The whiskey revolution has taken the world by storm, and you’re shirking your civic responsibility if you haven’t reported for duty. Ready to become an authority on the art and science of whiskey? Arm yourself with this guide co-curated with Jameson Caskmates (a remarkable whiskey finished in casks seasoned with Irish stout), and you’ll get yourself through boot camp and onto the front lines of the revolution in no time.
Choosing the right glass for tasting your whiskey is nearly as important as selecting the spirits themselves. Look for glasses with a stout stem, a wide bell, and a narrow opening, which helps channel aromas and flavors toward your oh-so-receptive face. Specialty whiskey snifters are ideal, but glasses designed for white wine or brandy will do if your corner specialty whiskey-snifter shop happens to be closed that day.
Pour between a half-ounce and one-and-a-half ounces of whiskey into your glass and give it a good swirl to begin the oxygenation process. Once the spirit has coated the sides you’ll want to let it sit and mellow for a minute or two, perhaps holding it up to the light to note its distinct color. Remember, this is your whiskey’s first time breathing fresh air, and it’s bound to be a little jumpy after being cooped up for a minimum of three years in casks and bottles. Give it a moment to settle and regroup before diving in.
Hopefully you’ve let your whiskey aerate for long enough that your first sniff won’t amount to a noseful of pure alcohol. But whiskey’s strength is part of its charm and sometimes it takes more than one sniff to get past the booze. You’ll want to sniff your whiskey at least three times: the first with your nose a half-inch from the glass, and the second two with it almost (but not quite) touching the rim. Keep your mouth open just a touch, as this will help the flow of oxygen through your facial region.
On your first sniff you’ll probably start to sense distinct aromas such as peat, wood, fruit, cereal, or flowers. By the second or third, you should begin to detect subtler notes like leather, smoke, chocolate, tobacco, sherry, or grass.
Often, recreational whiskey tasters describe the nose in terms of a memory or a metaphor: the hayloft in a barn, for example, or a summer night by a campfire. Others report downright bizarre scents such as cabbage water, pencils, anchovies, or beeswax. Part of the joy of participating in a whiskey tasting is finding creative new ways to describe what you’re experiencing, so it’s okay to let your inner creative writing major run wild.
At last, it’s time to get down to business. But go easy, tiger: remember, this is a whiskey tasting, not a whiskey gulping.
Your first sip should be tiny: so small, it’s like you’re barely doing more than breathing it in. This will release the sweet notes and prevent you from feeling like you’re chugging pure alcohol.
Your second sip can be a bit more robust—but before swallowing, let the whiskey sit for a moment in your mouth. Different parts of the tongue receive and record flavors in different ways, so it’s important to invite all of them to the party and leave no flavor receptor un-tickled.
Your first sip will likely burn on the way down, but once it’s warming your gullet you’ll start to notice an explosion of sensations and flavors. Just as there’s no wrong way to describe your whiskey’s aromas, the tasting notes you discover are correct as long as you deem them so. Since everyone’s palate is unique, you and your whiskey-tasting compatriots may notice different flavors.
To describe what’s going on in your mouth, think of fruits, woods, spices, plants, foods, and even materials such as granite or chalk. Jameson Caskmates, for instance, is often described as containing notes of hops, cocoa beans, marzipan, and charred oak. You may notice some bitter or medicinal flavors, or preparation-based tastes such as “toasted” or “burnt.” Also take note of how the whiskey feels in your mouth: is it smooth, prickly, dry? Above all, take your time. Whiskey is meant to be sipped and savored.
Whiskey’s high alcohol content often means that the true flavors don’t come out until you’ve already taken a sip and let it settle in. With whiskey, aftertaste is nearly as important as taste. Again, there’s no wrong way to describe the finish. You can compare it to things you’ve eaten, smelled, or touched, or you can mine your memory bank for the perfect metaphor (“grandpa’s study,” anyone?). Often, a whiskey’s finish is quite different from its nose and palate. While Jameson Caskmates has a fruity nose and a hoppy, sweet palate, its finish is pure dessert: butterscotch and milk chocolate.
Your first sip of whiskey should always be taken neat. This helps you understand what the distiller was going for, and gives you an undiluted taste of exactly what’s in the bottle. However, many seasoned whiskey tasters choose to add a few drops of water or a good-sized ice cube to their glass after the initial sip. This helps dilute the alcohol content somewhat, which can bring subtler flavors to the forefront and make the tasting more of a palate-based experience.
If you want host a full-blown tasting event, invite a few friends over and share these tips. In order to really enjoy the variety flavors and notes whiskey has to offer, you’ll need a few different types at a tasting. For diversity, experts suggest sourcing six to eight bottles produced by distillers across the globe. You could go for smoky, peaty Scotches, down-home sweet bourbons, or even out-of-the-way bottles from lesser-known whiskey-producing regions such as India, Tasmania, and Japan.
For a truly contemporary event, be sure to include a bottle of Jameson Caskmates, which is finished in casks that once held traditional Irish stout from Cork’s Franciscan Well Brewery. The flavor profile combines the very best aspects of whiskey and beer for a taste that’s simultaneously hoppy and sweet.
No matter where, when, and how you choose to enjoy your whiskey, whether at a tasting or by yourself (no judgment), remember to drink responsibly and designate a driver or call a cab for guests. And make sure to include Jameson Caskmates for a truly refined tasing experience.
JAMESON® Irish Whiskey. 40% Alc./Vol. (80 Proof). Product of Ireland. ©2015 Imported by John Jameson Import Company, Purchase, NY. Taste responsibly.
Anna Schumacher has written for Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Esquire, and more. Her debut novel, END TIMES, is out now from Penguin/Razorbill books. Follow her at @SchumacherYA.