The Basics of Nosing and Tasting Whiskey - The Whiskey Wash

The Basics of Nosing and Tasting Whiskey

By Tim Knittel / February 25, 2019

“Wine is easy, whiskey is hard.” That’s one lesson I’ve learned from both my own training and training others in the art of whiskey tasting.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying; becoming an expert at wine tasting is hard, too (just look at how hard some of the Sommelier levels are!) but whiskey can be particularly challenging especially for folks new to the category.

Wine is lower proof and therefore gentler on the palate. Whiskey must be high proof (at least 80 proof by law in most countries) and is typically perceived as dryer in the mouth. Whereas wine is aways fruit dominant but still with a potential for a beautiful depth of flavor in that category and in other secondary categories, whiskey can be heavily smokey, peaty or grainy which can appear to skew the flavor profile.

So the bottom line is that the rules that apply to tasting wine often don’t apply to whiskey – and very often it can be the opposite! When nosing and tasting whiskey, approach it with respect. Start by remembering that all whiskey will have some heat on it, and that’s not a bad thing.

Not bourbon or rye

There are some thing to consider before you stick your nose in that whiskey glass. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Brain Pain

The “heat” (or “burning” from some whiskeys) comes from the concentrated ethanol molecules triggering the nerves in the nose, tongue and throat that respond to heat. It’s called “chemesthesis,” which basically means a chemically induced sensation; in this case, it’s a thermal sensation and certain secondary compounds from the grains and barrel can exacerbate it. This is actually the same mechanism triggered by the capsaicin in spicy foods that makes them hot.

This sensation is sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve in the back of the jaw and is specifically a pain sensation. And when your brain receives a pain sensation, it actually minimizes your other senses including smell and taste. Which means if your experience of the whiskey is that it’s hot, then your brain will actively filter out the aromas and flavors and you’ll be missing out on the potentially very enjoyable spirit.

The two most basic techniques for nosing and tasting whiskey are retronasal breathing and multiple sips, both of which are designed to assist in overcoming that pain sensation and get into the flavors.

Nosing

Start with your whiskey poured neat, preferably in a glass designed for tasting whiskey. Swirl, then gently breathe into your mouth, close your lips, then breathe out slowly through your nose. This will likely feel a little awkward at first but it’s easy to get the hang of. Some folks might recognize this as a cigar breathing technique. Immediately you should begin to “taste” the aromas without risking an ethanol cloud blasting across your sensitive olfactory membranes.

After two or three retronasal breaths, move to breathing directly into the nose (called “orthonasal” breathing) but keep the breaths slow and shallow at least to start. I always find I get slightly different aromas which each technique.

Tasting

When that first sip hits your mouth, it’s likely going to be hot, or at least warm. That’s okay. Give the liquid a few seconds and really swirl it around to hit all of your taste buds before swallowing. But here’s a key – don’t judge it yet. Don’t even worry about trying to notice any flavors just yet.

Unlike the capsaicin in spicy foods which is oil-based, any lingering ethanol will evaporate off giving your brain time to acclimate to the new pain sensation. Fortunately for us, the human brain is very adaptable and this acclimation takes only about a minute! So after you’ve paused, go in for a second sip. This time start to notice some of the flavor. You’ll actually get progressively more sensory information (e.g., taste) with each of the first three or four sips.

Long-Term Adaptation & Tasting With Friends

Just like spicy food, ethanol heat can be adapted to such that the initial hit becomes less impactful the more whiskey you taste. This only requires the effort of tasting more whiskey!

But remember that your friends might not have the same resistance to whiskey burn that you have. When introducing other folks to your favorite drams, consider that they might be best served by lower-proof options to start and might even benefit from some guidance in nosing and tasting techniques.

A few rules of thumb are to not judge them for experiencing the whiskey as hot and to encourage them not to judge the whiskey until they’ve had at least a few sips. And a slash or a rock aren’t a bad thing to help cut the proof a bit.

Happy tasting!