Tasting notes for spirits — especially whiskey, wine and brandy — can be an adventure in unintuitive comparisons. After all, who gets spearmint and cherry candy from rye? But there’s a big difference between drinking whiskey and tasting it.
“The difference between drinking and tasting is that with tasting comes appreciation, and knowing how to taste and what to look for is something you have to learn,” says Brian Wess. He owns Whisk(e)y Heritage
, a local company that offers guided tastings, whiskey tours and bourbon tasting certifications. While Wess is not himself a distiller, he has received certification in Irish whiskey tasting from the Irish Whiskey Academy in Midleton, Ireland; in Scotch whisky tasting from the Scotch Whisky Training School in Edinburgh, Scotland; and in bourbon tasting through the Kentucky Distillers Association-recognized Stave & Thief Society.
“Most Americans, prior to I’d say 10 or 15 years ago, were shooting it as a shooter or mixing it in a cocktail,” he says. “Now that there’s knowledge being expanded through stuff like what I do and other efforts to educate people, there’s a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship that has to go into these things.”
Wess thinks of it like this: A whiskey’s aroma is an introduction, the initial flavors are a conversation, and the finish, an adventure. To nose (smell) whiskey, swirl the spirit in its glass to make it easier to smell without, as Wess says, “frying your nose hairs off.”
“More than three quarters of your taste is olfactory, so if you’re not nosing it, if you’re not smelling it and taking it in deeply, you’re not getting the full flavor.”
To taste, sip a small amount. Moving it around the mouth and mixing it with air will expose different components of the taste. After a few sips, some whiskeys benefit from a few drops of water and another taste. Especially with higher-proof whiskeys, a little water can open the spirit up and bring out different elements.
“One of the things I love is seeing the lights come on in somebody’s eyes when I’ve had them taste it neat... and then, you put a drop or two of water in it... and all of a sudden, there’s so much more going on.”