The First Second Time with a Whiskey
It’s no secret, the first time you taste a product can be decisive in your appreciation of it.
Through the events and tastings that I organized, I realize that many have had bad experiences at their first approach with whiskey. So, what if we took the time to remake it?
Before going further, pour yourself a whiskey: ideally, 1/2 ounce in a tulip shaped glass, if you do not have a whiskey tasting glass, but do not smell it right away and most of all do not taste it before I tell you.
To love your first time, the context, the people present, the time allotted to taste the product, its quality and also the knowledge behind its historical details as well as its making will certainly have an impact on your experience and your desire to come back to it. But for now, get comfortable and focus on the right technique to discover, tame and savor the whiskey at its true value.
Small parenthesis, I always tell people and I say it again here: please, do not make the mistake of starting with a “cheap”, “a good quality-price ratio” or ” an entry-level ” whiskey. Choose a good product, otherwise simply the best available, as you would if you wanted to discover sushi for the first time. Would you buy a box of frozen sushi at the convenience store to really know if you like sushi? End of the parenthesis.
If we want to put a number on it, let’s say that 80% of whiskey tasting is done with the nose, so let’s take the time to understand this aspect. Afterward, the tongue will pick up the bitterness, the texture (oily or watery), the minerality, the sugar, the acidity, the spiciness, the metallic, and obviously, the burning of the alcohol. We will come back to it.
The nasal cavity contains receptors that capture particles in the air. It is a combination of chemical particles that, once captured, reminds your brain of a smell, a place, a dish, an event, a person, etc.
Even if, in theory, our nose can recognize more than 1000 billion different odors, the reality is a little different. Your sensors are more or less sensitive to certain particles and also have different abilities from those of another person. Some are unable to smell groups of smells (hyposmia) and others do not smell temporarily (colds or other diseases) or permanently (anosmia). Finally, a very small part of the population has, for better or for worse, olfactory capacities well above average (hyperosmia).
Then, when comes the time to describe the nose, we face a great obstacle. In terms of colors, there are charters that help us describe accurately which one we see, but there is no such thing when it comes to describing and identifying odors. That is the reason why we memorize odors by associating them with objects, places or people: which is very subjective. Currently, different wheels of whiskey flavors are available on the internet and they will help you acquire a basic language specific to this product. But it’s still a little sketchy and most importantly, there is no consensus.
Since we inhale many particles simultaneously, including the smells of people and places around us, one difficulty is to separate these odors and identify them. It’s a lot harder than it looks so do not be discouraged if you do not get it right from the start. It’s like anything else, with practice you’ll improve. Begin your training by comparing odors: take 2 whiskeys at the same time and describe them in relation to each other.
In summary, each person has different biological capacities to capture the smells and put the words necessary to describe them accurately, which is why we must refer to subjective descriptions. Presumably, the description of a whiskey is, therefore, more art than science.
There we are!
After this long introduction, let’s put all this into practice in 6 steps. If you followed my instructions, you have a glass of whiskey that has been poured for a few minutes already. Let’s leave aside the complete tasting and focus once again on the 80% that is relative to smell.
- As you get closer to smell an alcohol of 40% to 60%, you need to have a little restraint to appreciate it. Putting your nose directly in the glass will only make you smell the alcohol, and your sensors are going to be numb for the rest of the tasting. Bring the glass to 10, 15 or even 20 centimeters from your nose for a first approach, and discover the lightest aromas escaping from the glass. You will have a nice surprise at this stage. The longer you let the whiskey breath, the more the alcohol will be diffused, making it more accessible. Some add water to lower the alcohol level, but I prefer, by far, to give it time and let it breathe quietly.
- You can now tilt your glass horizontally. You now understand all the interests of having a tasting glass curved on the sides. Again, approach your nose gently, this time through the top of the opening and take the time to gently inhale, and then do it again faster. Your particle sensors will pick up some odors faster while other aromas will take longer to be captured, hence the interest of varying the pace of the inhaling.
- Slowly lowering your nose into the opening of the glass and keeping it at a distance of about 3 to 5 centimeters, take a new inhalation for every centimeter you go down. You will discover all the richness of the whiskey. As the odors have a weight, each group of smells has their level in the glass: the floral aromas on top, the earthy aromas at the bottom, and between the two, the fruity smells, the cereals, and the spices. As you go down slowly, you can stop as soon as you feel the alcohol at the bottom, on the surface of the whiskey. We want to avoid numbing our olfactory sensors.
- Once you are at the bottom, after a few inhalations to feel each level, put your glass aside for a few moments to reset your olfactory sensors, and then, start from the top by smelling with only one nostril, then start again with the other. As a matter of fact, each nostril does not allow you to smell exactly the same way, having an airflow ratio that is about 80% – 20% between the 2. Also, know that it will be reversed every 2 to 3 hours. Take your time. Sometimes, I reach the end of stage 4 after 45, 60 or even 90 minutes. The whiskey evolves, and you will feel some surprising variations.
Here we are, the stage of tasting.
- Take a very small sip. Even smaller than what you think is a sip. 2 or 3 milliliters only. Leave the whiskey in the middle of the tongue and mix it with your saliva produced in reaction to the alcohol that attacks your mouth. The alcohol level will instantly decrease at a very reasonable rate. You can keep it for a few seconds (10-15-20) in your mouth. Breathe through the nose opening your palate so that the flavors in the mouth go back towards your odor sensors (retro-olfaction). Do not bring air in the mouth as you would with wine, you would only make the alcohol more present and unpleasant.
- You can now swallow the whiskey: you will not feel any burning from the alcohol. You won’t even make the typical face of a 50% spirit that you swallow quickly. After swallowing, take the time to inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose. Retro-olfaction is a great tool for whiskeys. Some scotch-whiskeys will make their presence felt for hours after taking a sip.
That’s it, your first sip is taken, and it’s a safe bet to say that you’ve discovered your whiskey as you’ve never done before. I wish it for you!
To conclude, do not forget that even specialists cannot identify, note and describe the same whiskey consistently in a blind tasting. We can practice and improve our perception of odors, but keep in mind that no one has “the” truth in this area.
– Use one of the many wheels of flavors that you will find on the internet to help you identify groups of aromas at first: fruity, floral, earthy, smoky, cereal. Afterward, you will try to be more precise.
– Note the smells around you. You peel a clementine, change your bicycle tires or plant flowers, take the time to consciously feel and note these smells. These are references that you can reuse later.
– To facilitate the tasting of whiskey, buy the appropriate tasting glasses: https://passionwhiskyquebec.com/mini-verre-de-type-glencairn-enfin-accessible-facilement/
– Participate in an evening of “discovery training: smell this whiskey” on May 21st in Quebec City. Details and registration here: https://passionwhiskyquebec.com/services/formation-discovery-sens-whisky/
I encourage you to drink your whiskey the way you want it. The goal is to have fun. If by my method of approach with whiskey, I helped you or one of your friends, to discover and appreciate the whiskey, I would be very happy to hear about it. Tell me about your experiences by completing the form on the Passion Whiskey Québec web page.
- “Iconic whisky, single malts & more », by Cyrille Mald and Alexandre Vingtier. Available in a bookstore near you or on the internet.
Photo credits :
- “Iconic whisky, single malts & more », by Cyrille Mald and Alexandre Vingtier
- Cork Whiskey Society