Like wine, whiskey has levels of character, taste, and aroma. Whiskey is quickly becoming a favorite spirit among liquor enthusiasts, so it's important to understand how to get the most out of tastings and what to identify on your palate.
What You Need
Whiskey tasting begins with selecting the right glass. The common misconception is that whiskey should be served in a shot glass or tumbler. These don’t work well when trying to savor the whiskey. They allow too much of the spirit's subtleties to escape while highlighting the spirit’s strongest qualities. A whiskey tasting glass should have a stem so that the hand holding the glass doesn't warm the drink up. The glass should be tulip-shaped to release the aroma from the whiskey, catching it around the lip. Differences in glass bowl size and lip circumference will affect the overall experience in different ways. So if you are comparing two different whiskeys you should use the same type of glass for each.
The whiskey itself should be served at room temperature (64 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, 18 to 22 Celsius). Pouring the whiskey should be done with care so that it's disturbed as little as possible. Once in the glass, the drinker should hold it by the stem and gently turn it so that the whiskey evenly coats the inside of the glass. Now you’re ready to analyze the whiskey for several factors, form opinions, and have fun pretending to be a Certified Bourbon Professional.
What to Identify
Color in and of itself isn’t particularly notable to differentiate poor from great quality. Depending on how it was aged and what it was aged in, great whiskeys can vary in color. The important thing to note is whether or not the color is natural. Some distilleries toss in a little caramel E150 coloring to give it a more vibrant hue. It looks nice and can still taste great, but the artificial coloring can negatively impact the aroma.
This is a telling trait more than an absolute measuring stick for quality. Whiskeys with an ABV of 45% or less will often have a cloudy hue to them. This isn't a bad thing and is usually a good sign. Some compounds in whiskey aren't soluble except at a higher proof. A lower proof whiskey that is clear often means that the whiskey has been chill filtered, which can take away some of the complexity and aromatic profile.
The viscosity shows how strong a whiskey is and how long it’s been aged. Like with wine, the way a whiskey's legs or tears stay on the sides of the glass is how you measure viscosity. Alcohol has a lower surface tension than water, and the higher proof the whiskey is, the more tears it leaves behind. Whiskey that has spent more time in the rackhouse will have tears that are further spaced apart.
How to Taste
Now comes the hard part. Once you have given the whiskey a once over for color, clarity, and viscosity, the next step is to let it sit for a few minutes while all the aromas release and collect in the bowl. Sometimes adding one little drop of soft water (literally one small drop from something like a pipette) is a good idea. Doing that can make the aromatic bouquet pop. After all that take a deep breath and sip.
Smell the aromas and take note of what you experience. For beginners, try to pick up on one aroma and build to more as your develop your palate.
Once you've adequately taken in the aromas, it's time to taste. Some people recommend taking a small sip first and letting it coat your whole mouth before taking in a larger sip. Note all the flavors you pick up. Whiskey can have many. Smoke, vanilla, spices are among a few you might notice.