Everything you never wanted to know about whiskey tasting!
Historically, Nepal has preferred hard liquor as the drink of choice, and whiskey is one of the fastest growing products. Discerning consumers will inevitably end up on a quest to find their favorite, so here is a guide to help you with whiskey tasting.
The goal of tasting is to find what you most prefer, but it can also be educational. A good whiskey is to be savored, not downed in one gulp with your friends at the bar, no matter how entertaining the corresponding fire show might be. The basics of whiskey tasting are simple: 1. pour and 2. drink. But if you want to maximize the experience and flavor, you should have proper glassware, cleanse your palate, smell before drinking, and add just a bit of water.
First, about the water.
Most experienced whiskey drinkers urge you to add a small amount of water to your dram (one serving of whiskey). Even though everyone’s palate is unique, and some rightfully prefer their whiskey straight up, after the experiment, people tend to agree and then urge the next person to do the same. Here is an analysis of why, in most cases, it is true.
Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman of the Linnaeus University Center for Biomaterials Chemistry studied this phenomenon by modeling the molecular composition of whiskey. All alcohol is ethanol, and it turns out that ethanol binds certain compounds that we find tasty. Or as I muse, better living through chemistry. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the Washington Post on August 17, 2017.
Guaiacol is what gives whiskey that smoky, spicy, peaty flavor. Chemically, guaiacol is similar to a lot of other whiskey aroma compounds like vanillin (the scent of vanilla) and limonene (citrus). These and other flavor compounds are not attracted to water and are more likely to become trapped in ethanol clusters.
They found that the concentration of ethanol had a large effect on guaiacol. At concentrations above 59 percent ethanol (the alcohol content to which whiskey is distilled) the guaiacol was mixed throughout. Whiskey is diluted before bottling to about 40 percent ethanol. At 40 percent, ethanol accumulated near the surface, bringing the guaiacol with it. At about 27 percent the ethanol began to aerosolize, presumably freeing the guaiacol even further.
The conclusion is that these flavor molecules stay below the surface. By adding water, those compounds are brought to the surface to be smelled and tasted. Further study by Daniel Lacks at Case Western University confirmed similar findings. What this says in layman’s terms (without an advanced degree in chemistry) is: Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, you will probably enjoy the whiskey more with just a little water added.
Now, we set the stage for tasting.
Glassware—For the true whiskey snob, the Copita nosing glass is the glassware of choice, because the very narrow tulip shape forces the scent of the whiskey into your nose. However, a small wine glass is quite effective, or even a drinking glass will suffice. I once enjoyed wine from a film container (Google it), in an era before digital photography.
Room Temperature Water—This is used to cleanse your palate before and after tasting, and then to be added to the whiskey as part of the tasting. Note that it is preferable to sample the whiskey at full strength first before adding water, so you can compare and determine what amount of water fits your taste.
Coffee Grounds—Water can cleanse your tongue, but sniffing fresh coffee grounds between tastes will do the same thing for your sense of smell. It will be easier to differentiate among different whiskeys if your nose smells something completely different in between.
And finally, you are ready to taste.
First, visually see the liquid; darker often means it is older or aged in wooden barrels. Second, swirl to aerate, then smell a small distance from the rim of the glass. Most of what we taste is actually what we smell, and a good whiff of whiskey will completely change the flavor. Do not put your nose in the glass. You want to enjoy the smell, without inhaling alcohol vapor, which can temporarily stun your sense of smell, or cause you to become light headed.
Finally, taste, letting it wash over your tongue. Note the different flavors. It may taste floral, fruity, or spicy, which comes from the malt (the mix of grains used to make the whiskey). Frequently you taste oak, if the whiskey is aged in oak barrels, notes of vanilla (which also comes from oak), and smoke or peat, which comes from the manner in which the malt is roasted. Some whiskeys have fruit or hops added, making delicious and complex flavors.
After you savor the experience, share thoughts with your friends, drink some water, cleanse your palate, and take a big smell of the coffee grounds; you are ready for the next round. This time, add a small amount of water to the whiskey, swirl, smell, and taste again. No matter which you prefer, the two will very likely taste different to you. Rinse and repeat for the next whiskey in the lineup.
Things to skip: no need to spit, skip ice, don’t smoke, and above all, don’t drive. Only dedicated professional will spit the whiskey. If you don’t want to get drunk, taste only one whiskey at a time. Ice chills the liquid, and the colder temperatures suppress some flavors. Active smoking changes what you smell and taste, plus it’s very bad for your health in general. Don’t drive! ’Nuff said!
Lastly, only taste a few whiskeys in one sitting. Moderation is always best when alcohol is involved. Plus, one of the side effects of getting drunk is that your brain does not register taste and smell as accurately (at worst you may not remember it the next morning), which pretty much defeats the purpose of having a tasting in the first place.
For more reading on this subject, and perhaps if you want to obtain a degree in biochemistry, check out the aforementioned study at: http://lnu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1135149&dswid=2505
Jim Jones is an American importer of craft beer, wine, and spirits, who recently opened The Yeti Taproom and Beer Garden, in Kathmandu. He can be reached at (https://www.facebook.com/YetiTapRoom/ or firstname.lastname@example.org).