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Honing your tasting skills is essential to the full enjoyment of your whiskey enthusiast’s journey. Learn how to identify and appreciate the distinctive aromas, flavors, and nuances of great American whiskeys.
First things first: tasting whiskey is not the same as drinking whiskey. Unlike a casual sipping session by the fire with an upgraded Old Fashioned, whiskey tasting is an aficionado’s experience that’s strictly about the whiskeys—no mixers, garnishes, or other alcohols are invited.
As Colorado’s first legal whiskey distillery since the end of Prohibition, we’ve tasted a dram or two in our time, so we’re not going to beat around the bush: we know what goes into making whiskey tasting a great experience. Stranahan’s proudly presents a whiskey beginner’s guide to help you get the most enjoyment and satisfaction from your tasting sessions.
Before you put any whiskey to your lips, the stage must be set: you need the right tools to evolve from simply drinking whiskey to an appreciation of tasting it.
Proper whiskey tasting glassware elevates the experience. High-end occasions may have separate nosing and tasting glasses, specialized items for water and ice, and other intricate tools. Our recommendation for getting started is to keep it relatively simple: a well-designed tasting glass can also be used for nosing, and you can use other barware for water and ice.
The bottom line for whiskey tasting glassware is to select stylish, affordable, and durable pieces—those qualities will ensure suitable pageantry and a satisfying ritual. The Stranahan’s Barware collection also suggests extras that can make any sipping experience special.
We have a recommendation, and please forgive us for being biased: whiskey tasting is for American Single Malt (ASM) Whiskeys, leave the blends for another time. If you’re looking for some good ASMs, Stranahan’s happens to be America’s most-awarded Single Malt Whiskey–we’re a great place to begin!
Now it’s time for the fireworks: let the tasting commence! Here’s how to appreciate and enjoy the full depth of whiskey flavor and the tasting experience.
Practiced whiskey enthusiasts echo a common refrain: a few drops of water added to a glass open up the aromas of the drink and allow the flavors to fully emerge. It’s only recently that scientists observed the actual chemistry that proves the stories true.
Here’s what the molecular science says: First, water added on top of whiskey reduces the alcohol’s surface tension, which allows molecules to evaporate and diffuse aromas. Second, guaiacol molecules (which give whiskeys their smoky taste) tend to bind to alcohol molecules—adding water brings them toward the surface, where they’re more readily tasted and savored.
So, long story short: add a few drops of water to your whiskey and start experimenting!
Nosing is not just a fancy show, it’s a deliberate technique to identify and savor a whiskey’s aromas. A large part of taste sensations—almost 80%—depend on smell, so be confident and bold about this vital part of the whiskey tasting experience.
After adding a few drops of water, gently swirl the glass to release the whiskey’s aromas. Bring the glass to your nose, take a good waft, and let the aromas make their impression.
You may be able to immediately identify strong aromas, perhaps of smokiness or fruit. You can take another whiff and linger on the notes: this is an opportunity to explore some of the subtler characteristics of an expression, as well as anticipate imminent tastes.
Preparing your palate for tasting whiskey is a thing: you want to get your mouth ready for this novel experience. You can nibble a mild food like celery or bread to center your taste sensation, or even quaff a light cocktail to warm your palate in preparation.
With your palate ready, it’s now go time. Tip your glass to your lips and take in a mouthful. Hold for a moment, to fully experience the “mouthfeel” with its characteristics of pungency, smoothness, and viscosity. Words that may come to mind at this moment are “creamy,” “crisp,” “rich,” and “silky.” Be open to recognizing new aromas, as the whiskey has a chance to fully express itself.
Swallow slowly and savor the tastes, which should be prominent here. Some common whiskey flavors include:
Roll your tongue through your mouth to gather and appreciate each flavor as it opens up and expands to fill your senses.
A whiskey’s finish is how it lingers in your mouth once you’ve swallowed it. This is a sensation that is tremendously enjoyable and likely to spark conversation among your fellow enthusiasts. Common descriptors include “warm,” “clean,” “dry,” and “mellow.” Older whiskeys tend to have a more prominent and longer-lasting finish.
After sampling several whiskeys in this fashion, you should be able to make a determination of which one is the best-tasting whiskey for you.
Instead of taking sides, we’ll simply present the facts. Taking your whiskey neat provides an immediate and impactful experience of aromas, flavors, and sensations. On the rocks dials down the intensity and slows the tempo of the experience. Both provide the opportunity to savor and appreciate your drink.
Discovering your preference requires a bit of experimentation—if your first tasting session is on the rocks, next time dive right in to test the neat experience.
Learning how to do a whiskey tasting is only the beginning—you’re now part of a lifestyle that is as much an art form as an experience. If you like tasting, you can also enjoy a more casual sipping session with a whiskey cocktail.
At Stranahan’s, we indulge in the whiskey lifestyle daily. If you’re ever in Denver, please find us—we offer distillery tours where you can sample our award-winning whiskey. A guided tour and tasting is a great next step in exploring the whiskey experience.
Stranahan’s is proud to be the most awarded American Single Malt Whiskey and we’re excited to join you on your connoisseur journey. Here’s to getting the most enjoyment from your next pour!