Stop Drinking and Start Tasting: The 21st Century Man’s Guide to Whiskey

[Originally published January, 2012 at Manarchy Magazine]

Childhood doesn’t last forever, and though the memories may be fond, you probably haven’t sipped juice from a box in longer than you can remember. Why is it, then, that the average adult’s taste in alcohol rarely evolves beyond those first pivotal experiences in college?

If all you know about whiskey is that it can be either shot from a glass or drowned in dark cola, then it’s time for a reality check, because your taste in liquor is the grown-up equivalent of sippy-cups and safety-scissors.

It’s not that Jack and Coke isn’t a good drink for a certain kind of gathering where loud music and flashing lights set the mood, but there is a world of flavor even in that Jack Daniel’s bottle that is well worth the five minutes it takes to do it right. Not only that, but what about the rest of your life? When you’re not squeezed shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty club, shouting over the driving bass about how awesome the party is, but instead you’re enjoying a nice steak or cigar with some friends, sitting around a table or backyard fire pit, talking about weekend plans, books you’ve read, who’s getting married and when you’re going to finally restore that heap in the driveway, there’s no reason your choice of libation can’t rise to the occasion.

Such moments are perfect for sipping a liquor whose complexities can be enjoyed patiently, especially when the conversation inevitably lulls. And when all else fails, a good whiskey can itself become the topic of conversation.

Whiskey 101

Whiskey is made from grain, just like beer. In fact, you could say whiskey is little more than distilled beer, but this would oversimplify the matter. Whiskey makers do a lot more than skip the hops, distill their mash and then stick it in a barrel for a couple years; they carefully choose the balance of grains and the types of wood in which to age their creations. Barley, wheat, rye and corn are the grains generally used for whiskey, corn being the main ingredient in bourbon. Oak is usually the wood of choice, and though some reputable distillers will use new wood,  many rely on charred barrels for the smoky flavors they imbue, while others still will re-purpose barrels previously used to age port wine or sherry for both the flavors and colors these bring to the table.

But none of this makes a bit of difference to your taste buds. You could pay a hundred dollars for a bottle of award winning whiskey and hate every last sip. I’ve done this more than once, and it hurts. They key here, the best place to start, is to take a whiskey you already keep on hand and spend a few minutes getting to know the look, smell and taste of the liquor itself. You might be surprised how much you don’t know about something you’ve been drinking for years.

Color

This is actually the first step in whiskey appreciation. A whiskey’s color should relate to its age, but you always want to check the label to see if any caramel coloring has been added. Young whiskeys are light, and they tend to get darker with age, but some distillers will add coloring to make a younger batch “look right”.

Really, this is the whiskey equivalent of a stuffed bra or breast implants. Some purists claim they can taste the difference and that natural is always better, and parallel arguments can be made for female physiology, but in the end, it comes down to preference. Younger, less developed whiskeys will typically have a stronger flavor than a well-aged, more refined variety. The trade off is that young whiskeys are less expensive and more common, but this doesn’t mean an twenty year old bottle isn’t worth a taste.

Smell

Here is where things get interesting. The men who make whiskey rely more on smell than taste, and not because tasting all day might affect their judgment. If your girlfriend or significant other has ever drug you to a wine tasting, you’ve probably already heard this, but your sense of smell will pick up things that your taste buds simply aren’t equipped to notice.

To do this right, you can’t just shove your nose into the tumbler. Hold it below your nose, maybe swirl it around a little until you start to notice the different scents, often called notes. Yes, notes. Remember when you finally stopped calling them ta-tas? Well it’s like that. There’s no reason to avoid using the right terminology here, because this is a man’s pursuit.

The point is, the way a whiskey smells can tell you a lot about how it will taste so take your time.

Taste

Now you taste, and notice I did not say drink. You want to actually let the liquor move around in your mouth a little as the different areas on your tongue are wired to pick up different flavors. It’s true, Google it.

Once you’ve let the flavors open up on your palette, swallow and see if anything changes. Also, notice whether you’re picking up the same notes that you smelled earlier or if there are differences. Even if you only pick up on one or two attributes, like smoky or sweet, spicy or mellow, this is the first step in developing your palette.

This is important because over time you will notice the things you like in a whiskey, which makes moving on from the $20-$40 price range a little easier. And you really will want to move on.

There is a lot more to know about whiskey, including the differences between Irish, Scotch and Bourbon whiskey, single malts and blends, or whether to sip it straight, with water, or on the rocks, but many of these things come down to a matter of taste. The ultimate question that you must answer is no more than: What do I like? And do get to that point, you need to stop drinking and start tasting.

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