Tuesday, January 7, 2014

To add water or not add water? There is no question...

Nosing, tasting, drinking... is there truly a right or wrong way with regards to whisky? Well, some would take my vintage tea cup filled with Macallan 30 year old right out of my hand and slap me! 
What? It's true and you all know it. The whisky "snob"...  How I struggle with these people. They are more than happy to tell everyone there is only one way to enjoy whisky: theirs of course and if they don't like a whisky, well you shouldn't either!! Seriously? Tsk... tsk... tsk... 

An acquaintance recently posted on a Malt Maniac & Friends Facebook page that he (gasp...) was cooking a steak and (gafaw...) was apologizing to the the MM members that he dared (exhales and covers her mouth is shock...) to drink... Johnnie Walker Black...  OH MY GAWD, cue the horror movie music... wait, he said what? Drinking a whisky that he really likes. Apologized, what the hell for?? 

In my opinion, possibly to not face judgment from the many "snobs" who belong to that FB page and YES, good grief there are so many it's become a constant parade of ad nauseam comments about the latest Brora 35, Port Ellen 1982 or rarest of whiskies added to the collection with accompanying photos of a room filled with 100's of unopened "expensive" bottles. Fuck!? Really... is that what you think being a Malt Maniac is about - Bragging rights... 

I digress, like I tend to and it got me thinking, like some things often do. Where do some people get off "thinking" like that? "Oh Gawwd! You can't possibly enjoy Johnnie Walker Black, that is just the most vile disgusting whisky that I wouldn't even dare to clean my Home Depot toilet with!!!??? 

My nose is not symmetrical, nobody's is and mine has been super sensitive as far back as I can remember. My 2nd grade teacher used to make me tattle on who was chewing gum and I can smell something burning in the stove at least 15 minutes before anyone elso notices. Just call me "Radar O'Reilly" ... Does that make me special or an authority on how to sniff whisky, no...

So WHY do some of these people try to tell others how it's "done". Do you need to be told how to read a book or how to listen to music? Are you a master blender or whisky bible writer? No... so if you are not judging/rating whiskies and simply want to enjoy what is in your glass, why the pomp and circumstance? Rough guidelines if you are looking for aromas/flavors, sure why not? Do you need the Kentucky chew or the Jim Murray warm and spit? Absolutely not!!! 

My two hard & fast rules: This isn't wine so don't start by sticking your nose right down in the glass and don't gulp it when you take that first initial mouthful. When I introduce friends to whisky or if I'm hosting a class of some sort I make it a point to make fun of some of the "whisky Gods" who believe you should spend as much time with your first whisky as you did you first date or that you need to hold it in your mouth for at least 30 seconds before you even consider swallowing - You know sing Happy Birthday a few times in your head. Again, really?!

So to the many people who ask or want to know here is how I nose/taste a whisky if I'm judging or rating it, otherwise I sip it whatever way I want and you really should too.

For me it’s about using as many of my senses as possible: 

My first attempt is always nosing/tasting the whisky neat, which means no water or ice. I love using a Glencairn glass.  It is my nosing/tasting glass of choice.

I start with what I see:  Pretty simple.  Although I know some of these bottles may contain E150A (caramel), I still think it’s important to describe the color. I also swirl the glass and see what it has for legs (viscosity), which can help give an indication of age or ABV. In general if the legs are skinny, close and run fast – young whisky, if they are thick, far apart and run slow – older whisky.  If the ABV is higher than 50% (again in general), you get beading. I have always called it a string of pearls, because that's what it reminds me of. 

What do I smell: I start with a very small whiff quite a distance from the glass. I then approach the rim of the glass and gently and slowly inhale, moving the glass away from me and returning to nose it two more times. I use different areas of the rim as well as one nostril at a time sometimes and usually the last with my mouth open, inhaling from there.

What do I taste:  I usually take a very small sip of the whisky and just let it invade my mouth. I do swish it around and let it hit every crevice of my mouth. Usually takes me 5 seconds. The consequent sips are usually spent looking for specific flavors I think I got the first time around.

What do I feel: I then take a bit of the whisky from the glass and rub it on the meaty section of my hand (between my thumb and index fingers).  I do this to let the heat of my hand warm up the sample quickly.  I find this to be a great way to "remove" the alcohol burn and leaves nothing but other compounds that have other beautiful smells. It's often where I find the aromas associated with oak. 

Once I’ve gone through that routine, I’ll add very little water (sometimes just a drop or two) to open the whisky. Open the whisky? Make it bloom? Simply stated: Water makes ethanol more soluble and releases tightly bound flavour molecules (I have a chemistry degree sorry!?)  So the higher the alcohol content, the more water you can afford to add. 

For example:  If I think I’m nosing a cask strength, I will add about 10 to 15 drops of water (a teaspoon) for starters. Now if I’m wrong, I’ve potentially ruined a good dram. So I always caution to add water slowly, a bit at a time.

OK, so water added.  I repeat the process of nosing and tasting almost identically to the neat sample.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it??? It’s taken me years to get that system down and trust that I’m doing it in a way that makes sense for me.

Please feel free to share what works for you? Here is to dramming, my or your way! Then again, what do I know?  hehehe....



  1. Wow, I am almost exactly the same as you and sometimes I do it completely different, I don't care what others do and I say the same at our meetings, "Do what you like to do". I read the "Bible" for a frame of reference and I watch Ralfy for some knowledge and entertainment but I still don't get what they do from a glass of whisky. I have some blends that I always add a bit of water to and cask strength always gets a wee sip before the water goes in. I am a fan of water, it works for my palette.

    1. That's the whole point Ken, I'm glad I'm not the only one. Kudos on finding a way that works for you. As far as books go, I'd also recommend the http://www.maltwhiskyyearbook.com

      It's what many whisky enthusiasts, bloggers, judges, etc.. from around the world look forward to every year.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and methodology, appreciated!


  2. Great post, J!

    While I am pretty libertarian when it comes to floating one's boat, there are also moments that just make me weep. Like when someone orders a Lagavulin 16 (my first and still favorite) "on the rocks" and it comes in a pile of ice the size of Greenland. I telepathically will them to remove all but one of two cubes lest all those years of peaty Islay majesty become a watery mess. My efforts at inception have finally worked on my father, who at 82 years old has traded his Dewar's snow-cone for a half measure of neat bourbon.

    My personal tastes of late have moved away from adding water. That may be due to my wife who prefers all whiskey neat (even barrel proof!). Do I feel less manly adding my usual five or six eyedropper tears? Perhaps. Maybe I need a bigger eyedropper. No, I think it's actually a matter of taste. Straight up is where it's at for me right now, especially during Polar Vortex where I need every drop of warmth and flavor I can get.

    At the same time, I've become very conscious (& perhaps dictatorial) in my corking. When it comes to bourbon particularly, I open the bottle as soon as it gets home and permit only an ounce or two. Then it sits for at least a week (several for anything older than a decade) and opens up in the bottle. If patience or occasion dictate acceleration of the process, I've taken to airing a couple of inches overnight in a large crystal decanter. This whole obsession came from the experience of corking and drinking three quarters of a bottle of Willett Family Reserve 21 Year with some friends and finding it utterly disappointing, only to try it again a few weeks later and realize that a) it was fantastic and b) I'd wasted most of the bottle.

    I had dismissed the 'perfume technique' aka rubbing some on your hand/wrist (seemed like a waste of perfectly good sauce), but after reading your description I will give it another shot.