Learn to Taste Whiskey Like a Pro

A few simple steps to help you get the most out of each sip.

Whiskey glasses
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

I am always trying to enhance my palate to offer my clients a better experience each and every time I speak to them during a whiskey, tequila, mezcal, or gin tasting. For example, something I thoroughly enjoy in tasting gin is pulling out the different botanicals based on flavors associated with that country, like yuzu for Japan, or seaweed for the Pacific Northwest.

When tasting whiskey in particular, there are several important tips to bear in mind. Having judged several spirits competitions over the years, I've learned that the ways in which you can enhance or take away flavor are quite astonishing. Obviously, you want to avoid adding any other flavors to a whiskey.

How to Prepare Your Palate for Whiskey

First, I strongly recommend warming up your palate. This means starting off with either a light cocktail to awaken your senses, or going into a non-cask strength whiskey.Try to warm up with something in the 40 to 47% ABV range –– nothing stronger. You want your palate's pores (your tongue has 10,000 pores!) to open up slowly. Opening up too quickly can really be a shock to the system.

For me personally, having French bread, plain cheese, and celery on hand during a tasting has been crucial to revamping my palate. These are all mild foods, and they help restore the palate at a fairly rapid rate. Other foods I enjoy while tasting to enhance my experience include crisp bacon strips, spiced nuts (almonds and cashews are a favorite), wasabi peas, breadsticks, banana pudding or some chocolate squares.

New favorite: The Highball! I have only recently started getting into highballs, and I love it! The sparkling or soda water has allowed me to enjoy whiskey much more, just by toning down the alcohol majorly, and opening up some nice aromas. Fever Tree soda or tonic is great for this!

Pay Attention To Your Tasting Order

After you've done so, I have a few rules I like to abide by: First, try to start with the best whiskey first, after your warm up. A lot of tasters will tell you to save the best for last, but the reality is that by the time your palate is on the fourth whiskey, the majority of your taste buds are essentially desensitized. Going into the best whiskey last can really be underwhelming.

Next, when it comes to cask strength, try to taste as progressively as you can. A lot of bourbon and rye is stronger than scotch whisky, so while I often mix a range of whiskies from around the world into my tastings, I try to do both best to last, as well as cask strength in tandem. This can be difficult to do, so don't be terribly bothered about the ABV if you've got some fantastic products mixed in, as those should take precedent.

Yes, You Need to Add Water to Your Whiskey

Taste through the whiskey once, add some drops of water, and try it again. Adding warm or hot water to your whiskey will subsequently open up the whiskey's pores (whiskey itself is indeed a very porous drink). This will instantly take down the alcoholic content and raise sweet, floral, and briny flavor notes instead.

How to Taste Peated Whiskey

Either start and end your night entirely with peat and smoke, or start your night on the other spectrum, with your sweet and more floral whiskies. The reason for this is simple: the smokey, peaty whiskies will overwhelm your palate so much so that you won't be able to taste anything else after you've had them. It's almost as if you've burnt your tastebuds once you've gotten into those whiskies, so it makes it extremely difficult to get them back to their normal functionality.

To Ice or Not To Ice

I tend to avoid having ice with my whiskey, but some of the people I look up to most in the industry love a good cube or rock in the mix. My reasoning here is also simple: As I mentioned before, whiskey is extremely porous. Think of it this way: When you wake up, you have a hot shower, which opens up your pores. On the contrary, when you have a cold shower, your pores tighten up. When you add ice, the whiskey will cool down and its pores will close up –– that cold whiskey will in turn close your tongue's pores up, leaving you to taste 20-30% of what you were intended to taste. However, if you're just drinking to relax, and you like your whiskey this way, go for it!

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