Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Friday, November 16, 2012 / 3:05 PM

How to Taste and Evaluate Distilled Spirits: An Introduction (Part One)

How to Taste and Evaluate Distilled Spirits: An Introduction (Part One)

An unintended consequence of attending an event like Whiskey In The Winter – or any large tasting event – is the challenge to discern and ultimately describe the differences between the whiskeys presented. So if you find yourself sipping at home or from the now over 200 whiskeys, bourbons and scotches available at the Whiskey In The Winter event, we thought it would be a good idea of break down the elements of tasting a distilled spirit for beginners and folks looking to make the most of this exciting evening.

Much as with tasting wine or beer, there are a handful of steps involved in tasting a spirit:

Observe it – depending on how long whiskey has been aged, or how much (if any) it has been diluted, the color and hue of the liquid will change. Extended exposure to wood results in deep and dark gold and browns, dilution creates a lighter coloration to the spirit, ranging from hay to morning sunshine.

Smell it – unlike the act of smelling beer or wine, where the nose is your most important resource, the higher alcohol of a whiskey requires you to enlist the help of your mouth as well. Twirl the liquid if your glass, then raise it in front of your face, slowly inhaling through your nose and parted lips. It may take some practice, but it will help to control how much alcohol reaches the recesses of your nose. Reducing alcohol is the first step to catching the bouquet of a particular whiskey – spice or grass from grain, smoke from charring of the barrel and aroma of wood. Time and temperature will also impact what you smell, so don't be surprised if a sample that has been slightly oxidized or allowed to open a bit smells different than one that has recently been poured. 

Chew it – the brain gets all kinds of information from the mouth and tongue, so make sure you get whiskey to all parts of it. Roll it around in there and give it a work out to notice sweetness from residual sugar and spice, bitter notes of roasted coffee and citrus peel, sour cherries. The act is affectionately known as the “Kentucky Chew.” Along with smelling, it is the key to getting more than the heat of alcohol when tasting. Feeling an uncomfortable burn? This is your hint that for you, a particular whiskey could use a splash of water the next time you try it.

Swallow it – the idea of a “long” or “short” finish happens here. Flavor that lingers around in your mouth and throat is said to be long, while flavors that quickly vanish are short. Interestingly, swallowing also gives you a second shot at smelling as well by slowly exhaling through your nose to capture more subtle notes that you may have missed the first time around. For obvious reasons, each quantity sampled should be small, as in a thimbleful. (More on this in part two.)

Just like we all will taste differences in whiskey, we all will discover small variations to the method described above; however the fundamentals won’t change. Master them and you’ll be on way to better, more satisfying tastings and ultimately more descriptive explanations of just what you are experiencing.

Editor's Note: In part two of this primer, Scotch expert Bill Meyers discusses his standard "Game Plan" for such events such as Whiskey in the Winter. Look for it to be published sometime this weekend.

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