Whiskey, good whiskey, is a thing to be savored by the senses. It’s not just the product that draws me toward a good whiskey, but it’s also the passion, bottled within each sinful solution, frozen in time by the master distiller.
I can’t help but shake my head in remorse every time I see people shoot whiskey. Although I haven’t forgotten my younger days when I too would order a celebratory round of whiskey for my friends, then, with shot glasses held high, clink them together and down the brown liquor as if I were trying to extinguish a fire in my belly. In reality, the fire was just about to begin with a blaze of 90 proof fury. Starting in my mouth then gushing down my throat, thoroughly coating it with what felt like molten steel. But with eyes pressed shut and face scrunched, we’d shake our heads and let out the manly cry of “Fire In The Hole” Sound familiar?
I don’t miss the shooter era; but the question is, what has prompted my change in perspective? Is it my age, an (arguably) raised level of maturity, or simply a more refined pallet? Perhaps, but I honestly think the major contributing factors come in the form of appreciation, admiration and respect? Part of being a self-proclaimed whiskey enthusiast involves lots of research. One of the many rewards of this research has been an understanding of the passion that people in the industry have towards their craft. The biggest draw for me is an appreciation of the respect for the traditions handed down through the many generations of whiskey makers. With that in mind, I thought I would share my technique for enjoying a whiskey.
This morning’s tasting is High West Distillery’s “Yippee Ki-Yay”, a blended straight rye whiskey finished in wine barrels. So put on your Stetson and alligator boots and let’s get to it!
The Bottle: You can learn a lot from a bottle. In particular, I look for information about proof, origin, age, finish,distillation, bottling and blending. Aside from these product basics, I always enjoy when a label contains historical statements. For example: Did you know that the High West Distillery is the only ski-in gastro distillery in the US? If you ever find yourself in Park City, UT, the High West Distillery is a must see.
The Glass: Being somewhat of a traditionalist, my vessel of choice is “The Glencairn”. I find that it is the perfect instrument to evaluate all of the nuances of a fine whiskey. Ideal for the swirl then giving you a great platform to assess the nose of the spirit.
Color: I love the many shades of whiskey. Its color is determined by many factors such as mash bill content, barrel type and age, just to name a few. I like to hold my Glencairn up to the light and let my eyes absorb the wonderful colors of this sinful spirit. As you view the golden-brown hues projecting through the glass, try to reflect on the process and traditions transported in this beautiful nectar.
Legs: Most notably a trait used to evaluate wines, legs are also present in whiskey. Although the length of the legs does not necessarily related to the taste of the whiskey, I find that the quality of the legs does have a correlation to the texture of the spirit. Thin legs indicate that the whiskey will be lighter and crisper where shorter/thicker legs will relate to a creamier texture. All I know is that I like to look at them.
Nose: It’s time to give the glass a good swirl, then hold your nostrils over the glass and sniff lightly. I like to sniff for about three seconds, move the glass away from my nose for 2 seconds, repeating this process 3 or 4 times, or until I have a good sense for the nose. I find that shorter sniffs allow you to assess the real character of the spirit without being overwhelmed by residual ethanol that hovers atop the pour.
The Sip: This is what I’ve been waiting for: My first sip is small as I work the spirit throughout my mouth, using a motion like an old man chewing without his dentures. Now slowly I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. I call this first step Priming as my goal is to wake up my taste buds so that they can better accept the flavors in sip #2.
Sip #2 is where the real flavors hit my pallet. I repeat the previous process with a slightly greater volume if whiskey. As I swallow, I make note of any burn, and in particular where the burn settles in. Next, I inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth slowly enough to where when I inhale through my nose the next time I can smell the flavors from the whiskey that linger in my mouth (It’s like doing the old breath test before a big date). That’s it; Wash, Rinse, Repeat…Yum!
Water/Ice: I’m a “neat” guy, so I rarely cut my whiskey with water or ice. But there have been occasions where a whiskey has been so harsh that a few drops of water or chips of ice were required to tame it down. I should probably use this trick more often, at least for evaluation purposes, as water can have a huge effect on the character of the whiskey. But again, I’m a purist.
So that’s how I taste a whiskey. Aside from the technique that I’ve shared, my best advice is to take your time. There’s no rush. Each whiskey has a story to tell; one of time, trust, passion and tradition. By taking a moment to enjoy each sip, you allow the whiskey to pass along its story. One that I’m sure you will enjoy.
Until next time, Drink Passionately!