Just getting to know whiskey? You’re in the right place. You, like those lucky souls who haven’t yet seen the original Star Wars series or discovered the wonders of fancy cheese, have so much to look forward to.
Whiskey may well be the most nuanced spirit on earth, second only to wine as a beverage of complexity and diversity. It’s produced on every continent except Antarctica, although judging by the number of craft distilleries opening these days, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all tasting the very first Antarctic whiskey. It can be made from a wide range of materials, has a huge array of flavor profiles, and boasts a dizzying array of stylistic variation, production regulations, and regional preferences. In short, there’s a lot to learn—but it’s fun every step of the way.
What is Whiskey?
Before starting your whiskey discovery journey, you’ll need to know what whiskey is. The laws governing the production of whiskey vary from nation to nation, but they all share at least one common thread: whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain. All kinds of grains are used, although the most common are corn, barley, wheat, and rye. Sometimes, those grains are malted, or sprouted in a controlled environment and then toasted to stop the sprouting. Whiskey distillers can choose to use one kind of grain or a dozen, malted or unmalted, but they’ve gotta use grain, or it’s not whiskey.
Then, many countries’ regulations—but not all—require that whiskey be matured in an oak container. Oak is what gives whiskey its amber color and a lot of its flavor. In the United States, there’s no specified length of time that whiskey needs to be aged. Elsewhere, like Canada and the United Kingdom, it’s not whisky unless it’s spent at least three years resting in an oak container.*
Beyond these two important requirements, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity in whiskey. All of the world’s major whiskey-producing regions have their own sub-regulations, and many produce several different styles of whiskey. In the United States alone, the federal government defines 41 different sub-categories of whiskey.
And that’s just the beginning. We’re in the midst of a whiskey renaissance, and distillers around the world are exercising their creativity like never before. Make a whiskey out of nine different grains? Sure. Smoke your grain with local wood? Why not. Ship your whiskey around the world before bottling it? Heck yes. That innovative spirit is one of the reasons learning about and enjoying whiskey is so darn satisfying.
Now that you know what whiskey is, it’s time to move on to the good part: tasting it. Here’s how to get the best experience from a special bottle.
1. Use a good glass
In the spirits industry, the Glencairn glass—a short glass with a wide bulb at the base and relatively narrow neck and mouth—is the standard for evaluating whiskey. If you don’t have a Glencairn, a wine glass can work, as can a rocks glass—but we think it’s worth investing in a couple of good whiskey glasses
2. Eliminate distractions
Tasting whiskey deserves your full attention, so limit distractions. Find a place that’s quiet, comfortable, and free of strong scents. Try not to eat very spicy food, drink coffee, or smoke right before tasting.
3. Use senses beyond taste
With the exception of hearing (although the pop of a whiskey cork is music to our ears), tasting whiskey involves all your senses.
First, observe the color of the whiskey. Is it light or dark? Clear or cloudy? Does it look thin, or viscous? Each of these attributes gives you clues about what you might be about to taste.
Next, smell the whiskey. Unlike wine, there’s no need to swirl your whiskey before smelling—in fact, swirling can be counterproductive, releasing a lot of stinging alcohol vapors. What kinds of scents do you notice? Does it smell sweet? Savory? Fruity? Do you notice spicy aromas, or earthy ones?
Learning to identify aromas is a skill that improves with practice. If you’re having a hard time pinpointing specific aromas, you might try looking at a flavor wheel, which can help you narrow in on what exactly you’re smelling.
4. Now sip
Actually tasting the whiskey is the very last thing you should do. Take a small sip, and hold the liquid in your mouth for several seconds. After swallowing, breathe out your nose. Most of what we think of as “flavor” is actually aroma, and by breathing out your nose, you channel those aromas into your nasal passages where they can be picked up by your olfactory nerve.
Always taste a whiskey at least twice, even if you don’t think you like it. The first sip can be a shock to your palate, especially if you don’t often drink straight spirits. It takes a few moments to get acclimated to the high alcohol content.
5. Water it down
Adding a splash of water to your whiskey might feel like heresy, but it’s not. Reducing the proof can actually increase flavor, especially with cask-strength whiskies bottled at very high proof. Always taste a whiskey with a few drops of water added to see what kinds of changes you notice.
6. Have fun
Did that feel like too many rules? Then forget them. Tasting whiskey is supposed to be fun. If you like your whiskey over ice, or mixed with cola, or sipped out of a coffee mug while you watch Frasier re-runs, we’re not here to judge. You do you, my friend.Happy tasting!
Whiskey or Whisky?
As an aside, the eagle-eyed proofreaders out there might have noticed something funky in that last paragraph. Is it “whiskey” or “whisky?” Again, it depends on where you are on the globe. In the United States and Ireland, whiskey is spelled with an “e.” Pretty much everywhere else—Scotland, Canada, Japan—it’s spelled without the “e.” It might seem like a small difference (and, truth be told, it is), but for hardcore fans, it’s an important distinction.