Whiskey Tasting – Both a Science and an Art

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Whiskey’s been around for hundreds of years. Whether the Scots or Irish distilled the first batch remains a debate, but that it’s gone global is inarguable.

Distilleries experienced in the making of whiskey have chiseled it down to a science — grains crushed to grist, water added for mash, mixture boiled and cooled, fermentation process carried out, distilling, then aging.

The uniqueness of grains, source of water, and processes — fermenting, distilling, aging — all imbue whiskey with distinct flavors.

To get the most out of a whiskey tasting at a distillery, it’s important to recognize those particular flavors come about with just the right mix of science and art.

The Science of Whiskey Flavors 

Raw materials that make up your favorite brand of whiskey may include barley, corn, rye, or other grains, and the flavor starts there.

But that’s not where it ends. The raw ingredients go through a rigorous process of crushing on their way to becoming the mash that’s fermented, distilled and set aside for aging in wooden casks.

The entire process influences the flavor, but it’s in the aging that the true uniqueness comes out because of the character of the oak wood the casks are made from.

Oak is a strong wood and has structure that makes it perfectly fit for the shape of a cask. Its chemical compounds also strengthen it while creating aromas such as vanilla, smoke, and coconut.

The porous nature of oak gives it just enough openings for oxygen to get inside without letting any of the aging whiskey leak out. In storage, the breathing wood and liquid contract and expand with cold and heat, allowing the liquid to soak in the wood and out again, taking in every bit of flavor the wood has to offer.

The whiskey also absorbs remnants of a barrel’s toasting or charring, the process where it’s treated to prepare it for aging spirits. Toasting calls for less burning than charring, and different whiskeys call for different levels of char to create their distinguishable taste.

Also adding to unique flavor is the bourbon or sherry residue in reused casks. Because a distillery often ages whiskey in casks that once held other spirits, the leftover flavors filter into the new whiskey.

Those flavors become weaker with each use. When the flavor is all soaked out, it’s time to char the barrel once more and start again.

And that’s the science behind whiskey tasting.

The Art of Distillery Tastings

But it’s not just science. Anyone who’s participated in a distillery’s whiskey tastings will tell you, it’s also an art. So when you’re preparing for tasting spirits, it’s important to remember you can participate in the art of it all.

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Aristotle

Now, enter the art of whiskey tasting.

Experiencing whiskey with the senses

Sight – Take a look at the liquid in the glass. Is it light — the effect of a short aging process or perhaps a reused cask — or is it dark, long aged in a newly charred barrel?

(One exception to the light/dark test is the addition of E150a, a caramel coloring some companies add to keep every batch of their product consistent in color.)

When you swish the caramel-colored drink around in your glass, are the trails it makes — called legs — thin and light, or are they oily and heavy? The oilier they look, the older the full-bodied liquid is likely to be.

If many trails take their time forming and run down the glass slowly, the whiskey has a higher alcohol content.

Smell – Sniff before you sip. Experienced whiskey tasters will tell you the scent will come to you when you ‘nose’ it. Encourage it with the swirl of the liquid in your glass. Let it cover the inside, sending the aroma out to you.

Slowly take it in at the top of the glass being careful to keep your mouth slightly open while you sniff. To fully experience the art of whiskey tasting, skipping this essential element is discouraged.

Taste – Informed by smell, the taste comes fullest when the drink lingers in the mouth, giving every taste bud a chance to experience the flavors.

Touch – Pay attention to how it feels — the lightness or heaviness, wetness or dryness. Let it cover the entire mouth as it lingers there. Does it have mouth-watering effects?

Add a drop or two of water for a fuller effect on your senses. Opening up the whiskey, the water drops can add layers of taste and richer aromas.

Enjoying whisky is an art. Experiencing the diverse flavors can be learned in a few steps. The connoisseur uses nosing, sipping, and swallowing to discover aromas, tastes, and aftertastes.”

Horst Luening, Master Taster

Experience whiskey in a distillery community 

The art of tasting whiskey is meant for community settings, and a local distillery creates community. 

Remember to keep checking here and on our Facebook page for updates. We’ll keep you posted on our opening and upcoming events!