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Whiskey with Wes: How to taste bourbon like a pro

This should help you impress your friends.

Wes Taylor

It has been a while since my last article. I have been kinda busy recently, mostly stressing out about the next Ole Miss loss. But it is time to get back to writing about whisk(e)y.

Most of my articles have focused on tasting and reviewing a specific whisk(e)y or type of whisk(e)y. But what if you want to do a tasting yourself? What are you looking for? Smelling for? Tasting for?

This article will teach you how to taste like a pro (or at least a jackass like me).

1. Get the right glass

For drinking, a rocks glass is just fine but for tasting, I prefer something with a lip on it in the shape of a pear not unlike how I like my women. A Glencairn glass is the choice of the pros and it is my choice as well. The aromas of the whiskey seem to pop out more to me in this glass. I could write an entire article on the subject but just take my word for now and taste out of a Glencairn glass.

2. Observe the color of your whisk(e)y

A plain white piece of paper and good lighting are a necessity for really observing the color of your drink. It is difficult to look at a whisk(e)y in the dark up against a wood table and tell anything about the color and clarity of the juice you are actually about to drink.

Why do you need to see the color? Well, you can tell a lot about a whiskey just by looking at it. You can tell the type, age, and even what kind of barrels were used. Scotches and Irish whiskies are typically the color of pale straw or deeper gold because they are aged in used or neutral oak. Bourbons on the other hand, are usually a deeper, darker color because they’re aged in brand new charred barrels. So it is not uncommon to have a 40-year-old Scotch that is lighter in color than a five-year-old bourbon. (All of this is also dependent on proof, so this is very true if you have barrel proof whiskey.)

Comparing different colors or whisk(e)y is very ritualistic and pleasing to me. For a good resource on color comparisons, check out this site.

3. Take a sniff

After I have carefully inspected the color of my whisk(e)y, I like to put the glass to my chest and see if I can pick up any aroma, then to my chin, and finally I drop my nose in the glass. It is important when tasting to not be wearing any type of fragrance or cologne because this can affect the aromas.

The way you smell matters as well. If you constantly take big, long sniffs, you will kill your ability to smell and dull your palate. Go at the whisk(e)y with two or three short sniffs then back off and try to discern the aromas. I like to use a neutral aroma to smell in between smelling the whisk(e)y. I use my own natural scent as a neutral aroma, so I will smell my arm and then dive back into the whisk(e)y.

In bourbon, try to find aromas other than oak, vanilla, or baking spices since these can be found in all bourbons. What spices do you smell? What kind of floral aroma? Does it smell like Banana Taffy? That is Jack Daniels; pour some coke on it.

I have read a plethora about whisk(e)y aromas in things called books, but it’ll be easier for you to find them online. Here’s a good starting point—I particularly like the flavor wheel. (I would do my own but I don't have time, I am barely qualified and most importantly I am not getting paid for this.)

4. OK, time to drink the damn thing

Take a small sip of the whisk(e)y and try to get some air in your mouth while you do it. Swish it around your mouth, letting the juice make full contact with everything. This is to confirm what your nose has picked up and also allows you to dive into more complex flavors on the palate.

If the whisk(e)y burns your throat, it is probably a higher proof whisk(e)y. Can you feel it in your chest? If so, it is probably higher than 100 proof or you are just not made for whisk(e)y. Can you pick up any unique flavors? I recall a Middleton's Barry Crocket Irish whiskey that had a delicious crisp pear flavor that blew me away.

If the whisk(e)y is too hot (meaning the alcohol is burning your palate), then add a couple drops of water to it. This will dilute some of the burn while also opening the whisk(e)y up to new flavors. When you add water to a whisk(e)y, you are adding oxygen. When an alcohol is put in a bottle, it is deprived of oxygen and the flavors become trapped in the juice. By adding oxygen you release flavors in the whisk(e)y. The other way to do this is to give the whiskey time aerating in a decanter. Last year, I opened up a Four Roses 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition and I hated it right out of the bottle. I let it sit for two weeks and tried it and it was less harsh and had more complex flavor.

If you don't have the "time" luxury, just swirl it in your glass or add water. Be careful not to add too much water, because a few drops can go a long way. You can always add water, but like salting your food, you cannot take it back. (Well, you can always add back whisk(e)y, but then it changes from a tasting to a party.)

Get out there and start tasting!

These are simple guidelines for what I consider starting your drinking habit. This is the method I use, but it might not be the best for you. Experiment and find out what works the best for you and your palate.

Want to join us for a virtual tasting? Myself, Jeff Gray and a few other bros will be streaming a live tasting at noon p.m. CT on Friday, Nov. 25 (the day after Thanksgiving). Tune in via Facebook and fire away with questions.

Suggestions for bourbon this week are Old Weller Antique 107 and the E.H. Taylor Small Batch or Single Barrel. I had a bottle and a half of the latter last Saturday as I cried in agony for my Rebs. Both of these whiskeys are harder to find but findable nonetheless. Getting into good whisk(e)y is harder than it seems and yet it brings more joy than one could ever imagine.