Overpriced barware and flavored vodkas aside, there aren’t many drinking topics I find more off-putting than the far-flung and flowery language of tasting.
Whether it’s Bourbon or Bordeaux, nothing turns my curiosity into contempt like having to trudge through some gasbag’s highbrow appraisal of a spirit’s “initially buttery palate, transitioning into a smooth, fresh body of crisp hazelnut wafer, kissed with Oolong and wild lavender.” Hey, Robert Frost. You gonna drink that thing or fuck it?
This isn’t to say all that pantytalk is a sham. Listen, I’ve drunk my share of whisky. Maybe your share, too. And yes, I can pick out flavors most people don’t notice. But it’s not—as many reviewers would have you infer—because I’ve achieved some level of refinement that you haven’t.
You can taste all these things. Tonight. Not by putting your whisky in the right glass, but by putting it in the right context.
For most folks, whisky tasting works like this:
1. Buy pint of Jack,
2. Drink pint of Jack,
3. It tastes like Jack.
1. Buy pint of Beam,
2. Drink pint of Beam,
3. It mostly tastes kind of pretty much like Jack.
Your brain is wired to categorize things. To put everything you see, feel, taste and otherwise experience into buckets with similar things to help it identify stuff later. And it likes BIG DUMB buckets. Buckets like TREE and CAR and WHISKY and GIN. Put your brain in a room with a bicycle and a bird and it can sort things out pretty quickly. But put it in there with 50 birds, and it starts doing something extraordinary, subcategorizing the birds based on things it didn’t bother to notice before. Colors. Beak shapes. Wing patterns. Vanillas. Peppery notes.
Point is, your brain is awesome. But it isn’t awesome enough to freeze-frame the immeasurable subtleties that lie beneath the initial quaff of a well-aged or blended whisky. That is, unless you make it.
Next weekend, instead of your usual Jack or Beam, buy both. Better still, buy a nice selection of four or five bourbons and whiskies (or aged rums, or tequilas or whatever you’re into). Sit down, pour a half shot of each, and taste.1
I swear, if you’ve never done this, you’ll be amazed at your sudden ability to pick out very specific flavors you never detected before.
The most obvious ones, at least for me, are:
I think I read once that of all the organic chemicals oak can impart on whisky, a couple hundred or so taste like variations of vanilla. (Funny we use “vanilla” to denote a lack of variety.) Good Example: Buffalo Trace
Whiskies with a lot of rye in them tend to be spicier, so when tasting, definitely throw a rye or rye-heavy choice in the mix. Good Example: Sazerac Rye
Older whiskies obviously take on more of the characteristics of their oak barrels. As such, they start tasting fatter, more robust and, well, oakier. Good Example: Knob Creek
Peach and almond are fairly common, and more noticeable as you go along. You’ll find others, too, and not all of them good. I swear to God I can taste mint in Bulleit rye. Eagle Rare has a patent-leather quality that’s not as sexy as it sounds. For the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like Old Overholt rye. Then a few friends and I tried it with five other whiskies one night, and suddenly the answer was both obvious and unanimous: lawn clippings.
None of this is in defense of the average whisky review, which is still 80% bullshit and 95% useless. I’ve never tasted a “hibiscus note” or a “subtle breath of roasted sugar beet” in my life. I don’t doubt there are those who think they can, but I don’t live in their brains. Like you, all I have is my own tongue, my own experiences, and my own vocabulary.
And these six bottles of whisky that ain’t gonna drink themselves.
Photo by Albert
Don’t make it too easy on your brain. For instance, don’t compare a Scotch with four bourbons. Your brain is likely to just toss the Scotch aside as a reject and focus on the other four. (This is also a great way to ensure that you never develop a taste for Scotch.) Sample things that are similar, but different. If you’re going the whisky route, try 2-3 bourbons, and throw in a TN whisky and a rye. ↩