Author Jim Murray shares his steps for a perfect tasting experience.
“I am aware that many aspects are contrary to what is being taught by distilleries’ whisky ambassadors. And for that we should be truly thankful. However, at the end of the day we all find our own way of doing things. If your tried and trusted technique suits you best, that’s fine by me. But I do ask you to try out the instructions below at least once to see if you find your whisky is talking to you with a far broader vocabulary and clearer voice than it once did. I strongly suspect you will be pleasantly surprised — amazed, even — by the results.”
1. Drink a black, unsweetened coffee or chew on 90% minimum cocoa chocolate to cleanse the palate, especially of sugars.
2. Find a room free from distracting noises as well as the aromas of cooking, polish, flowers and other things which will affect your understanding and appreciation of the whisky.
3. Make sure you have not recently washed your hands using heavily scented soap or are wearing strong aftershave or perfume.
4. Use a tulip shaped glass with a stem. This helps contain the alcohols at the bottom yet allows the more delicate whisky aromas you are searching for to escape.
5. Never add ice. This tightens the molecules and prevents flavours and aromas from being released. It also makes your whisky taste bitter. There is no better way to get the least from your whisky than by freezing it.
6. Likewise, ignore any advice given to put the bottle in the fridge before drinking.
7. Don’t add water! Whatever anyone tells you. It releases aromas but can mean the whisky falls below 40%…so it is no longer whisky. Also, its ability to release flavours and aromas diminish quite quickly. Never add ridiculous “whisky rocks” or other supposed tasting aids.
8. Warm the undiluted whisky in the glass to body temperature before nosing or tasting. Hence the stem, so you can cradle in your hand the curve of the thin base. This excites the molecules and unravels the whisky in your glass, maximising its sweetness and complexity.
9. Keep an un-perfumed hand over the glass to keep the aromas in while you warm. Only a minute or two after condensation appears at the top of your glass should you extend your arms, lift your covering hand and slowly bring the glass to your nose, so the alcoholic vapours have been released before the glass reaches your face.
10. Never stick your nose in the glass. Or breathe in deeply. Allow glass to gently touch your top lip, leaving a small space below the nose. Move from nostril to nostril, breathing normally. This allows the aromas to break up in the air, helping you find the more complex notes.
11. Take no notice of your first mouthful. This is a marker for your palate.
12. On second, bigger mouthful, close your eyes to concentrate on the flavour and chew the whisky — moving it continuously around the palate. Keep your mouth slightly open to let air in and alcohol out. It helps is tilted back very slightly.
13. Occasionally spit — if you have the willpower! This helps your senses remain sharp for the longest period of time.
14. Look for the balance of the whisky. That is, which flavours counter others so none is too dominant. Also, watch carefully how the flavours and aromas change in the glass over time.
15. Assess the “shape” and mouth feel of the whisky, its weight and how long its finish. And don’t forget to concentrate on the first flavours as intensely as you do the last. Look out for the way the sugars, spices and other characteristics form.
16. Never make your final assessment until you have tasted it a third or fourth time.
17. Be honest with your assessment: don’t like a whisky because someone (yes, even me!), or the label, has tried to convince you how good it is.
18. When you cannot discriminate between one whisky and another, stop immediately.
As you can see, this method is fairly involved and is definitely for the “appreciation” and not the “drinking” of whiskey. In his review for George T. Stagg bourbon, Mr. Murray tells us that it took nearly four hours to compile the tasting notes. Here is the review after those four hours: “Astonishing how so much oak can form and yet have such limited negative impact and so few unpleasant side effects. George T. Stagg is once again . . . staggering.”