My methods and thoughts of whiskey tasting
Their words and descriptions were full of detailed notes of aromas and tastes that made me hungry (or thirsty!) to try the whiskies that they wrote about. I never once questioned their abilities or the notes that they were picking up on.
But I noticed a common trend while reviewing bottles on Reddit; there seemed to be a monthly post that revolved around how that person struggled to find all of these profiles that the reviewers wrote about.
Most of the time, these kinds of posts went down the rabbit hole whereby other users would claim that notes were “all just made up anyway.” Topics like this garnered a lot of kudos from those that shared the same opinion.
Glands are a fickle bunch
The olfactory glands are a fickle bunch. “Did you just smell what I smelled?” “Does this taste like it needs more salt?” “I don’t like that restaurant because the food tastes like crap.”
We all have different ways of experiencing taste and smell. Truthfully, there are so many variables amongst us all, it’s even a wonder that two different people setting across from each other with the same bottle can even agree on tasting something as common as vanilla in their whiskey.
Most review websites tend to skip explaining why and how they get to the profiles they write about, because it’s probably boring and somewhat non-believable anyway.
I’m going to attempt to explain the steps I take for my review tastings and let you know why I feel this helps. Whiskey doesn’t have to be full of such a rigid set of steps like I’m about to go over, but I if you want to truly find those subtle nuances that show you why a bottle of George T. Stagg is worthy of a $400 price tag whereas Old Grand Dad 114 is really only worth its $25 price tag:
Watch the food you eat before your tasting
There are certain foods that you eat that leave certain aftertastes. Some of those aftertastes last a long time and some last a short time.
Some even last through a thorough teeth cleaning session. We’re all different, but I know what mine are. Dairy products (especially milk) leave a thick film on my tongue, teeth and gums.
Sometimes it even tastes like I have more phlem for hours after I consume it. Chocolate also sticks around in my mouth for a long time, slowly turning from sweet and cocoa-y into a more rancid taste.
Chocolate’s inherent sugar content and stickiness more than likely gets in between your teeth and sticks around.
Sharply flavored foods
Then there’s sharply flavored foods such as onions (to include all members of the onion family like garlic and chives) as well as fruits with lots of pungent oils.
Citrus fruits are the biggest culprits. Oranges in particular. Speaking of oranges, modern pasteurized orange juice is essentially lifeless sludge that is reinvigorated with an orange extract oil prior to bottling to give it the citrus aroma that we associate with it.
That crap stays in my gums and throat almost all day. The high sugar content in any food actually contributes overall to the ability to turn “rancid” in my mouth with each passing hour.
Coffee, asparagus and fish are also other guilty culprits that will ruin your palate for a long time.
Look, I am awful about dental hygiene, no lie. If I am being honest, I have a small amount of tartar buildup behind my front teeth and sometimes I go to bed without brushing my teeth (gasp!).
Surprisingly, I only have one cavity that was filled with a white filling. But for whatever it is worth, I always, ALWAYS floss before a whiskey review.
Why? Because sometimes I’ve noticed that the whiskey I’m drinking begins to taste like the food I previously ate.
While flossing, I’ll find and rid my mouth of that pesky leftover that I didn’t notice before. This is so I don’t describe a whiskey as “Palate: Chicken Wingz for Daaaayyyys.”
I’m also recommending not to drink within at least 2 hours of brushing your teeth because the minty (or cinnamon) oils in toothpaste will stick around for a while and taint the whiskey in your mouth and possibly even, what you smell.
Time of Day to do a Tasting
Alcoholism is real. It’s a downer to talk about, but it’s out there. With that being said, I hate to advocate for what I’m about to say, but whiskey tastes better in the middle of the day.
All of our biological clocks are different, but the bottom line is I think we all have a different time of the day when we’re at our sharpest, our most alert and all of our senses are more aware compared to other parts of the day.
For a majority of people, your senses are most dull in the morning as you’re struggling to get everything “online” in your body and at night, as your body slowly starts to shut it all down in preparation for sleep.
I have noticed that my senses are at their absolute peak at around 1pm or so. Do I do whiskey reviews at night? Most definitely.
I have a family and job. But when I have a chance to taste during the day, I will always jump on it. I do many review tastings at night, but I will usually do them for 2 or 3 nights, compiling my notes as I go because I know that my receptors may not be fully on for that last session.
I cannot stress this enough, your environment is the most important factor in how much you are going to sense or not sense certain tastes and smells.
If you are with a group of people, forget about doing a review. Concentrate on the company you’re in. If you’re watching TV or scrolling through your phone: turn them off.
If you’re in a room that has stale air or lots of old musty things piled about, get out of there. I wouldn’t go as far as to say go outside (I think that the airflow outside and the amount of “stuff” in the air makes it almost impossible), but I would say try to go into the cleanest and most open room of your house.
Anything that makes noise, turn it off
Next, if you have anything that makes noise, turn it off. You need to deaden your other senses so that you can focus on your two most important ones.
Finally, if you’re in a recliner, don’t recline back. Try to remain relatively upright. Leaning back will make your neck and head crane forward to attempt to sip and smell.
This may pinch the airflow that goes in and around your throat some. Any obstruction can count, so just try to sit upright.
Use a glencairn. There, I said it. No, it is not snobby for me to outright demand it. But if you want to smell and taste everything in your whiskey, I cannot recommend a better receptacle.
Maybe a copita that is shaped the same will work identically, but realistically a Rocks Glass, wine glass, NEAT glass, champagne glass or even those glasses that look like a glencairn, but are shorter and fatter are all trading off the ability of the tulip shape for something else like hand-feel, ease of pouring and cleaning or even dispersing alcohol fumes so that higher proofs won’t singe your nose hairs.
By all means, use a rocks glass when you’re with a friend or at a bar. Hell, I will admit that I have probably more rocks glasses than I do glencairns. But I won’t be doing a review with them.
Headspace and Oxidation
Headspace and oxidation are two very hotly debated and misunderstood categories when it comes to drinking and storing whiskey.
We all know that whiskey doesn’t really go bad, as in spoil, but too much oxidation can make the whiskey appear less dark and alter the taste.
However, in all of my drinking, I’ve found that among barrel proof whiskies, removing 2oz or so (drink that part or store it in a sample bottle) and then putting the cap/cork back on and leaving it set in your cabinet for at least a month will significantly change the taste.
As an example, let’s take a bottle of Stagg Jr. Typically it is around 130 proof and around 7-9 years old. The high proof and young-ish age make it full of ethanol that can quickly wipe out your smell receptors and your taste buds.
However, allowing this headspace begins to dissipate the ethanol and allow your nose and tongue to notice all of those rich caramel, cherry and chocolate flavors underneath.
I wait, on average, for 2 months after buying a bottle of Stagg Jr. before tasting it because I’m allowing for the bourbon to oxidize in the bottle a little bit. I’m not scientist and can’t explain the finer points, but what I can tell you is that it works.
Okay, so I think I’ve gone over every which way to setup the tasting, but now how to exactly do it? After all, do you really believe that whiskey reviewers just “make things up” to fill the space in a review?
I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone because for me, all of my tastes and smells that I can discern will immediately flash back in my mind to a spot or time I was at where I first distinctly remember that smell. I strongly believe that smell especially is one of our strongest senses.
If you’re like me, the smell of a certain perfume may bring you right back to a former significant other. Maybe a particular food smell will take you back to a holiday where you smelled a particular dish that you ended up really enjoying.
Maybe you were introduced to a new restaurant by an adventurous friend that made you try a food that you hadn’t before (Middle Eastern and Indian Food are two cuisines that heavily use the baking spices that you find in bourbon).
What I’m trying to say is that if you’re an adventurous person who has traveled a lot or simply finds true enjoyment in the food they eat, then your mind should be able to focus in on the scents and tastes you’re experiencing in whiskey.
Read some notes, download a “tasting wheel” or even smell some distinct spices or leftovers before your next whiskey session and you’ll find that those profiles can be laser-focused in while you drink.
Close your eyes when you drink, clear your mind. Think about only food, spices, outdoor areas and everything that could have a food scent.
Then once you lock onto a smell, keep focusing your mind to it until it picks up on something else. It’s hard to explain in words, but think about what I’m saying the next time you’re alone with a glass in your favorite chair.
Time: There is none
This section will seem strange, but it cannot be left out. It deals with time. Time is everything in whiskey aging, but it also applies to whiskey tasting too.
If you’re like me, you probably can’t jump right into a whiskey and identify everything on the first taste. In fact, some of my most fantastic pours can come after taking a sip and not taking another one for about 20 minutes. That’s a lot of time to wait!
But this gives the whiskey a chance to work its magic and open up your tongue’s taste buds and infiltrate your nose. Wait for 20 minutes and come back to it, inhaling deeply and you’ll find that all of the aromas and flavors have intensified.
For those that are impatient with their whiskey, a shortcut could be to have a very distinct smelling object nearby to continue to re-calibrate your nose. In my early days, it was a bag of coffee beans. Later on, I would just use my armpit.
The point is, if you’re not enjoying your whiskey, step away from it and give it some time to work its magic on your tongue. I promise that even the worst whiskey can turn into a deeper affair as you wait.
Also, if you’re just not feeling it or if your palate is off that day, don’t feel bad to just put the bottle away and come back again later. There’s nothing worse for me than to keep drinking an expensive whiskey when I’m not getting anything out of it.
Reflection: Learn from your past
A whiskey reviewer, or even drinker in general, should notice when their palate is off. I cannot describe this, but other websites have done a great job explaining how to tell and how to correct it.
Correcting it, in my opinion, is too hard and takes too much time. But there are many signs that tell me when I need to just give up on a bottle review for the night.
One of the first signs is I’m tasting and smelling only green apples or all peanuts. Now before you ask, many of my tasting notes have these two descriptions in them!
But, when I write that I notice them, they are still hidden in the background. Many times I open a fresh bottle, whether it’s bourbon, rye whiskey or light whiskey and I find that I get nothing but green apples on the tongue and nose.
This happened once with a bottle of 14 year old Light Whiskey from High West. I even noticed my first time drinking Old Ezra Barrel Strength that there was nothing but peanuts on the nose and that it tasted like I was shoveling spoonfuls of JIF in my mouth.
There are telltale signs that your palate is off
There are telltale signs that your palate is off and you shouldn’t ignore them. Even with eating slices of fruit, eating a piece of chocolate or drinking lots of water can’t correct an “off” palate.
I’d suggest not drinking that bottle and probably not drinking anything expensive for the rest of the night after that. Just let it naturally reset and record in your mind what you ate and drank before those sessions to see if you can find a pattern and avoid it in the future.
Don’t mix your alcohols
Also, much like your dad or college buddies might have told you in the past, don’t mix your alcohols, don’t drink dark beer and light beer together or don’t switch your brown and clear liquors together.
All of this starts to ring true with bourbon and whiskey in general. Early on I found that I can’t switch from bourbon to Scotch in the same night. Later, I got even more nuanced and realized I shouldn’t switch from rye whiskey to bourbon.
Now, I’ve found an even more specific trait that if I’m going to drink something with Dickel in it, to always drink it first.
Drinking another bourbon first and then switching to a bourbon with Dickel in it is a recipe for a weird aspartame-peanut and multivitamin note that is very off-putting.
These days, I will tend to stick with one distiller and start with a lower proof followed by working my way up to a higher proof as the night goes on. It’s always worked very well this way.
Drinking is Fun!
Drinking exits for a reason: to relax and have fun. If you just want to drink bourbon and whiskey, then bottoms up, enjoy! But if you want to dig deeper and really explore all there is to explore with the brown juice that you love, then you’re going to want to find a way to replicate your experience every time.
If you talk about what you experience, you won’t be pretentious if you can communicate with others why exactly you liked what you liked and nail down the traits that you like best in a whiskey.
For me, I’ve found that I love MGP’s lineup of bourbon and rye whiskey. I also have found that Buffalo Trace is kind of like the New England Patriots of bourbon, where they win everything and are generally the best of the best year after year (Side Note: I don’t like the Patriots).
I have many more opinions that will become more apparent as you read my reviews, but for the most part, focusing in on all of my points about reviewing whiskey should help you logically develop the whiskey traits that you look for when you’re ready to buy your next bottle.
Thanks for reading!
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