What I’ve Learned About Tasting Whiskey From Reviewing It

| May 23, 2019

Over nearly four years, I’ve reviewed more than 70 whiskeys for The Whiskey Wash. Favorites include the dreamy, long-gone Barrell Bourbon 006 and Barber’s Single-Malt Rye; least-favorites are 12-Foot Beard (must I explain?) and the I.W. Harper 15-Year Old Bourbon, which I’m still convinced was aged inside socks lined with provolone.

My delightful editor refers to me as one of the “senior” reviewers. Although that makes me feel like a whiskey AARP card-holder, what it does entitle me to is the privilege of a modicum of experience in how to properly taste and evaluate whiskey.

Not bourbon or rye

One thing to try – tasting in a group. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Can you just drink it and not give a shit? Sure. But that’s not why you’re on this site.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

  1. You’re not doing it wrong.

Interested in whiskey but feel overwhelmed? I get that.

Something I learned early in this reviewing gig is that—just like there’s no crying in baseball—there are no wrong answers in whiskey tasting. When you take a sip of something, you might taste berries while your friend tastes pencil shavings. Or maybe…you just taste whiskey. No worries! Take a breath. It can be just as pretentious as wine tasting!

There are a lot of kinds of whiskey—Scotch, bourbon, rye, etc.—and untold variations within that. You may not like the same things your friends or significant others or reviewers or bartenders or the media like. That’s totally cool. It means there’s nothing wrong with you. There is room for a vast amount of opinions and options.

Think of it like books. Not everyone is going to enjoy reading all the same authors; while certain writers are popular for a reason, libraries are vast.

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(Even the Whiskey Library.)

  1. Okay, maybe you’re kinda doing it wrong

Serious about tasting whiskey? Invest in proper glassware.

Sure, you can sip from a simple tumbler or snifter or shot glass, but if you want to sustain some sort of cred, invest in a few tulip-shaped Glencairn glasses. You can get six for about $30. I pooh-poohed this at first but it really does change how you taste whiskey.

Or you can keep drinking from a Solo cup if that’s your jam. Like I said: No wrong answers.

Other tips if you’d like to try this at home:

  • Want to study the color? My dining room table is the same color as most whiskies: Brown. So I usually put a paper towel down underneath a glass; it both absorbs errant spills and gives me a blank canvas to describe the color.
  • Want to smell the whiskey? Then remember your sixth grade science class rule: waft it. Don’t stick your nose directly in the glass. Instead, lean back and bring the glass between your nose and mouth and breathe in. Hold it away from your nose. Repeat as desired.
  • Have a glass of water nearby. I usually taste whiskey neat and have water at room temperature. If I find a whiskey overwhelming served neat, a couple drops of water or chips of ice help. No more than that. (See my ice diatribe below.)
  • Avoid tasting more than three whiskies in a single sitting. Any more than that—at least for me—annihilates my palate.
  • Also, you don’t need to pour yourself a ton when you taste. Maybe like 1/3 of a shot, if that. You can always revisit. (Or pour yourself one of your favorites to clear your palate if you’ve tasted something terrible. Picklebacks work well, though I don’t usually have one at the ready.)
  1. Find a good tasting partner or partners.
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Tasting alone gets lonely. Like many other things, it’s fine on your own but more fun with a partner.

In my case, my ex-husband is terrific to taste whiskey with. We get along, and have somewhat similar palates, but different enough to taste different things. And he’s artistic, which is helpful when you’re trying to describe the color of a whiskey. (How many ways can you describe brown? It’s the most difficult part of the job.) It’s a nice way to catch up and take the edge off.

I also like to taste with one of my girlfriends who lives nearby and is always willing to come over and gossip before, during, and after. She likes the free booze and I like the free scoop.

  1. Someone’s always going to know more than you.

I have whiskey imposter syndrome. Especially since I’m surrounded by other very talented writers and editors. But whiskey interests me, so I continue to write about it and I get to learn more.

But you also need to feel comfortable. Recently I went to a Women Who Whiskey event here in Portland, Oregon. (There are chapters around the country.) It was delightful. We ate cheese. We talked work. We talked whiskey. We shared favorite places and favorite libations. So refreshing to drink whiskey without a bunch of dudes mansplaining why I’m wrong in my choices.

  1. You can have a favorite whiskey—or not!

Does anyone enjoy the question “What’s your favorite ________?” I sure don’t. It is a surefire way to blank my mind like the Men In Black neuralizer. Sometimes I recover enough and can name some of my favorite brands. It’s a longer list than it was when I first started reviewing and includes Angel’s Envy, Basil Hayden, Booker’s, Bulleit, and Barrell. But it all depends on what I want: Do I want to upend it into a cocktail shaker? Drop some into a ginger ale? Or sip it neat?

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Maybe it’s easier to say what I don’t like. Mainly peated Scotch: They taste like a tire fire to me. In general, I don’t get assigned Scotch because a) I dislike it, and b) there are far more erudite and accomplished writers on it on this site (see point #4).

Honestly, I have more passionate feelings about ice. I hate the big cube. I hate it so much. It doesn’t work for me. It’s way, way too much real estate in a glass. I drink quickly enough that the big cube barely melts and bangs my nose and makes it cold and then I just look like Rudolph.

  1. Have fun.

You’re on this site because you’re interested in whiskey. Great! Again, there are no wrong answers. (Maybe if you like Fireball or peanut butter whiskey, but that’s another topic for another time.)

So keep an open mind. Follow your interests. Amass a collection, or don’t. But whiskey should be fun. It is fun. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The Whisky Exchange


Carin Moonin

A decade ago, I traded a 5th floor walkup in Hoboken, NJ for a house in SE Portland and remain grateful for the swap. Portland’s a great whiskey town: It fits the weather and my general mood (even improves it sometimes). I enjoy exploring the many shades of brown liquor...