Belly up to the Bar (Part 3)

When someone first discovers I’m a besotted fan of whisky, I see a slow reassessment of my character slide across their face. Their eyes widen, brows arch and I can almost hear the reel of film footage whirring in their heads.

Photo of Clint Eastwood and Don Hight from the...

That’s me on the horse

But this is where most people get it wrong. I’m not a leather clad extra at the bar in some Clint Eastwood film who slugs back a few before getting on her bike to peel out of the parking lot. Single malt and slug should never be uttered in the same sentence together.

Learning how to taste whisky is an experience most folks want to savor. If your knees are knocking because you’re about to enter stage left for the first time, or you’re preparing to propose and are uncertain of the likely response, I suggest you choose a less expensive form of liquid courage.

Since whisky strength varies from bottle to bottle, the correct alcoholic percentage for receiving the greatest flavors from the spirit is an ongoing debate. It’s safe to say most experts mark their answer at somewhere between 25-35%. The majority of bottles residing on my shelves fall somewhere between 40-50% abv (alcohol by volume), unless they’re labeled as cask strength, in which they will possess the markings of 50-65% abv. This will surely scrape the tartar off your teeth.

The industry standard for barrel filling is about 63.4%, but during maturation, the spirit loses strength to evaporation—as much as 2% per year. Just before bottling, the distillery usually chooses to add water to bring the abv down to 43%. You, the consumer, can then play with the alcohol strength that suits you best, allowing you to identify all the whisky has to offer without anesthetizing your taste buds.

So much for the lesson in percentages. Now let’s get down to the business of categorization and consumption.

If you’ve followed the two posts before this one (where in part one you learned about whisky color and part two gave you a clue as to just how amazing your nose is) you should be pumped and prepared to finally make use of your tongue.

After making note of what strength your whisky is, play with it. Water (pure distilled is best) helps to release aromas. Some whiskies swim better than others. Add a few drops at a time. Too much will break down the whisky’s structure. If your tongue prickles when the liquid passes over it, feel free to add more.

Human tongue, taste buds for bitter are marked


Now take a sip, but don’t immediately swallow. Some experts advise you to swish the whisky around all the parts of your mouth: upper tongue, below your tongue, cheeks and roof of the mouth. Others suggest you chew it a few times.

Human tongue, taste buds for sour are marked


When I did my short residency at a Scottish distillery, I was instructed to take a sip and make a cup out of my tongue, allowing the spirit to rest there. Then I was told to open my mouth slightly and pull air over the surface of my tongue and the liquid, finally letting my breath flow back out my nose and mouth. I choked a lot until I got the hang of it. And at the end of the day my clothes smelled like I’d spent the night in the pub because much of the liquid kept spilling out of my mouth. You might want to practice on your own–in private.

Human tongue, taste buds for sweet are marked


You should be asking yourself the same questions as in part two where you’re attempting to identify aromas. What is your tongue recognizing? After you swallow (which you can go ahead and do now), your nose will participate in helping with the task of identification.

Human tongue, taste buds for salty are marked


The delivery of the whisky’s flavors will happen at different times and in different places. There’s your initial “entry,” the “middle palette,” and the “end” or “finish.” (We’ll talk more about that in part four.) Notice the mouth feel, the texture and the length of the delivery. These terms might seem foreign at first, but with a little bit of pleasurable practice, they’ll be as comfortable as old winter slippers.

There are myriad flavor wheels available online for you to use as a guide in determining the aromas you may taste. I’ve got a few favorites, but this one is particularly nice.

If you have the time and inclination, you can further your learning and enjoyment by perusing this web site. You can make your own flavor profiles for different whiskies and compare your observations with those of some industry experts. It’s all about the fun.

Clint Eastwood as "Preacher"

Except when it comes out of your nose. That would never happen in a Clint Eastwood film either.


Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what I’ve been blethering on about this week in the main post (here).


2 thoughts on “Belly up to the Bar (Part 3)

  1. thanx for the continyood exposition of this fine subject. it wasn’t until i bought (and read the box) of a bottle of nippon ‘scotch’ that i tried to emulate “the drill.” but i wonder about a coupla thangz: okay, you swirl and look at the “legs”. i SEE them, i think, but is that “whiskey” per se as opposed to just playing water?

    just a very few months back one of my “child-hood notions” got smashed. i had me(s)morized for YEEEERzz the FOUR tastes: S, S, S, & B. now (according to Scientiffik amerikin) FIVE, and whoever decides such things are debating more. Umami, or something like that. ((how duzzit fit in w/whiskey tasting?)

    • So the legs basically highlight the whisky’s viscosity–even water has it, but obviously the legs (of the water) won’t be quite as beautiful – or tasty – and will run down the side of your glass quicker than your whisky would. And just for your pure, but mindless pleasure, I just had this massively long conversation with two college chemistry students who were attempting to teach me about the finer points regarding hard vs soft water compounds and whether or not they would affect the viscosity of the liquid (they don’t). (again, that was their lesson, although I refuse to take full responsibility for what I’m writing here simply because a lot of what they said was in another language.)

      And yes, whisky has a high-level component of umami measurement – like parmesan cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, and I think shoe leather. okay, I’m only kidding on that last one, but there are others. CHOCOLATE! God, how could I have forgotten chocolate?! It contributes to mouthfeel. Which all whisky lovers enjoy with abandon. That’s why you NEVER knock it back. Just like you swirl in your glass, swirl in your mouth. Just don’t put it back in the glass after you’ve swirled in your mouth–got it? Unless you’re distillery hopping. Then it’s advisable, but still a massive shame.

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