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Whiskey tasting 101: How to fully experience a craft spirit

If you’ve ever visited a distillery or winery, then you’ve probably been through a guided tasting. It can be a little intimidating to first-timers (and even seasoned vets), with terms such as “flavor wheels” and “bouquets” and the occasional snobby companion who speaks airily as though he or she has already conquered the world of spirits.

But tastings can and should be fun, and they’re often very personal and subjective. Jeff Pennington at Davidson Reserve likes to joke that some of the sharpest palates in the industry enjoy cutting their whiskey with Mountain Dew on occasion — and that’s totally fine! That’s why we’ve included a guided, virtual tasting for every spirit you’ll ever buy from Bootlegger Co, which you can get by scanning the QR code on the bottle. We want you to trust your palate and discover your own personal preferences. We’re just here to help along that journey.

That said, there are three key components to every tasting: nose, palate, and finish. Following these steps will help you understand the nuances of each spirit so you can figure out what makes you love — or not! — a specific spirit. It’s also a fun, sometimes meditative exercise, engaging almost all of your senses and pulling you deeper into the here and now.

The Nose

The first step of any whiskey tasting — and wine enthusiasts know this well — is to smell your drink. But unlike with wine, you don’t want to stick your entire nose into the glass of whiskey and inhale deeply, because you’ll be met with an overwhelming sense of alcohol and an unpleasant sting in your sinuses. If you accidentally do this, don’t sweat it; just go ahead and give the back of your hand or your wrist a deep sniff. Carter Collins at Pennington Distillery Co. calls this the “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” of nosing a glass.

Try to keep your mouth slightly cracked while you bring the glass up a few inches beneath your nose, then inhale gently. Common scents include vanilla, caramel, toffee, and other baking spices, but sometimes spirits have a floral, citrus, or other unique scent.

If you’re tasting a particularly strong spirit, you may consider the “drive by” technique. This is a trick taught to us by Rick Talley and Owen Locke at Locke + Co. Move the glass from left to right, so that it wafts only for a moment directly underneath your nose.

The Palate

Once you’ve picked up on all the different fragrances, it’s time to give the spirit a taste. I like to take a small sip and hold it on the middle of my tongue before letting it fall on both sides of my mouth. Fruit and spice are two of the more distinct flavors I typically look for in a whiskey, with things such as plum, cherry, fig, allspice, and cinnamon often showing up. But again, try to notice things you haven’t before. For example, Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye has a unique citrus note, which is very rare for a rye whiskey.

If you’re struggling to pick up many notes, try the “Kentucky chew”: Take a couple of smacking chews, like you’re loudly chewing bubble gum, while the spirit is in your mouth. This brings in additional air and brightens whatever notes you’ll experience on the palate.

The Finish

Finally, before you go for another sip, take a moment to see how the spirit finishes after you swallow. Is it a harsh burn? Or is it more of a lingering, mild heat? Do any new flavors come into your mouth as your saliva washes away the residual oils of the whiskey on your palate?

Remember, a smoother finish isn’t necessarily better; it’s a matter of preference. Personally, I love a whiskey that lingers just a bit in your neck and throat, like a warm necktie. Others may prefer an extremely smooth finish, or even a cooling sensation as they swallow. The more spirits you try, the more you’ll start to notice what kind of finish you enjoy.

There are other, deeper topics to get into on tasting. Finding the base notes, for example, is a fun way to drill deeper into the mash bill and raw distillate that made its way into your glass. Check back for more information on these in the future. But for now, following these three steps will help you zero in on why you love certain whiskeys and your favorite way to drink them — even if that means cutting them with Mountain Dew.

Author: Brian Tung

Brian is the co-founder and CEO of Bootlegger Co. His favorite drink is a premium whiskey with one giant ice cube. But if forced to drink a cocktail, he loves a Sazerac.