Sensing Spirits: A Quick Sensory Guide for Whiskey

whiskey noser

If you’re new to the spirits world, the term “whiskey noser” may throw you for a loop. But if you consider yourself a connoisseur, then you might count yourself among them.

A whiskey noser is, simply put, someone who uses the senses – sight, smell, taste – to explore and appreciate whiskey. This term derives from the importance of smelling a whiskey in order to fully understand it; after all, we experience taste primarily through aroma. Of course, that’s not to say that other aspects of the sensory experience don’t matter…

We’re here to help you discover your sense of spirits by breaking down the three main elements of conducting a sensory evaluation.

1. Observing

First off, simply observing whiskey can tell you a lot about how it was made. Freshly distilled whiskey is clear – it gets its color from the barrel in which it is aged. You can get an idea of what type of wood cask was used in the aging process by the color of the finished product. Additionally, you can sometimes form a slight judgment about the alcohol content of the drink based on the color of the whiskey.

Another important visual aspect of whiskey is the legs. Whiskey legs form when you swirl the whiskey around the glass (just look for the drips of liquid that pull back to the glass). The lighter the whiskey, the more legs will form. Thicker whiskies have fewer legs and form more of a coating around the glass.

Like color, the viscosity or thickness of the legs and how quickly they fall can also allude to the alcohol content. Whiskies with a higher alcohol content will have more legs that fall slower. If the whiskey has more fatty acids, it will produce thicker legs.

2. Nosing

The nose has five million olfactory cells, so while there are only four primary tastes – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter – the nose allows you to experience 32 primary aromas.

A whiskey’s aromas will derive from its production and aging processes. Some experts advise adding a splash of water to your glass to release more aromas in the whiskey by cutting down on some of the alcohol vapors.

To simplify things, there are three categories of whiskey aromas with the primary aromas emerging from the type of grain used and how it is malted. Secondary aromas come from fermentation and distillation, which can give off yeasty, metallic, or milky aromas. Finally, tertiary aromas come from aging; for example vanilla, spicy, winey, or woody. But in order to experience as many of these aromas as possible, you’ll need the right glass – and the right technique.

The most common mistake people make while nosing a whiskey is using the wrong type of glass. The best glasses for a whiskey noser are those that bring out the aroma. A common misconception is that whiskey should be consumed in flat glasses with a thick base, but an experienced whiskey noser knows to reach for a tulip-shaped glass. The stem of these glasses prevents any issues with heat or odor contaminants from the hands. The bowl is used to swirl the liquid, while the narrow lip of the glass catches the aromas.

When you’re finally ready for your first sniff, don’t be afraid to get your nose right into the glass – just don’t go overboard when inhaling. Remember to keep your lips parted when breathing in through your nose and be mindful and open to what you smell.

What does the smell remind you of? A bon fire in summer? A fresh baseball glove? Your grandma’s banana bread? No matter how abstract or personal, scent memories can help us decipher complicated aromas. Use that reference point to learn more about the notes in the whiskey you’re evaluating.

3. Tasting

Contrary to what you learned in your college days, the last step of a sensory evaluation is actually tasting your whiskey. An experienced whiskey noser will recommend drinking some room temperature water before tasting your whiskey to cleanse the palate.

Once you take your first sip, let the whiskey sit in the front, center, and back of tongue to experience its variety of flavors. It is important to coat your entire mouth in order to experience it fully. Like nosing, you’ll want to be mindful about what you’re tasting. Same rules apply. No matter how outlandish or specific the flavor, trust your tastebuds and follow that memory to find the characteristic you’re experiencing.

If you think you have what it takes to be the “World’s Top Whiskey Taster,” you can use your newly minted knowledge to join the competition hosted by Bardstown Bourbon Company and co-sponsored by Moonshine University. Have your shot at the title and you might also walk away with $20,000 and more in prizes!

Of course, if you think you could benefit from a little more sensory training, consider taking the Stave & Thief Society’s Bourbon Steward Certification. Just order the Handbook online, study at your own pace, and when you’re ready, take the online test to emerge a Certified Bourbon Steward.

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