If you’re drinking whisky just for fun, and aren’t interested in learning more about your whisky, then go ahead and drink it however you like. You paid for it and you earned that right. However, if you want to capture as many aromas and flavors as possible, then try to understand that whisky expresses itself best at room temperature. I know you are tempted to just go ahead and drink the whisky, but don’t. Not just yet, anyway.
Before you do anything, look at the whisky. You can learn a lot about your whisky by its color. Generally speaking, the darker the whisky, the older it is, because whisky gets its color from being in contact with the oak barrel during aging.
The type of barrel also matters. For example, if a Scotch whisky is being aged in a bourbon barrel that has been used several times over, it’s not going to pick up much color from the barrel. However, if that same whisky was put in a cask that contained sherry or port wine, it will pick up some of the colors of the wine, in addition to those of oak barrel.
I must also warn you that some whiskies (particularly those that are younger) contain caramel coloring to make them look “the way we think whisky should look”, because young whiskeys haven’t had enough contact time with the oak barrel, and will appear lighter in color.
Realize that you can smell more from your whisky than you will ever be able to taste. In fact, all the master blenders work primarily by nosing, not by tasting. So do yourself a favor and smell your whisky before you taste it. Don’t thrust your nose into the glass, because the alcohol will be too dominant. Gently raise the whisky up to your nose until you begin capturing its aroma.
Think about what you smell. Often, but not always, a whisky’s aroma will be a good indication of how it will taste.
Now go ahead and taste the whisky. Make sure you coat your entire tongue and let it linger on the palate for a little while before swallowing. Is it thick on your palate or thin? What flavors do you taste? Does the whisky taste the same way it smells? Do the flavors evolve on the palate or just stay the same? After you swallow, does the flavor fade away quickly or does it linger on the palate? Most importantly, did you like it?
For many of you, the alcohol will just be too intense to fully appreciate the whisky. I recommend that you add a little water to your whisky, then nose and taste the whisky again, I suggest that you add a little bit at a time (a few drops) and keep adding until you find your comfort zone. Adding water brings out more of the whisky’s aroma. It also lowers the alcohol level, reducing its numbing effect on the palate.
Reading the Label
Reading a whisky’s label can be very daunting. This guide will help you understand what’s inside the bottle, what it means to you, and help you find a whisky you will enjoy.
To “e” or not to “e”?
Depending on the country of origin, “whiskey” is spelled with or without an “e.” American whiskeys, like bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey, usually spell their whiskey with an “e.” Irish whiskeys also retain the “e.” Scotch and Canadian whiskies are spelled without the “e.”
What is “finishing”?
Many whiskies spend most of their lives in one cask, but then are put into a different type of cask for a brief time before bottling. This practice is known as “finishing,” and you will often see this identified on the whisky’s label. Finishing is used to a great extent with Scotch whiskies. Most scotches are initially aged in used bourbon barrels. Finishing them in a wine cask, like sherry or port, or perhaps even a used rum cask, will add new dimensions of flavors. It is also a quick way, from a marketing standpoint, for a distillery to introduce a new whisky to the market.
Is it from a single cask?
When a distiller bottles a whisky, it generally comes from a marriage of casks produced at that distillery. This ensures consistency of flavors. Only a small percentage of whiskies are bottled one cask at a time, and they are usually identified on the label as such. Since each barrel of whisky tastes different (even when from the same distillery), single cask bottlings are most individualistic.
How old is it?
If a whisky has an age statement on the label, then all the whisky in that bottle must be at least that old. For example, if a distillery combines 12, 15, and 18 year old barrels of whiskies, the age statement on the label can’t be more than 12 years old. Remember: whisky only ages in the barrel, not in the bottle.
What’s its strength?
All whiskies must contain at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), or 80 proof (proof is twice the alcohol level.), though there are whiskies on the market that are over 70% ABV (140 proof)! Usually, after whisky is taken from the barrel, water is added to bring it down to the strength that the producer wants to sell it at. Sometimes a whisky is bottled at the same strength it came out of the barrel. This is often referred to on the label as Barrel Proof or Natural Cask Strength.
Is it chill-filtered?
A whisky will get hazy or cloudy if its temperature is lowered (e.g., if ice or cold water is added). Most whisky companies think cloudy whisky is unappealing and will hurt sales. To prevent this, before the whisky is bottled, they chill it down and filter out the components that make it cloudy. Unfortunately, those components (known as congeners) also contribute to a whisky’s flavor. Some producers bottle the whisky without chill-filtering, and this is usually identified and explained on the label.