How do you drink whiskey?

I have to say from the outset; I am no expert in drinking whiskey and I do not profess to be one. Not even close. But I know what I like and I know how I like to drink it so I may as well share it with you all. I’m hoping to take you through how I generally taste and appreciate a good glass of whiskey, or as I call it, a dram. There is no right way to drink whiskey and no wrong way. There is just experimenting and enjoyment! Whiskey tasting is an art, not a science. It takes a lot of practice to truly be able to distinguish one whiskey from the other. But that’s OK, because we enjoy practicing!

In a later blog I hope we will talk about the idea of adding water or ice to your dram, glassware to use along with much much more but today, we will discuss the three main parts of tasting. The nose, the palate and the finish. So we start with pouring anywhere from 20 to 35ml of spirit into your glass. Ideally it should be served at room temperature. Whiskey isn’t like brandy, it doesn’t need to be warmed in your hand. Hold the glass up to the light. Look at the colour. Is it dark or light? Is it clear or cloudy? All these will tell us different things about the whiskey. Give the glass a swirl and move the liquid around the sides of the glass. Of course, make sure not to spill any! Watch as the liquid forms “tears” down the inside of the glass when you stop swirling it. These tears are generally referred to as legs. The higher the alcohol content in the whiskey, the more legs and the slower they will form and fall. Now give it another swirl. Slowly raise the glass to your nose but ensure your nose doesn’t drop below the rim of the glass at first as you will be hit with ethanol that could give you nasty burning sensation in your nostrils!  What do you smell? You could find it woody, spicy, leathery. Smelling of fresh cut grass, peat or flowers. Smell, just like taste, is very subjective. Rarely will I have the same nose as someone else. As we try a dram in company, someone will tell me what they smell and its like a penny dropping and I can smell it too. So you can’t really be wrong! Take a breath of normal air and repeat the process with your nose going deeper into the glass this time. Your sense of smell truly does affect your taste so take your time with nosing. With a good whiskey, your mouth can often be watering with the prospect of the taste awaiting you in the glass.

Next up comes the palate. The first taste of the whiskey. A lot of people when drinking whiskey roll the liquid back the center of their tongue and down the hatch so to speak. Unfortunately this only activates the bitter portion of your tongue giving some people an unpleasant experience with drinking whiskey. To truly taste and enjoy a good whiskey, we need to change that way of drinking. After nosing, sip a few millilitres of the liquid. Keep it in your mouth and swirl it around. Coat your mouth with the whiskey. Ensure it covers your cheeks and the entire tongue. Let it linger in your mouth for 10 to 15 seconds. Are you able to taste anything? Or is it “just alcohol”. Don’t worry if this is all you got with the first sip, after all…..whiskey does have alcohol in it! Take another sip and repeat. Swirl and swosh the liquid again. What about now? Like drinking wine it can take time for your senses to get used to whiskey. But once it does, you should get a burst of flavours from the liquid. Once you swallow the whiskey more of the flavours should become apparent. Again, just liking nosing, it is totally subjective. What do YOU taste in the whiskey? As time goes on and as you taste more and take note of other peoples tasting notes, you will start identifying different flavours but as you start off  on your whiskey journey it should be all about you.

Once swallowed we have what’s known as the finish. The first thing you will note is the warm or burning sensation from the alcohol content. Is it pleasant or nasty? How long does it last? Does it go on forever allowing you to enjoy the warmth and flavours longer?? Once the burn has dissipated have other flavours now shone through? The more complex the finish generally indicates how good the whiskey is. By complex I mean does it release layers of flavour that you didn’t get with the spirit in your mouth.

For me drinking whiskey, good whiskey, is all about the enjoyment of tasting. All components are as important as the next. A nice dram of whiskey could take me 30 minutes to drink as I have a few more rituals thrown in such as adding a touch of water halfway through the dram. Its not all about getting the alcohol into you. For me it’s about the craic we have as a group tasting different whiskeys. Finding different tasting notes to the next person.  Until the next time, may your drams only be good ones!



This piece originally appeared in the IPA Ireland Journal in 2017 as part of a piece for the IPA Whiskey Forum.

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