the fancy glass.  I just want what I have and what I like because that’s all the energy I have at the end of the day.  But even if I were a bachelor millionaire with ample time on my hands, my advice would still be the same:  Use what you have, and what you like.  Don’t get fancy.

3.  Eyes (optional):

While this isn’t an incredibly important part of tasting, it’s one of my favorites.  I enjoy looking at the color of the whiskey.  Bourbon, while it looks brown on the shelf, shows orange when held up to the light.  Like amber or burnt sienna.  One of my favorite scotches, Macallan 12 year, is pink.  It’s 18 year old brother is nearly purple.  If you want to get really fancy, you can swirl the whiskey in your glass and watch the legs (those streaks running back down into the liquid after you let it settle).  I tend not to because it enhances my tasting experience in no way.  It’s supposed to tell you about the sugars (not table sugar, but the natural sugars) contained within (the thicker the legs, the more sugars are present).  But they all look relatively similar to me, and they don’t tell me what the whiskey will smell or taste like, so I usually skip it.  You decide for yourself.

Oh, and while we’re at it, sometimes you’ll find reviewers who will include the bottle in their rating system.  I find this practice to be silly.  The bottle has no bearing on my experience of the whiskey in my glass and I therefore ignore it.  Some bottles I enjoy, others I find very ordinary.  Some I even find odd.  Corks and screw caps have their benefits and drawbacks.  But in the end, none of it matters.

4.  The Nose:

The nose, to me, is the most important part of a whiskey tasting.  In fact, it’s often the most rewarding aspect and far exceeds the taste.  If you’ve never smelled a whiskey before, take it slow and don’t get too close.  You’ll anesthetize your nose (meaning all you’ll be able to smell is what my wife describes as ‘rubbing alcohol’).  Start from at least eight inches away, slowly approach the glass while breathing through your nose and stop when you start to smell the whiskey.  You don’t want to flood your olfactory and overwhelm yourself.  I find slow, steady breathing through my nose, with the glass three to four inches from my nose, tilted so that the opening points toward my nose and mouth, helps to stir the air inside the glass and raise the scents up to me.  You may do this any way you want, but the end goal is to smell the nuances of the whiskey.

When you’re nosing a whiskey, you’re not looking for scents and flavors that are actually in the liquid.  When you read a review and the author says things like, “vanilla, maple syrup, baking spices,” I can assure you that, as the definition of bourbon disallows it, those flavors are not actually there.  The distillery did not pour in vanilla, maple syrup, and a dash or two of nutmeg and cinnamon.  What you’re smelling are the nuances imparted by the distillation and aging process.  The grain (corn, wheat, rye) and the barrel (charred American White Oak).  Corn and wheat tend to impart a sweetness where the rye imparts a spiciness and sourness.  Wheat can leave maple syrup, rye can leave briny pickle juice and mint.  The oak influence can leave a woody smell, along with some sweet notes of its own like vanilla and toffee.

There is no wrong ‘answer’ when smelling a whiskey.  It’s what the scents remind you of.  When smelling Rock Hill Farms and Jim Beam Black, I detect a large amount of cherry.  Jefferson’s Straight Rye smells like pickle juice and mint, with a sweet wood base.  Some bourbons leave a large impression of marzipan.  I’ll never forget the only glass of Elijah Craig 18 I was able to have (it’s no longer in production) had a note of honeydew mellon.  Again, none of these are actually there.  It’s just what the smell of the ingredients, distillation, and barrel aging have imparted.  So take your time, and see what you can find.

5.  The Mouth:

Here, the goal is much the same as the smell only, instead of using your nose, you’re using your mouth and ultimately your tongue.  You’ll be looking for flavors.  I find that this portion of the tasting is less enjoyable than the nose.  Some bourbons I can smell for hours and be completely content to never take a sip.  But inevitably, it should be tasted and consumed.  The best way I can describe drinking whiskey if it’s your first time is this:  The first sip sucks.  The second can be worse.  The third is wonderful (unless you’re drinking a terrible whiskey; then it never gets better).  The first sip is typically a primer for your palette, getting it ready for the strong liquid.  Once you’re used to it, typically by the third sip, you’ll start to taste the flavors.  Sometimes, before the flavors become apparent, there is a vague sense of sweet, spicy, sour, and/or dry.  Again, it’s not what’s actually there (though sometimes it is; rye really is sour), it’s the impressions left.  You may not be able to identify or describe everything.  For example, there are some bourbons I drink that have what I call a “grassy” component.  Especially if I drink them outside (I don’t know why).  I just learned today what it is.  Another blogger, reviewing a bourbon, mentioned a flavor they find, typically in younger bourbons, that they describe as corn husks on a hot, summer day.  That is exactly what I taste.  Sort of.  It’s one of those “this tastes like something smells” things.  It tastes like corn husks smell.  Smell and taste are closely linked after all.  

Take your time between sips (though not too much or every sip will be like the first).  Some people like to ‘chew‘ on their bourbon, and I do find that this helps sometimes to discover flavors I would not have otherwise noticed.  I found out about chewing by accident when I reflexively did it while tasting a rum at a liquor store (though much slower than Fred Noe), then saw a video like that one.  As with the nose, there are no wrong answers here (unless you say something like, “I taste the hull of the shuttle Endeavor,” unless you have licked the Endeavor’s hull and what you’re drinking does actually taste like it, then fine).

Don’t worry about being fancy, or comparing your drink to a million things.  Whatever you find is fine.  The ultimate goal in all of this is to enjoy the experience, and to enjoy the whiskey.

There is one factor here that can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted.  Some whiskeys draw you in for another glass.  They sit on your shelf and, when you find yourself in the mood, are just so easy to choose.  Lately for me it’s been anything with Evan Williams on it.  The standard black label, the 1783 “small batch”, the single barrel expression.  I don’t know what it is, I really can’t quantify it.  I find myself standing in front of my basement liquor shelves, ready to pour myself a glass, and there are select whiskeys that are just so easy to grab over the others.  It’s not that they smell or taste better, though some certainly do.  It’s just that…well…I don’t know, I just really enjoy sipping on them.  They just draw me in for more.  I suppose, if I do any future ratings, I’ll call that aspect “the draw”.  Does this bourbon have the draw?

So, as you sample and taste the various whiskeys available, take your time.  Enjoy it.  Don’t rush or you’ll miss a lot.  And if a whiskey has the draw for you, enjoy it all the more.

One more thing while we’re at it.  When you’re figuring out what you might like to try next, don’t look at ratings.  If a whiskey has a ?/100 rating, ignore it.  Find reviewers who take the time to describe what they’re smelling and tasting and see if it falls in line with the type of whiskeys you’re finding you enjoy.  I tend not to like high rye content bourbons, so if I find a reviewer describing “baking spices” a lot, I’ll usually skip it.  If, however, I’m hearing a lot of “vanilla, maple syrup, toffee,” and things like that, I’ll give it a try.  If you don’t like red wine, 98 points tacked onto a bottle won’t matter.  You probably still won’t like it.  Points are useless.  Tasting notes are much more helpful.  And do your homework.  Don’t buy into marketing hype and spend lots of money on whiskey.  If you see a bottle you are interested in, research it.  If it’s not there when you get back, don’t worry, there are plenty of other delicious options available.




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