Learning the art—or act for some of us—of whisky nosing and tasting is a most pleasurable task made more agreeable by the fact that is must be done with great repetition. But for some, it can also be an undertaking filled with uncertainty. Many don’t know where to begin in search of training and education. More still give up, believing you are either born with the ability to smell and taste the complexities of whisky, or see it as such a daunting endeavor, they throw in the towel before even using it.
Here is what I say to those folks. Do you have a nose? Does it function fairly well—air passes in and out? Can you ferret out when it’s time to change the cat litter? If you have answered yes to all of these, then you, too, qualify as educable—and lessons last less time than it takes to make a sandwich.
This post is the first in a series of four which will help you elbow your way through the murky waters of your next “tasting” excursion—whether on your own, nestled before a fire and in your favorite well-cushioned chair, or in the company of men with no chins and women who smoke cigars, all of who claim to be connoisseurs in the world of whisky. You shall come through shining and unscathed.
Lesson # 1 is as easy as writing your name at the top of your test paper. You get an A simply for showing up and making eye contact.
Color, viscosity, and clarity.
So firstly, Color.
To the average eye, there’s not a lot of variation.
But that’s like the execs telling the writers of MASH that the run will be limited because the Army isn’t really a pool for humor.
The color of a whisky spans a spectrum from what’s referred to as gin clear (a new spirit) to deep treacle.
Here is a handy guide for identification that comes to you from Whisky Magazine.
Color may identify both the type of cask used and the time spent in said cask, as the hue is derived from wood contact.
Basically, the longer the maturation, the more intense the color. Of course, some of this is dependent upon whether the casks were originally housing bourbon, sherry or in the case of some of the newer finishing techniques, port, Madeira, Sancerre, and even red wine.
Something I, and countless others, find disturbing when reading labels, is the discovery of a color additive—caramel—used by some distilleries to enhance the outcome. It is legal, and not every country requires notification of its practice, so if this bothers you, research the distillery. Often times they’re quite proud to announce if they do not use E150A.
The simplest way to identify your dram’s color is by holding your glass against a white background—such as a sheet of white paper. Now check the color chart. Super easy.
This is a measurement of thickness and can be a sign of a whisky’s age.
Swirl your whisky around in your glass, then stop and assess the legs—the bands falling down the sides of the glass. If they’re as slow as a snail with a limp, you’ve got yourself an older whisky, possibly eligible for a pension.
And if it has gams like Cyd Charisse, your dram is likely higher in alcohol.
Some distilleries will chill-filter the whisky in order to eliminate any cloudiness that may occur naturally, but there is a common complaint that by discarding the oily compounds, it also negatively affects the whisky’s flavor.
Whiskies with the non chill-filtered style may go somewhat cloudy when water is added, but will return to its clear state shortly. Be patient. Many distillers believe you provide a richer, fuller flavor by keeping the whisky non chill-filtered. I agree entirely.
So there you have it. Lesson one and none the worse for wear. You’ve got a handy dandy color guide and a couple of interesting facts for your back pocket. Don’t let this new knowledge go to waste! Next week there’ll be a quiz.