From the Distiller...How to Taste Whiskey
I previously wrote about the proper way to drink whiskey (which is, if you recall, however you like drinking it), and now to build on that, I’d like to talk about TASTING whiskey. This is an opportune time, as this is something we here at Big Spring Spirits have lately gotten much more serious about ourselves. The reason is that we have lots of barrels to sample & taste as we look forward to the release of some straight whiskeys, tentatively in November (more on this next month). When we first sat down to do some serious tasting of barrel samples we quickly realized that this is a little different from simply taking tasting notes and giving an overall rating. While we did need to do that, we also needed to assign numeric values to what we were tasting in order to make the comparison between barrels more meaningful. We came up with a new rating sheet to help us out (unabashedly based on a couple found on the internet – no need to reinvent the whiskey flavor wheel!). This has allowed us to better evaluate the status of individual barrels.
We’ll get to our rating system in a minute, but first I’ll go over the basic mechanics of the tasting. Not surprisingly, it is similar to wine and beer tasting. You want to assess the color, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and finish. With high proof spirits though, how you evaluate these is a little different than with beer and wine. You don’t want to stick your nose into your glass of whiskey and take a big whiff. That will do a little more than tickle your nose! For whiskeys, you want to hold your nose above the glass and let the aromas come to you. You can gradually bring your nose closer as you sniff. Here are the descriptors to which we give a numerical rating for: smoky, spicy, herbal, sweet, oily, full, rich, nutty, briny, salty, vanilla, tart, fruity, and floral. We also note the color. We rate each of these characteristics from 0 – 5, with 5 being very prominent, making a point of looking for each of these characters even though we might not detect many of these in the aroma. We find it often best to quickly write down your immediate impressions. You might find that some things will disappear, or appear with subsequent sniffs.
Now onto the taste. Take just a small sip, and let it roll around in your mouth for a bit, and then swallow. Just like beer and wine, think about the start, the middle, and the finish. What was the first taste you thought of? What do you get as you swirl it around in your mouth? And finally, what do you continue to taste when you swallow it? I find that when I finally swallow a whiskey, it really does bring on a distinct flavor profile compared to when swirling it around in my mouth. Chances are the flavors you detect will change as you go from start, to middle, to finish. Again, we are rating the flavors of each barrel using the same categories as we used for aroma. Also at this time, consider the mouthfeel. Is it light on your tongue, or is it rich and full-bodied? Remember that there is no correct answer. I find sometimes I really enjoy a light-bodied whiskey. I’ve also had some whiskeys that were very full-bodied, but didn’t have the flavors to match. It is all about the balance. How is the finish? Is it short, or long? What flavors do you find lingering in your mouth? This is often the lasting memory you have of a whiskey. Did you enjoy the experience from start to finish?
So there you have it, our tasting process. Try it yourself at home and you may find an improved appreciation of the whiskey in your glass.