Whiskey, as we all know, is a complicated spirit. Varieties are produced and distributed from Kentucky, Ireland, Japan, and countless other places. It can be made from many different grains. It can be smooth or rough. It might be peaty or smoky, sweet or dry. There is an endless parade of flavors that many have infused into whiskey or blends of two or more types. So how should you drink whiskey?
Given all this, it should come as no surprise that the question of how to properly drink whiskey requires some explaining.
To assist us with this question, I’ve reached out to Nathan Hostetler, whiskey connoisseur and the owner of The Oaken Cask Society, a Florida-based whiskey club whose goal is to demystify the world of whiskey through education and experience. In his journey to explore the far reaches of whiskey, he was kind enough to provide some sage advice on how to drink good whiskey.
What Kinds of Whiskeys Can an Enthusiast Expect?
Nathan: For many people with less experience with whiskey, when they think of whiskey, they might think of the nameless brown swill that dusty cowboys toss back in saloons to forget a lover and the horse she ran away with… Or it may conjure images of the club at 3 am with your fifth Jack & Coke in hand.
As you try more, though, you will find that there is a wide world of whiskeys with as much variety as the people that craft and enjoy it. One way you might try to categorize them is by their location. You’ve got Scotch, Irish, Canadian, American, and Japanese making up the bulk, each with their own generalizations and varieties.
You could also try to break them out by distilling or processing techniques. There’s sour mash, single malt, blended, pot-still, column-still, Tennessee (which is filtered through charcoal), why there’s even a bourbon that is specifically aged on ships out in the ocean. You could separate them by mash bill, or which grains are used. There’s corn, barley, rye, wheat, quinoa, and even rice.
To Ice or Not To Ice?
Nathan: Water and ice both play large roles in effectively tasting whiskey as well. Ice will lower the temperature of the whiskey, reducing the intensity of some flavors allowing you to experience others more fully. Some will use chilled whiskey stones, or stainless steel cubes, to get this effect without the melting ice adding water to your drink.
Adding water has a similar effect, taking the edge off, reducing the alcohol burn, while helping some flavors to blossom. You’ll be surprised how big a difference just a few drops of water will make. Be selective with your ice and water choices, though. Impurities in the water will also affect the flavors and some metals or stones will impart their own flavors as well.
How Can We Best Appreciate The Aspects Of Our Whiskey?
Nathan: To properly experience whiskey as an evaluator, you must use all your senses. Sight, smell, taste, touch, and yes, even sound.
Use your eyes. Look at the color, consistency, clarity. This will tell you a little about how this whiskey was made and hint at some of the experiences you may have when drinking it. A richer color may tell you a bit about its aging process. This color comes from the wood of the barrels the whiskey was aged in. Bourbons tend to be darker because of the charring of the barrel as well as the humid and warm climate of the aging facilities in Kentucky, where the majority of bourbon is produced. The texture may tell you how this whiskey will coat your mouth.
Use your nose. Smell the aromatics coming off the whiskey, but be careful, alcohol is an anesthetic and if you inhale too strongly, you’ll burn your sniffer. Smell with both nostrils individually. You may be surprised that one nostril will pick up some scents that the other does not.
Use your mouth and tongue. Time to actually taste the whiskey. Is it smoky? Do you taste fruits or bread? Can you taste the influences of the grain, wood, and process? Again, remember that alcohol is anesthetic and if you take a big sip of strong whiskey, you may numb your taste buds preventing you from tasting the whiskey properly. Try a small sip, then try adding a couple of drops of water to reduce the alcohol burn and reveal more subtle flavors.
This also happens to be the time to use your sense of touch. How is the mouthfeel of the whiskey? Is it oily? Does it coat your mouth? The alcohol may burn a little, making your mouth tingly. An oily whiskey will tend to have a longer finish, meaning the flavors will linger in your mouth after you’ve swallowed.
Finally, use your sense of hearing. If you hold the glass up to your ear, you may hear the babbling of the spring that the distiller sourced the water from… just kidding. Whiskey is a social experience. Different people will taste different notes in the whiskey and it’s good to use that sense of hearing to talk about what you’re experiencing with others.
Now that you’ve critically assessed your whiskey, let’s focus on the other major goal: enjoyment. Some whiskeys are too harsh to drink straight in a casual setting. Add an ice cube or two to mellow it out, use a rocks glass so you are not assaulted by the strong smells and the burn of the alcohol as much when you sip. Mix it with a little coke or a good cider, if that’s your thing, and if it’s not, don’t waste your energy harshing others’ enjoyment if they choose to enjoy their drink differently than you.
No Time Like The Present
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Nathan, it’s that the best way to learn how to drink whiskey is to get to it. Tasting groups or nights at stores or bars are a great way to get exposed to multiple types, and like The Oaken Cask Society, there may be whiskey clubs in your area that would be happy to initiate a new palate. Many liquor stores feature smaller bottles for sampling as well, and whiskey bars often provide tasting samples before you purchase.
Whichever way you go about it, find one that speaks to you and take some time to get to know and appreciate what a fine, complex, and satisfying spirit your favorite whiskey really is.
What are some ways that you have found to better enjoy your whiskey? We’d love to hear about it.