...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Whisky Tasting Process. Part 2, The Experience

Yesterday, I typed about the various whisky-tasting settings I've experienced.  Today, I'll dig into how I actually come up with the nosing/tasting notes for the Single Malt Reports.

As mentioned in the previous post: the more people + the busier the environment + the more sensory distractions = more difficult situation for tasting notes.  That's not a bad thing.  It allows me to enjoy some whisky, hang out with fellow anoraks, and eat some snacks.  And, you know, crawl out of my cave.

But sometimes, I'm able to get enough notes together from external events and tastings to assemble some reports.  In those cases, I tend to follow my own practices (described later in this post) and kind of disregard what I'm told to do.  Because I'm a rebel Because whisky takes time and whisky tasting takes time.  That necessary time is not always allowed for at organized events.  But when I can create that space, I jot down my notes in extreme shorthand on my phone and then re-interpret them the next day into full thoughts in my whisky journal.

The good news about many events and organized tastings is that they often provide good nosing glassware.  Bars do not.

I try to do reports from whiskies I try at bars, but only if I can find something other than a tumbler to put the whisky in.  A tequila glass, a brandy snifter, a tulip shaped wine glass.  A glass with a bulbous bottom that curves up and into a narrow rim directs the aromas and flavors to the nose and mouth, not letting them float out in all directions like a tumbler.  That's why some whisky fans like the Glencairn glasses:

Bars, even major whisky bars, don't have 'em.  Thus I keep an eye out for anything snifter-like.  When it comes to whisky glass, think flower bud not flower blossom.

At home, I have the glasses.  At home, I can control the distractions.  At home, I can focus best on the whisky at hand.  At home, I can produce a full report.


First off, the whisky pours:

Most of my reports come from whisky samples or minis that I've purchased.  The samples (often from Master of Malt) are 30mL in size.  That's approximately 1 fluid ounce.  It's less than the good ol' American shot (1.5 fl oz).  In the picture above, that's the size of the 30mL pour.

Sometimes I have 50mL minis.  They're about 1.6 fluid ounces, which allows for more tasting and nosing.  And then sometimes I have a 700-750mL bottle (yay!), which allows for more time, more thought, more tastings.

The best way to suss out the details of a whisky (for me) is to do a Taste Off.  A Taste Off is simply a tasting organized around two or more related spirits.  They can be from the same distillery (Ardbeg), have a similar finish (Sauternes), or be of a similar spirit (single grains).  Comparing and contrasting allows for the subtleties and nuances of each pour to reveal themselves.

And it's really fun.  Which is mostly the point.  Lining these guys up and going back and forth through them makes for the best malt moments.  (Apologies to two Malt Maniacs for stealing their favored terminology.)  It's a bit of a multi-dimensional whisky voyage and always results in better notes.

For all tastings, I actually aim for a 1 fluid ounce pour.  If I'm doing a Taste Off from different sized whisky sources, I still do the 1 fluid ounce pour.  This isn't a lot of whisky so divining thorough notes gets quite challenging.  In fact, if I have a stuffy nose or if there's too much distraction, then I don't even start, saving the tasting for another time.

I don't think Don is enjoying his whisky.
That's because he's using a flat-sided tumbler

Next, the time:

I mentioned earlier that "whisky takes time and whisky tasting takes time."  The booze itself has sat in oak for years.  Time allows for different chemical interactions between the spirit and the cask.  More time in the barrel often results in a more complex liquid.  So, whisky changes.

Many of the Malt Maniacs believe that it also changes in the bottle, though much more subtly than wine.  No seal is perfect, thus oxygen creeps through over the years.  Sometimes the bottle fill decreases over the decades as spirit continues to be lost to the angels.

Once that bottle is open, oxygen has easier path.  Thus the whisky will change once I bust into my latest new bottle.  The first sips will not taste exactly like the bottle's final pour.  The more time between the first and last drams, the more change.  The lower the whisky level within the bottle, the more oxygen gets in, oxidizing the odor and flavor compounds.

Most abruptly though, the whisky will change in the whisky glass once its poured.  It's now out there naked to the world.  But that's okay, in fact it's great!  When you see long lists of descriptors in people's tasting notes, it's because they've taken their time with their drink and documented the liquid's evolution.

So, I pour then wait.  I agree with Ralfy's theory of 1 minute per year of whisky age.  30 minutes for a 30-year, etc.  Even with the young ones, I'll wait at least 15 minutes before starting to nose it.

I pour it and put on a whisky yarmulke or whiskippah!
This allows the aromas to build up inside the glass.  I don't want to let them escape.  Sometimes, with boozy booze, the alcohol steams up the sides.
When the wait has expired, it's sniffin' time.


I don't have a particularly good nose, but it's a heck of a lot better than my tastebuds.  In fact, we all have a better olfactory sense than taste sense.  Its range is much more vast.  (Here's a wikuhpeedeeuh link on olfaction.)

I spend a lot of time smelling the whisky.  First some distance from the glass, then gradually closer.  I don't dip my nose right in because the alcohol can burn and numb the olfactory bulb, essentially crippling the experience for the rest of the night.

Again, I take my time with this.  Everything isn't revealed all at once.  I usually don't taste it until I've figured out some of the nose.


Because it's just a one ounce pour, gotta take little sips.  Enough to cover all of the taste buds.  I tend to think the longer its in there, the better.

To make it not sexually graphic at all, the longer you stay at it before finishing off, the better it is.

Anyway, back to whisky.  Often the first thing that I find is sweetness, everything else hits later.  I enjoy the finish a lot because I can ponder it a bit.

I keep nosing and tasting -- taking my time -- until I'm about halfway through.


At this point, I decide if I'm going to add water.  If the whisky is amazing as is, I may choose to let it go undisturbed.  But most of the time, I add a little water.

Because I'm a nerd, I actually use a scale and calculator to figure out the ABV% I'm creating with the added water.  If it's a high ABV whisky, then I try to get it down to 40-43%.  If it has a lower ABV to start with, I'll drop it a little below 35%.  It takes so little water to get it to this point, so it's added with caution.

I use either filtered water or spring water.  The fewer additives in the agua, the better.

I give the newly-hydrated whisky a swirl, then give it 5-10 minutes to sit.  Then I give it another swirl and commence smelling and sipping.


Some people take issue with overly flowery tasting notes.  Some people seem to delight in going over the top.  I write what I experience.  Sometimes it's brown sugar, sometimes it's childhood memories.  I don't tone it down or ramp it up for anyone.

I won't even tone it down for the kitten's sake.
Okay, maybe for the kitten.

Other stuff:

Before I nose the whisky, I do an olfaction exercise that Adam Carmer of The Whisky Attic taught me. He's awesome, the method is unusual but it totally works, and it's copyrighted.  You can Google around for more info, but I won't spill the method out of respect to a great guy and his successful business.  He's doing a book on it right now, so I hope it gets published soon!

I recommend finding a white background and some excellent lighting when determining the color of whisky.  But sometimes, it just looks gold.  And that's okay.

I use moleskine journals and black ink for my notes.  When I first started, last year, the handwriting was neat and careful.  Now, it's sloppy.  Part of it has to do with the inky pens.  But mostly, I have to slow down.  I may take an hour to taste two whiskies, but I rush through documenting the process and it's my loss.

I have heard that the taste buds are at their peak first thing in the morning.  While I would love to do a Taste Off at 8am, I'll save that for a special occasion.  For now, I prefer to do my tastings before dinner.  If I do it after dinner, I'll wait an hour or two after the meal.

Since I always enjoy process and historical context, I study up on the distillery and/or bottler before the tasting.  BUT I do not read anyone else's tasting notes, especially the official ones, beforehand.  I don't want that sort of context to influence my experience.

Ultimately, when I'm doing a tasting at home, I make sure to take my time and not rush a good thing.  That's what's most important to me.

For some excellent nosing and tasting tips, check out Whisky Magazine's (free) thorough seven-part nosing course.  If you're a Ralfy fan, the Manxman dishes out an awesome (free) seven-part video tasting masterclass.