I am often asked how I developed my tasting palate and my answer is “practice”.  I was fortunate in that when I worked for United Distillers I had many great teachers. I also was fortunate enough to start when the Quality Control people had a trailer set up to taste every barrel in the warehouses for quality. Not every barrel at Stitzel-Weller was a good one and many ended up being musty and taken to be re-distilled for ethanol for the fuel industry. Every day for over a year (the project was well under way when I started) I would go to the trailer and sample 10 whiskeys for quality under the skillful hand of Mike Wright, the Quality Control manager. I learned a lot from him in that time.

So not everyone can have this type of experience, so how do you develop your tasting palate? Lie I said, “practice”. First of all be patient. It is not something that will develop overnight. The second thing is to take your time with the whiskey. Pour your glass, I suggest a good tasting glass that funnels the aromas to your nose. I like Glencairn glasses but a wine glass will work if you don’t have a Glencairn or other tasting glass.

  • Take the time to nose it several times. The first time you place it under your nose the alcohol is going to be the dominant aroma so do a quick nosing and take it away and return it to the nose two or three times quickly after the first nosing. The aromas will start to come through as you get accustomed to the alcohol.
  • Once you start smelling the aromas think about what you are getting out of the whiskey and place names to those aromas.
    • Caramel and vanilla will often be the dominate aromas but try to get past those for other flavors.
    • It could be fruit aromas like apples, pears, banana, citrus, apricots, peaches, berries or dates.
    • It could be spices like pepper, or baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice or ginger.
    • It could be floral aromas like roses, lilac or honeysuckle.
    • It could be more herbal like tobacco, mint, anise or licorice.
    • It could be wood notes like oak or nuts – pecans, almonds or hazelnuts.
    • Hopefully it will not be off aromas like must or acetate.
  • If you are having trouble placing an aroma feel free to visit your spice rack or some other source of these aromas.
  • Also feel free to re-set your sense of smell by sniffing the back or your hand which will clear your sense of smell to a neutral state and trying the whiskey again.

There are kits available with concentrated oils that have these aromas that you could use to identify the aromas. You can find them on line from places like the Aroma Academy and you can get a kit if you complete the Stave and Thief course at Moonshine University. These kits are helpful but you can get by without them.

Be patient and don’t get frustrated if you don’t find aromas that other people are finding. Everyone has a different sense of smell and some people detect certain aromas better than others. Many people actually have blind spots in their sense of smell and have a hard time smelling different aromas. Depend a lot upon your experience to identify different aromas. You will often identify aromas by something that you experienced in the past like the smell of your grandmother baking oatmeal cookies for example. If you get that type of experience then you can break it down and look for the individual ingredients in those cookies.

  • When you get through nosing the whiskey then you need to taste it. This needs to be a slow taste where you let the whiskey cover your taste buds in your mouth. You can swish around or do the “Kentucky Chew” or any other way that you feel comfortable doing as long as it reaches every corner of your mouth.
  • And then swallow the whiskey and think about the flavors. Feel free to take a second or third sip if needed but don’t rush the experience.
  • Adding water can also help bringing more flavors and aromas forward so have an eye dropper or straw handy to add a few drops of water at a time. I like to add three drops at a time and nose and taste each time. It can take some time to really examine a whiskey so don’t rush it.

Be aware of what you are nosing and tasting and it will come easier to you as you do it. Try doing this every night for a week with the same whiskey and see if you are getting different things each night. Keep a tasting diary and write down the results. (Tasting diary instructions here)

The secret to developing your tasting skills is practice. It can be a fun experience and you can learn a lot by doing so. However the ultimate question to ask is “Did I like that whiskey?” If you answer “Yes” then that is all you really need to know.

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl