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Building your whiskey tasting confidence

What's your whiskey tasting confidence like? Whether you are new to drinking whiskey or Bourbon, or have been dramming for decades, one thing that will sometimes cause personal concern is whether you can taste it as well as everyone else seems to. Well let’s just stop right there, you are not like everyone else, in fact the only real thing you have in common with other drammers is the fact you enjoy drinking whiskey and bourbon. 

How often have you sat in a tasting, listening to people listing reams of tasting notes and realise you may only have a couple of these notes, or that you are tasting something completely different altogether? For some people this can really dent their confidence, others may pretend they can taste what others are noting and some will just be quiet.

So, what factors come into play when tasting whiskey? Below we list three, but suspect you could name more.

Let’s start with circumstantial factors:

1 - Food and drink consumed earlier in the day will influence your taste buds. If you know you are doing a tasting, try not to eat spicy or strong flavored foods for a few hours beforehand. You can always try palate cleansing a little before a tasting. Drinking water or sniffing coffee grinds can be helpful. Don’t brush your teeth, as the mint flavor will be too strong.

2 - Your environment will have some effect on what you are tasting, whether sitting outside or inside, countryside or town, even altitude influences taste buds. Studies conducted in Germany by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics have shown that at high altitude in airline cabins our perception of sweet and salty falls by around 30%. This is likely due to the air conditioning in the cabin drying out mucus membranes and explains why many people tend to order stronger flavor drinks like tomato juice or ginger beer while flying as they can taste them easier.

3 - Mood. Our moods seem to affect how a dram tastes. How many of us have tried a whiskey or bourbon at a show, or at a great liquor bar on an amazing night out and bought a bottle, only to open it a couple of weeks later at home and it tastes nothing like how we remember it? (This is a lesson to curb impulse buying!)

This brings us to tasting. What flavors are in a dram

The flavor of a whiskey or bourbon is influenced by many factors; environment (where the distillery is), ingredients (grain, peated or unpeated and yeast varieties differ), the shape of the still, cask type, charring or toasting of the cask, how long the liquid is in the cask and where the cask is warehoused. Now those are a lot of factors to add to the circumstantial ones listed above. No wonder everyone tastes something different. Let’s forget about all the technical factors for now and focus on 2 main cask types.

In relation to “whiskey” 2 cask types tend to be the most common: bourbon and sherry. Both can be relied upon to impart a particular group of flavor notes, so if you know what cask your whiskey has been matured in, you will have a head start on what flavors may already be there.

Bourbon casks, made from American White Oak, will give soft light flavors such as vanilla, caramel, butter and nuttiness. If the cask has been toasted or charred you may pick up burnt sugar, toffee or some toasty notes.

Sherry casks, generally made from European Oak, will give darker notes including spiciness, dried fruits like raisins, tobacco, dark chocolate and even coffee.

So just knowing those two basic casks will give you an idea of what to expect. Clearly there are several types of sherry, which will have differing flavor profiles, but as a start just knowing these basics will help.

But if you don’t know what those notes taste like, how will you recognise them in a whiskey? You won’t. One of the easiest ways to learn how to recognise flavors in whiskey and bourbon is to be more mindful about what you eat and drink at all other times. A red apple tastes different to a green one, but how different? Well, take some time to find out. 

Training our taste buds is hard and like going to the gym to build other muscles, takes time. The more you practise noticing different flavors, the easier you will find them in your glass. 

Up until a few years ago many experts would refer to the “tongue map”. This was based on a theory that different parts of the tongue detect different flavor types. Although now a debunked theory, you may find some areas of your tongue pick up flavors quicker than other parts. Taste receptors are equally spread across the tongue, so allowing your dram to cover your whole mouth will really get those notes to come across.

Please don’t worry about the person listing Madagascan vanilla pods, custard, crème Brule and crème anglaise; that’s just four different ways of saying vanilla. 

Keeping a notebook or spreadsheet for writing down what you taste can be helpful. You may see a pattern developing over time, you’ll learn that some distilleries have a certain characteristic. For example, The Dalmore distillery whiskies are known for having a chocolate orange note, while whiskies from Islay are known for a medicinal smokiness. 

The main thing to remember however, is that no tasting note is wrong…. for you. If it’s what you taste, it’s what YOU taste. The more you practice, the easier it gets. 

If you are considering taking your whiskey experience to a different level and are interested in owning your own casks, we’d love to help. Barrel Global is on a mission to make whiskey barrel ownership accessible to collectors worldwide. As the first ever global marketplace for whiskey barrels, you can connect with distilleries and collectors around the world to build your own portfolio. For a whiskey experience unlike any other click to request access " today. 

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