The base of any good cocktail is a quality spirit. Many classic whiskey cocktails rely primarily on the flavor of the spirit, so it’s important to find one you like. Tasting whiskeys at a distillery or in a barrel room gives you a chance to try before buying a bottle. It’s also fun to learn about spirits from a master distiller and seeing where the whiskey has been aging. But if don’t live near a distillery, or they’re not open yet, you’ll need to create your own whiskey tasting. It’s fairly easy, you just need a few things to get started.
Step 1: Select your whiskey(s)
Lucky for you, tasting sets are becoming more mainstream, like this limited edition set from J. Rieger & Co in Kansas City. (The set is already sold out but you can still buy Rieger Whiskey!) Sets also allow you to try things that may be rare or expensive. This prevents you from making a financial commitment to a full bottle. The set pictured includes two whiskeys available now and two that will be bottled and available in 2021. Rieger’s Bourbon and Rye are aged a minimum of four years. Options for solo whiskey tasting include Flaviar and The Spirit Co.
If you are hosting a tasting with friends, have each person bring a bottle of whiskey to try. Use a public sign-up sheet like Google Docs to prevent duplicates. Have everyone buy a bottle in a similar price range. When guests can leave, they can take the remainder of the bottle they’ve ranked the highest. If you have a large group, you will want to use small pours. Keep your friends safe through ride sharing or public transportation options.
Step 2: Gather other supplies
You only need a few things to get ready for your whiskey tasting. A whiskey tasting glass isn’t required, but it does allow you to smell, see, and taste better. You can also use small beer tasting glasses or even shot glasses. Whatever you do, don’t use plastic cups. They will alter the flavor of the whiskey.
Depending on how many whiskeys you’re tasting, it can be easy to lose track. Using a simple set of tasting notes sheets can help you remember what you liked. General categories for tasting include color, nose (smell), taste, and an overall impression. You can download a version of a notes sheet here.
It’s important to have some snacks nearby to absorb some of the whiskey. I like tastings with salty snacks that don’t have a ton of spices or flavors to compete with the alcohol. Other suggestions are nuts and mild cheeses (for protein), apple slices, raw veggies, and dark chocolate.
Step 3: Set up for your tasting and pour
I like my tastings to be orderly, especially if you have a lot of people participating. Start by setting up the whiskeys in the same order along with the notes sheets, pens, water, and snacks. Set up the bottles in the same order as the glasses so you can keep track of what’s next. No one will want to waste a drop, so pre-measuring the pours will help keep the volume you’re drinking reasonable. I typically use a quarter to a half ounce of each whiskey, depending on how many you are tasting.
Step 4: How to taste whiskey with your other senses
Whiskey tasting is a lot like wine tasting. Using your senses, you can explore the color, smell, and the viscosity (or thickness) of the spirit. Hold your glass up to let light shine through it. Swirl it around in the glass gently. Observe the “legs” or the trails it leaves as it slides back down to the bottom of the glass. Inhale the scent deeply. What can you detect? Common flavors found in whiskey include caramel, smoke, nutty, honey, malt, fruit, chocolate, peat, brine, and more. While many whiskey distillers suggest the flavors you should find, there’s really no wrong answer. Everyone’s palette is different.
Step 5: Taste the whiskey
You’ve made it to the best part, tasting the whiskey! Approach this step like a fine dining experience. Don’t rush through it.
- Sip a small amount of whiskey.
- If you can manage, sip in a little air to aerate the whiskey without swallowing it yet. This is easiest if you do it while you are taking your sip, like slurping soup.
- Hold the whiskey in your mouth and see what you can taste.
- Swallow the sip and then note what flavors linger. What taste does it leave in your mouth? Does it have a flavor that changes from the first contact with your tongue versus after it’s gone?
- Take a larger sip and repeat the steps above.
If you want to further open the flavors, you can add a little distilled water and try tasting it again. I find that trying one and then another and going back can be helpful in deciding what I like best. Out of the whiskeys I tried for this post, I liked Rieger’s Rye Whiskey the best. It has a nice spicy finish to it. While it won’t be bottled until next year, I still have enough to make one cocktail! I’m going to “invent my own cocktail” and do a split with the regular Rieger whiskey and the Rye. Yum!
Step 6: Take notes
Taking notes is absolutely optional. It can be a fun way to compare what you taste with your friends. And it’s a great way to remember what you liked later on when you’re buying more whiskey. You can even make up your own scoring system if you want. It’s meant to be fun, so figure out what you want to keep track of. And there you have it. All you need to make your own whiskey tasting. Cheers!