Tip Back the Wild Turkey
Brandon Morgan finds out about the black sheep brother of highbrow pastimes - how to taste and truly enjoy whiskey...
Wine tasting has always been considered a highbrow pastime, enjoyed on a global level, with connoisseurs spanning many continents. For the common alcohol lover, wine-tasting's black sheep brother, whiskey tasting, is just as admirable a hobby.
Just as with wine, there are distinct differences in both the smell and taste of various whiskies, with the production of the whiskey contributing greatly to these variances. Any interested taster can go through a process to decide what whiskey is best for their palate, and we're here to help you in your trendy attempt at gaining new conversation starters for your next cocktail party.
The Trick of the Taste:
I had no prior experiences with whiskey tasting, at least of the formal variety with a professional, so I was starting from scratch when presented with bottles of Jameson Irish whiskey, Famous Grouse Scotch, and Jim Beam's Bourbon. The trick was telling the three apart and to learn the differences between the three spirits.
The colour of the whiskey is the first item that is easily noticeable, and it comes from the wood of the cask where it was aged. Whiskey uses second hand bourbon, sherry, or rum casks. If it were not aged in wood, it would look as clear as vodka. Whiskeys can range from a honey gold colour to a much darker tint of brown. The type of cask used also contributes to the flavour of the whiskey.
The longer it ages, the more refined the whiskey becomes, although there is a point where nothing can be added by continuing the aging process. And this is not always the case, as sometimes (but definitely not always) an aged whiskey could just mean that it's been stuck on the shelves in the distillery for a long time.
Much like wine tasting, whiskey tasting starts (and sometimes ends) with the nose. Some professionals don't even go past their noses, as their sense of smell tells them all they need to know. This is due mainly to the fact that there are many more smells available to the human nose than tastes for the tongue.
Sniff and Scratch:
A good tip to start any whiskey tasting is to add a small amount of distilled water to dilute the whiskey. This allows for the taster to not be numbed by the strong smell or taste coming from a spirit with such high alcohol content. You should begin with a big whiff and attempt to correlate the smells you experience with common smells. This will probably be quite difficult for novices, so it helps to have an expert around to guide you through the wide variety of smells. My first inclination when asked what I smelled was to say, 'Whiskey,' but when pushed in the right direction, it was easily discernible to smell vanilla in the Irish whiskey and smoke in the Scotch.
Since most tasters are not of the professional variety and need to do more than smell the alcohol, next comes the actual tasting. You are supposed to take a small amount into your mouth and let it envelope your tongue so you can think about the various tastes you are experiencing. A good whiskey will follow through on the promise it made to your nose moments earlier. This part proved a touch more difficult for, as the spirits were not diluted, therefore the actual tastes my tongue was experiencing was covered up a bit by the numbing.
An Irish whiskey, like Jameson, generally has a vanilla scent hinted with apple and tends to be smoother as it is triple distilled. Each stage of distillation increases the purity and smoothness in a spirit, and the art of distillation is the most important to the Irish version of whiskey.
Scotch is distinctly smoky, in both smell and taste, owing directly to having its barley dried over peat fires with the smoke penetrating the barley. Scotch is distilled twice, and the most important component to the Scots is the blending process. The blender blends up to 30-40 whiskies from different distilleries to achieve the final product.
Bourbon, unlike both Irish and Scotch whiskey, is sweet and perfume-like, as it is made from corn instead of barley. It also has a more shocking effect on the palate because it is only distilled once. A wooden taste resides in most bourbons as well because it is aged in brand new oak barrels.
A lot can be made of a whiskey being a 'single-malt,' but this essentially means that the spirit comes from one specific location as opposed to barrels from different venues being blended together. Much like anything else, the bottom line is that everyone has their own preferences when it comes to taste, so a 'good' whiskey will always come down to one's own personal preference. The Irish whiskey was my own favourite, proving to be the easiest and smoothest to drink. And now, if they ask, you can intelligently tell your mates that it is obviously because of its triple distillation process.