People always ask me why I do my tastings with dried cranberries, pecans and a cigar. I do this because of the ephemeral nature of tasting whiskey. There are a lot of variables that have an effect on the flavor of the whiskey. Some of these variables are easy to control and I try to place them in my tastings. People eat food and smoke tobacco when they drink. These will have an effect on the flavor of the whiskey. I thought I would discuss these variables and what I do to incorporate them into my tasting notes. I always taste the whiskey neat, but have been known to add a few drops of water to higher proofs dominated by alcohol. I also try to clean the palate between the tastings and never do more than four whiskeys at one tasting.
- Glassware: The shape of the glass will change the way the nose detects the aromas of the whiskey. I always use a Glencairn whiskey glass to do my tastings. There are other great glasses out there, but I find the Glencairn glass at the top for durability and accessing the aroma of the whiskey. The funneling effect helps detect subtle aromas. These glasses are durable and I’ve dropped them on concrete and they have survived.
- Weather and season: These are variables that are hard to control since I am doing tastings all year around. A rainy day will have an effect that is different from a sunny day. Temperature can change the experience even when drinking indoors. A cold winter day will be different from a hot sunny day.
- Food: I use a dried cranberry because dried fruit concentrates sugars and gives me an idea as to what effect the sugars will have on the whiskey. Different dried fruits will have different effects, so I do my tastings with dried cranberries, but any dried fruit will give you an idea as to what sweet flavors will do to the whiskey. A mixologist should experiment with dried fruit before creating a sweet cocktail with a particular whiskey. Nuts have a lot of dried tannins in the meat of the nut. I use pecans because I like pecans better than walnuts or hazelnuts or any other available nuts in the market. Other foods that should be experimented with are fresh fruits (citrus in particular, but berries, apples, bananas and peaches are also very good.) Chocolate, cheeses, meats – particularly deli meats like country ham, and sweet syrups like molasses, honey and sorghum are other foods to be experimented with if you are creating a cocktail or planning a tasting.
- Setting: Tasting alone will be different than when tasting with friends and family. The enjoyment of the company will be reflected in the tasting experience. I generally taste either alone or with Matt Kohorst and Rosemary when I am tasting for my blogs.
- Tobacco: A lot of people enjoy a good smoke when they are drinking. I don’t like cigarettes, but I do enjoy a pipe or a cigar. The tobacco will change the experience and I want my tasting blogs to include that change.
I try to keep my tastings as controlled and consistent as possible. I do not want to judge a whiskey unfairly by subjecting them to different standards. Distillers work hard to make these whiskeys and they deserve to be examined in a fair manner. I hope that when someone reads my tasting blogs, they feel I have been fair to the whiskey and the distiller. I also hope that if they are a smoker or having a snack, they will see how that activity changes the experience.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller