You’ve heard it countless times before:
Yes, the message typically ends up sounding kind of like some sort of after school special.
However, when it comes to learning to appreciate whisky for flavor foremost (or any spirit/beer/wine for that matter), it really boils down to opting for quality over quantity, and following a few simple steps of evaluation to maximize your experience. Thus, we also recommend that you enjoy thoughtfully.
Drinking As A Means To An End
For most of us, drinking alcohol to merely get tipsy is something we ultimately learn to get a handle on or just grow out of entirely.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to occasionally pick your poison and keeping it coming until you’re feeling a little buzzed. Every situation to drink can’t always be about sitting down and slowly savoring a fine spirit – sometimes you just need to take the edge off a little with a simple go-to option or two.
The act of drinking in this manner can be compared to eating food to accomplish the simple goal of not being hungry anymore.
In addition to this, we sometimes might find ourselves out at a function, or maybe a bar, a concert – heck, maybe even a nightclub – where the ease of sticking to one simple drink and then putting it on repeat seems to work best. Many such locations might not stock premium aged sipping spirits, and even if they did they’d cost a pretty penny for a few proper, handsome pours.
This is when a good ol’ beer works fine. Or Jack and Coke. Or maybe something vodka-based: that easy, flavorless unobtrusive spirit that can get the job done.
At other times however, it’s more about flavor than it is about pursuing a means to an end, and this is how we at Whisky Quarterly Ontario generally prefer to enjoy and appreciate our whisky.
Enjoying Whisky For Flavour
For many, it’s very ritualistic: hand selecting a fine bottle (or a few to compare), choosing the best glassware, maybe pairing with food or a fine cigar. Maybe as a base for a classic cocktail.
The art of evaluating and enjoying whisky for its flavor is a graduated step in your appreciation and enjoyment of alcohol, and certainly can add a new level of sophistication to imbibing altogether.
STEP ONE: Choosing Proper Glassware and The Addition of a Few Drops of Water To Your Whisky
First choose a proper drinking vessel. Though a rocks or Old-Fashioned glass works fine, I actually recommend a Glencairn or any tulip-shaped glass; its shape, its holding stem/base, and its opening are all designed to not warm up your spirit and allow for the effective release of its aromas.
Pour yourself 3oz of whisky.
Second, add a few drops of water or a large ice cube or sphere (large cubes melt much slower). Yes, some spirits can be consumed neat or with some dilution-free whisky rocks or stones. However, to truly release all of the potential complex aromas and flavors of the whisky, adding a little water will work wonders.
Cask strength whiskies benefit greatly from a little dilution.
Fret not – you’re not wimping out or it isn’t any ‘less manly’. Truth is, from Edinburg to Tokyo to Louisville, Kentucky, this method is how many whisky connoisseurs prefer to maximize their experience.
You see, the intensity of the alcohol is what often deters people from truly enjoying their whisky. When you realize how a small dilution can release more of a whisky’s complex, multilayered aromas and flavors (and can also reveal flaws), you’ll overhaul your sensory experience completely towards being one of maximum enjoyment.
STEP TWO: Observing Your Whisky
This step involves holding your dram up to the light (or in front of a light-colored surface) and making a few visual observations such as whether it is clear, cloudy or opaque – as well as its color. Is it golden amber? Or is it an almost reddish brown from years – sometimes decades -of maturation in oak casks?
Next, swirl your spirit in the glass, being sure to coat almost all the inside of the glass. Observe how the liquid streams back down toward the bottom of the glass, leaving behind whats known as ‘legs’. Are there many legs that return to the bottom quickly, or are there fewer, thicker and more viscose legs that more slowly cascade down to the bottom? This will help determine whether your whisky is light, medium or more full bodied.
Also don’t forget to read the back of the bottle or maybe the box or package it came in. Most are informative as to its grain profile, where it was distilled, how it was matured and for how long, as well as other key characteristics to the whisky you’re drinking.
STEP THREE: Nosing Your Whisky
After a brief visualization, put your nose just inside the lip of the glass and [gently] sniff your dram with your mouth kept slightly open, so as to avoid a sharp burn from the alcohol. Then repeat once more, effectively taking in the whisky’s aromas. Common aromas include vanilla, caramel, oak and raisin, but also cherry, peat, and dried fruits are often present. With some practice, you’ll be able to cull out and identify certain aromatics such as the aforementioned, as well as many more from a whisky.
Nosing Tip: being familiar with cooking or baking will greatly assist you in this step as it will help you identify the various aromas of spices and other ingredients that you may not detect otherwise.
STEP FOUR: Tasting Your Whisky
Take a sip. Let the liquid spend 5-10 seconds travelling from inside your lips, down the middle of your tongue and to the back before gently swallowing. After swallowing, try pressing your tongue towards the top of your mouth for a second or two to squeeze out a little more residual flavor.
First you may be hit with some oak, as most whiskies spend time maturing in one or more oak barrels. Of course, many of the aromas you observed during your nosing will pop up on your palate too, as well as new ones. Think of how the whisky feels; is it warming? Is it mouth-coating or is it dry? Is it oily or thin? Then think about its finish, determining how quickly the liquid exits your mouth once swallowed.
Is the finish short, medium or is it long?
Remember, whisky is best enjoyed s l o w l y. I personally prefer being in a seated position in a chair with good arm rests.
Tasting tip: occasionally take in some water – still or sparkling will do – to help clean and rejuvenate your palate between sips, or before your next dram.
A Few More Things…
The most important step is to enjoy your whisky. These steps are put forth as a suggested guideline, but ultimately you have the final call on how you prefer to enjoy your whisky. And don’t forget to occasionally turn brain activity away from evaluating your whisky and towards some good conversation with others. When consumed among friends, whisky tends to incite all manner of interesting and enjoyable banter.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, enjoying alcohol doesn’t always involve careful, thoughtful evaluation. Sometimes you just want to keep it simple and keep it comin’, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a time and a place to just get your drink on every now and then. Just refrain from getting blasted. You’re not 19 anymore with a bottle lifted from your old man’s liquor cabinet.
Hopefully this piece will assist in bringing you more enjoyment from whisky (and other drinks) when consumed with the goal of appreciating flavor above all.