women nosing whisky

Determining if you like whisky is pretty simple; try a dram. Some folks discover they like it right off the bat. Some people need time to acquire the taste. And for some, whisky simply isn’t their cup of tea.

But liking whisky and appreciating whisky are two different things. It’s easy to like something. It’s an intuitive process and doesn’t require much effort. But appreciating something implies a more in-depth understanding, a heightened perception of what makes a thing special.

To appreciate a great whisky, you need to focus on the subtle nuances that make a whisky distinctive. Its aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and finish, for example. But other characteristics also contribute to our perception of a whiskey’s value, including its color, viscosity, and bite.

Aroma

The aroma is a defining characteristic of whisky. Great whiskies are complex and present a range of delicate aromas. We discern aromas in two ways; first, when volatilized compounds enter our nasal cavity and stimulate the olfactory nerves.

olfactory bulbsHowever, concentrated alcohol compounds can “burn” our receptors, and overwhelm their ability to detect scent. Therefore, slowly introduce the vapors by gradually raising the glass toward the nose and sniffing it in short bursts. The potent ethanolic compounds tend to dissipate quickly, while the more aromatic esters, lactones, and aldehydes tend to linger, enabling the preceptors to detect them. Next, try adding a drop of water to the glass, it often reveals aromas masked by the stronger alcohol compounds.

But we also detect aromas after chewing on something that comes into the mouth. It may sound silly, but chew your whisky when tasting. Chewing releases additional volatile compounds that enter our nasal cavity through the throat. This type of perception is called retronasal aroma. The olfactory cells sense these compounds at the same time the taste buds detect various attributes on the tongue. Together they work to create our perception of a distinct flavor.

Taste

Taste is closely related to aroma but occurs on the surface of the tongue. According to the Australian Academy of Science, the tongue has between 2,000 – 8,000 receptors or taste buds scattered about its surface. Individually they can detect five primary sensations: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and savoriness. Surprisingly, there are also taste buds located in the throat, stomach, and abdomen.

In addition to detecting taste, other receptors are busy at work identifying things such as acidity and temperature. The TRP-V1 protein is of particular interest to whisky drinkers; it’s the reason we often perceive a burning sensation when we swallow. The concentrated alcohol in whisky irritates the mucosa, the lining of the throat, where the TRP-V1 protein is located. When stimulated, the protein transmits a painful burning sensation.

Mouthfeel

Mouthfeel is all about the texture and consistency of an item. The tactile receptors in the mouth relay information about the size and shape of an object. But they also convey information about an item’s juiciness, creaminess, fattiness, viscosity, and grainy feeling. In essence, it’s about touch and surprisingly relevant to discerning the quality of a whisky.

Mouthfeel is about how our sensors perceive the physical dimension of something in the mouth; in our case, whisky. We sense mouthfeel taste budsthrough our somatosensory system. Sensors, located in the epithelial layer of the mouth, trigger a response when contacted by food or liquid.

Try this experiment to experience mouthfeel. Take four milk products: cream (18.5%), whole milk (3.9%), 1% milk (1%), and skim milk (0.1%). Mix the milk product with five tablespoons of chocolate powder to mask any flavor differences. Each product has a different fat content and will yield a different sensory perception.

You can conduct a similar experiment with whisky, but the gradations are often subtle, so it can take a while to master the skill. Start by sampling an unfiltered, cask-strength whisky such as Redbreast 12 Pot Still whiskey against the lighter Jameson Blended Whiskey. They are entirely different whiskies, so try and focus only on the mouthfeel. In general, cask strength and non-chilled whiskies tend to have a higher mouthfeel.

Finish

The last impression we speak of when evaluating a whisky is its finish. The finish is the taste that stays on the palate after you have swallowed the whisky. Generally speaking, we associate a long finish with a higher quality whisky. One reason is that the compounds often associated with a long finish tend to be those esters and congeners captured near the tail end of the hearts. To do it correctly requires a skilled distiller. The oak casks may also impart esters, congeners, and fusel oils during the maturation process.

The sensations that linger behind often change over time as stronger flavors fade revealing more subtle flavors toward the end of the finish. Sensors located in the nasal cavity and back of the throat are responsible for a great deal of the finish. If the burn of the alcohol is hindering your ability to detect the finish, try exhaling immediately before swallowing. This exercise will expel higher concentrations of alcohol vapors.

When we speak of finish, we tend to think in terms of long, short and medium. A long finish may be detectable for as much as 45-50 seconds after swallowing.   A medium finish generally ranges between 20 – 30 seconds.  Anything shorter than that is said to have a “crisp finish” and contributes less to the overall tasting experience.

Other Considerations

In addition to the above, a whiskey’s color and viscosity are also considered when evaluating a whisky. Color, for example, can offer clues regarding the amount of time a whisky has been aged. Dark amber is often a sign that whisky is well-aged whereas a light golden whisky may indicate a younger whisky. But color is also influenced by the type of cask whisky is aged in. In general, ex-bourbon casts tend to produce a lighter color whisky whereas deeper mahogany whiskies often result from being aged or finished in ex-sherry casks.

glass showing whisky legs

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Another visual indicator that might offer clues as to a whiskey’s character is the thickness it displays. One way to measure this is by swirling the glass and observing the way the residual whisky flows down the side of the glass. You may notice that instead of sheeting down the side of the glass it forms long beads. We refer to these as legs.

Heavier whiskies tend to have thicker legs whish tend to slowly trail down the side of a glass. If legs fail to form or flow rapidly down the side of the glass, it may indicate a whisky with a lighter mouthfeel.