HOW TO TASTE A GOOD WHISKY
Let's see what the steps to taste and drink a quality whisky are...
Tasting a good Whisky
- Whisky or whiskey?
- The choice of the glassware
- How to pour whisky
- What to add and what not to add to the whisky
- How to evaluate its color
- How to evaluate the smell
- Tasting the whisky
- Food to pair with whisky
Whisky is mainly a meditation distillate. The typical image is that of the bearded middle-aged gentleman who, in front of the fire, tastes his whiskey sitting in his armchair. But wait does he taste his ‘whisky’ or his ‘whiskey’? And above all: how do you drink it?
Both terms are correct. Whisky is the Scottish spelling, used mainly in Great Britain, Canada and Japan. ‘Whiskey,’ on the other hand, is used in Ireland and the United States. Both derive from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” or “uisquebaugh”: both mean “water of life.”
First, even before uncorking your new (and perhaps the first bottle of good whiskey) it is good to choose the right glass. The most popular and used glass is the tumbler, a rather low and cylindrical glass, which can also have the classic carving. The important thing: it has to be transparent and not colored so that you can proceed with the visual analysis of the liqueur. There are, however, alternatives, among which one of the most popular is the Glencairn, the most famous snifter, created by the well-known Scottish company of the same name.
Their shape allows the liqueur to concentrate on the bottom, while the converging walls direct the aroma and its hints towards the nose (that’s the reason of the name snifter, from ‘to sniff’). Finally, another classic whiskey glass is the tulip-shaped glass, very similar to that used for wine.
Once you have chosen the glass, you can proceed with the tasting of your good whisky. Before buying it, however, inquire about its quality, look at the label and ageing, remembering that the whiskys are divided into peated, single malt and blend, from which then spread the many types (also based on the places of production).
Trivial operation. Maybe … Basically consider this: you are tasting. Good whisky, therefore, needs time to be appreciated and it is the attention with which these operations are made to generate pleasure. Also, imagine a rinsed glass, which has traces of detergent and its smell. So, before pouring make sure that the glass is clean and at room temperature, the same as the whiskey. Immediately after, pour the “water of life.” You will not need the jigger, just consider two fingers of liquor (two fingers placed horizontally, vertically if you are Bluto or John Belusci in Animal House)
Maybe you have seen thousands of American films in which the protagonists drink “whisky on the rocks.” Well, drinking whisky with ice is not for real tasters. The ice cubes, in fact, spoil the flavor by watering down the liqueur and cooling it. As a result, the scents of whiskey deteriorate and reduce. Therefore, it is forbidden to add ice.
Quite different, however, is the use of the water. A splash of water helps to open the bouquet of aromas. For this, if you happen to be in Scotland, you will often see the Scots adding just a little water at room temperature.
Scientific research, among other things, has confirmed the effectiveness of adding water. The chemists of the Swedish university center, Linnaeus, Bjorn Karlsson, and Ran Friedman, have shown that the water brings to the surface one of the crucial components of the whisky, guaiacol, lowering the level of ethanol at the same time, which brings out the spicy, smoked and aromatic notes of the liqueur.
As for the color, being neophytes, you just keep in mind that a whisky darkens more and more with ageing. A very aged whisky will be burnished in color, while a purple one has probably been aged in sherry or port casks.
Of course, there are exceptions: some whiskys are aged in barrels used several times for bourbon, so they maintain a light color.
Why are cheap whiskys like Jack Daniels so dark? Because caramel has been added.
Bring the glass to your nose and smell quickly. Do not keep it close too long, because the strength of alcohol would cancel your olfactory sensations. Try to recognize the various perfumes and try to identify them. Take it as a game, perhaps knowing what the most common scents are:
- Vanilla, caramel and toffee are the most classic
- Smoked, due to the use of peat in the famous whiskys of the Islay region
- Floral and citrus
Besides, the smell changes profoundly between a whisky with a drop of water and a straight one. A little bit of water will change the scent and open the olfactory bouquet.
Before tasting, let your whisky rest for a few minutes (someone leaves it waiting in the glass for almost half an hour, observing in the meantime the change in color and odors) to let some alcohol evaporate. Immediately afterward, smell and taste. Take small sips, and the first one is done by passing the liqueur on the tongue, to activate all the receptors present. Let your tongue rest and, always in small sips, savor again concentrating on the flavors: citrus, spicy, smoked, salty and so on.
Every now and then, take a sip of cold water. Yeah, this time water is not only useful, but it’s essential. Alcohol, in fact, anesthetizes the palate in the long run, so a bit ‘of cold water will allow you to reset the palate and return to perceive the flavors.
Finally, once swallowed, ask yourself these 3 questions:
- What was the taste of whisky when I kept it in my mouth?
- And when did I swallow?
- Have the flavors changed?
- What were they?
For years, in Northern Europe, whisky is drunk by eating. Today, the trend of combining whisky food is also arriving in Italy. In a good bar, moreover, it could happen to pair good chocolate, maybe dark, to be alternated with sips. The chocolate-whisky combination is perfect, and the two flavors are perfectly synthesized. Alternatively, you can also use good cheeses, maybe a podolico or a pecorino for stronger flavors. Of course, you will have to try to test what you like best.
Once you have finished your – slow – tasting, leave the glass, do not wash it and take it back the following day: a good whisky leaves its smell, and after hours alcohol will be evaporated, leaving only its best perfumes.
So these are good practices to taste and enjoy good whiskey. We are talking about the meditation liquor par excellence, full of aromas (more than the many spirits produced in the world). So, do not rush, slow down your pace and, perhaps in the evening, enjoy the sensations of whisky and your body.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)