Attend a Whiskey Tasting Like a Pro

So you’re going to a whiskey tasting (or maybe even hosting one!). The bottles have been selected, the glasses polished, the snacks deployed. Now, all that’s left to do is sample and enjoy.

Not bourbon or rye

Before you go to a tasting there are some things to consider. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

But wait! While there’s no hard-and-fast rules about tasting whiskey, there are some strategies that can make the whole experience more fun. Here’s what I’ve learned after sipping my way through more events and tastings than I can count:

  • Generally, you’ll want to start with whiskies on the lighter end of the flavor and ABV spectrum, and end with stronger, heavier, or sweeter spirits. Remember, age doesn’t necessarily correlate to intensity of flavor. A 16-year-old single malt aged in used bourbon casks, for instance, might be quite a bit lighter in flavor than a bourbon half its age.
  • Experiment with tasting each whiskey neat as well as with a bit of water. Eyedroppers are popular for adding water to whiskey, but if you don’t have one (or it’s just too precious) a regular old creamer pitcher or spoon works just fine as long as you have a light hand.
  • Drink lots and lots of water. It’s good for resetting your palate as it starts to flag, and staying hydrated is critical to feeling good the next day.
  • If you feel your olfactory senses starting to fatigue, try the old perfumer’s trick and sniff some coffee beans to reset. If you don’t have any coffee beans, Jordan Felix of the Multnomah Whiskey Library recommends smelling the inside crook of your elbow (I know, it sounds weird, but it really does work).
  • Eat something before you go, but pick something relatively mild. Spicy, garlicky, or very flavorful foods can leave a lingering aftertaste that makes it hard to pick up on more subtle flavors. Think turkey sandwich, not carnitas burrito with extra pickled jalapeños.
  • Don’t feel obligated to finish everything. The point of a whiskey tasting is to experience new whiskeys, not get hammered. Real pros know there’s no shame in using a dump cup. If you’re tasting something so special you can’t bring yourself to dump it, you can always pour any extra back into the bottle.
  • Know when to quit. I find that after tasting four or five whiskeys, I start to lose my ability to pick up on subtleties. At that point, you’re better off switching to something less demanding (or setting down your glass altogether) rather than wasting a heavy, complex whiskey on a fatigued palate.


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