In recent weeks, perhaps in response to my constant blogging, I’ve found myself in more regular conversations about whiskey. One of the most common things that I hear is, “Oh, my palate just isn’t that good, I can’t really taste anything.” Close behind that is, “I would love to try insert whiskey here, but I just feel like it’s beyond my ability to appreciate.”
The truth is, there’s no superpower involved, and there’s nothing that isn’t beyond the average person’s ability to pick up – especially not among a lot of my friends who have an incredible ability to describe their food at any of the great restaurants here in LA. In my opinion, it’s largely the ability to make associations with things you’ve had before, and it’s something that gets easier the more you do it. There’s certainly no reason to be intimidated or to assume something is “beyond you”. (Beyond the range of the wallet? That’s a different story. In that regard, Glenmorangie Pride will forever be “beyond me”.)
As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to taste a sample of a bourbon that was part of a group buy with some like-minded friends. We each walked away with about 6 ounces, which is a good split of a bottle – enough to have room to do tasting notes, but plenty to enjoy.
The first thing I use is a good glass. I alternate between two primary glasses for tasting: a Crate and Barrel Sipping Glass, which is a nice all-around glass for spirits, or the whiskey nerd standard Glencairn Whisky Glass. To be honest, I prefer the Glencairn glass because it feels slightly more durable and substantial, but the C&B glass is just fine. They’re slightly different in the aroma that they present, but it’s a relatively minor variation. To my nose (I tested blind), the Glencairn Glass presents with a little more sharpness to the nose that helps make some notes a little more clear. Notable whiskey personality (right, right, “Whyte & Mackay Master Blender”) Richard Paterson favors a copita glass like you’d use for sherry. Glencairn also makes a nice one but for whatever reason I prefer the version without the stem. (Richard, on the extremely remote chance you read this via ping back, I simply think “Master Blender” is inadequate to contain the sheer force of your personality. I hope you’ll forgive me). Try to avoid the traditional “rocks” or “old fashioned” glass as they don’t help. It turns out that your ears are not an important part in the process of tasting a whiskey.
Truth is, over time you’ll break glasses anyway so you can always try something until the next one breaks. My hard-won advice is that a bottle of Auchentoshan will beat the Crate & Barrel glass when they collide 10 times out of 10.
Next, we pour a reasonable amount in. I go for a standard 1.5 oz. It’s a reasonable amount of whiskey to start with.
The first thing to do is move in for a couple sniffs. Be mindful of the strength – something like the George T Stagg can easily numb your sense of smell for a moment. Even whiskies in the upper 40s can be a bit much, especially if you’re new, so let your nose be a guide. You might need to let it sit a minute. No problem.
When you sniff it, yes, you’re going to smell “whiskey”. But this is where the exercise begins… what IS the smell of whiskey? It’s actually quite different from whiskey to whiskey. This is where the process gets fun. Try to decipher what you smell. Don’t worry about “right” notes or not – everyone’s nose and palate is different, and we all have different sensitivities. The whiskey I’m drinking, an 18 year old wheat recipe Willett, is an absolute treat on the nose. I smell pepper, wood (like an old study or library), and wheat. It’s kind of earthy – think of that wet forest and damp, heavy clay soil. It’s sweet with some flavors of a creamy vanilla, like homemade ice cream. There’s also a hint of toffee in the background.
There you have it – two major “not food” notes. But they’re absolutely part of how I’ll describe it. OK, proceeding on to the enjoyable part, the drink.
You’ve got about an ounce and a half in your glass. Resist the urge to slug it back and grimace like you’re in a John Ford western. Take a small sip and let it move over your mouth. You might not even want to worry about what you taste. Just enjoy it… if anything jumps out at you, make a note of it. Take it through your mouth – the front of your tongue, the middle of your tongue, the very back. Let it get underneath your tongue and let it sit in your mouth. Paterson suggests holding it in your mouth a second for each year. I don’t disagree at all.
On the whiskey I’m having, I get some good spice – cinnamon and pepper again. It’s subtly sweet again, with notes of toffee and caramel immediately present, but some more rich maple syrup notes and a bit of molasses in the mix too. The earthy notes for the nose are there, as is the oak – it’s ever so slightly bitter. After a few seconds, there’s a definite hint of orange.
Some whiskies are absolutely going to burn out your tastebuds, especially initially. It’s OK to dilute with water. Just be aware that older whiskies fall apart quickly – for a 20+ year old whiskey you should proceed very slowly and literally add a drop or two at most initially. If you drown it, it’ll just be kind of a bland, watery whiskey-like substance and you’ll feel disappointed in what remains in your glass.
Water can and will change the flavor of the whiskey as you taste it, which is part of the fun of getting to know a whiskey over the course of the bottle. Some whiskies become more clearly focused with water. Others open up new dimensions entirely. I actually am a fan of a couple drops of water in Macallan’s 18 year old sherry oak expression, which adds a nice wet straw and grass note that takes the drink in an entirely different direction. You’ll never know unless you try.
So, down the hatch. Let it sit and observe what happens. This whiskey I’m having dries out substantially and the orange note from late in the palate comes to the forefront. There’s an earthy sweetness to it, and the bold oak notes and pepper continue.
Don’t sit too long before having your next sip – that first sip sometimes just helps get the system primed. The second sip can be even more revelatory than the first.
As you’re doing this, pay attention to what you’re tasting. There will be all kinds of things that as you dig into them, may surprise you. If you have a hard time describing things initially, try going with the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. I’ve tasted all of these on different whiskies, so nothing is “wrong” – whiskies absolutely can be salty. Write down your impressions. Ask yourself what it resembles. Sour can be sour in a distinctly vegetal manner, for instance, and I notice a lot of young whiskies smell like corn husks on a hot, humid day. Sweet is an easy one to dissect and we’ve all had plenty of junk food to base our tastes on. Write all your impressions down and remember, there are no wrong impressions! We’re all different, and our palates can differ greatly from day to day.
Of course, this entry is called “Developing” your palate, and I’ve taken you through a straightforward tasting. So how do you develop further?
No, really. Practice. Write things down. Try and dig deeper when you’re specifically tasting to develop your palate. Take your time, go slow, and realize it will come easier with experience.
Pay attention to EVERYTHING you eat. Smell it, savor it, remember the nuances. Fruit can be a huge part of spirits (apples come up frequently and Balblair has a distinctly pineapple note to me) and you’d be amazed how close these taste sensations can be.
This is also a recipe for a great way to live and eat, because you will enjoy and be aware of what you’re tasting more often. I believe strongly that food can be one of the great joys of our lives, and if you really savor it you will appreciate it that much more. Plus, if you take your time, you might find yourself getting full and eating less. Not a bad thing! This approach will serve you well when you go to a good restaurant and try and pick apart the sauces and seasonings. It can also help your cooking immeasurably as you learn how to balance flavors in different ways.
Ultimately, this all ends up with an ability to quickly pull things apart as it becomes a more reflexive approach to eating and drinking. It’s fun to be able to pull something apart and understand it, and then shut off the analytical mind and simply enjoy.
That’s the most important part of all of this: enjoyment. This is yet another avenue to appreciating whiskey (actually, all food and drink) even more. I encourage you to try this so you can understand more accurately what you like.
And, as spirits sensei David Driscoll would note, sometimes you need to just forget all of that crap and just enjoy. Because that is the single reason to be consuming whiskey or any good spirit – enjoyment and community. Getting knotted up in the tasting note cleverness battle is ultimately a weird construct on top of what’s supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Going too far down that path makes you one of those tiresome bores who corrects endlessly about when to use an e in whiskey and when it’s just whisky, or who obsesses to no end over the legal definitions of what a bourbon is and if Angel’s Envy actually qualifies because it’s been finished…
Don’t be that guy.
But I do encourage you to try and be mindful of what you’re having and explore everything. You may not be able to detect some obscure note that someone else can. Don’t worry, that’s not the point. The point is to help deepen your enjoyment of a good thing, and enjoy the dividends that pays in the rest of your life.
At a glance:
Willett 18yo Barrel 12A Paws & Claws. Barrel 56 of 96. October 2010, 66.4% ABV
Nose: Nice and woody with some good, gentle spice – white pepper. Subtly earthy, slightly sweet – wheat notes peeking out a bit of gentle toffee. Some subtle creamy vanilla.
Palate: Nice, even, moderate mouthfeel, good spice upfront with some pepper. Subtly sweet, toffee, caramel and a bit of vanilla, with some maple syrup and a touch of molasses. Some good earthy notes and oak. A hint of orange late in the palate.
Finish: Drying, with orange and the earthy sweetness above some big, bold oak and pepper.
Comment: This is great. The wood’s a bit heavy in the balance overall but it’s a very, very solid old wheater. There’s nice nuance to the sweetness on the palate, and the finish is great.