A change in seasons is an excellent reason to take stock of your bar. After all, our tastes tend to reflect what’s going on around us, and when temperatures start to drop, we reach for warming spirits like a sophisticated and satisfying bourbon. To help us select the perfect bottle for our home bar, we reached out to Josh Rossiter, chef/mixologist at Charlottesville, Virginia-based bourbon distillery Ragged Branch, for advice. Here, he walks us through the proper way to taste whiskey, from picking the right glassware to how to engage your palate.
Proper glassware is essential. Official whiskey tasting glasses are called Glencairn glasses, but don’t let an absence of Glencairn glasses prevent you from imbibing: Rossiter says a tulip-shaped glass will work fine. The key is to use a glass with a tapered mouth, which helps the person tasting experience the aroma. Pro tip: Pour the whiskey at room temperature to allow for maximum flavors.
Follow your nose. Smell is an important element when you’re evaluating bourbon. Rossiter recommends swirling the whiskey, then waiting a second for the alcohol vapor to leave the glass before inhaling. (Pausing will keep you from burning your nostrils when you breathe in.) Don’t stick your nose all the way in the glass, Rossiter advises; rather, let the aromas rise to your nose above the rim.
Pay attention to color. According to Rossiter, the hue of the bourbon offers clues to the product’s age. A lighter color usually indicates a younger whiskey, while darker liquid generally signals an older spirit.
Take small sips. It probably goes without saying that gulping isn’t the best way to experience and evaluate bourbon. But there is an art to sipping, Rossiter says. He recommends taking in small amounts, and letting the liquid roll around your tongue. As you do this, pay attention to different notes you might be picking up on—but try not to project any ideas on your taste buds, either. “Don’t look for particular flavors, just let them come to you,” he advises.
Just add water. While you don’t want to dilute the bourbon you’re tasting, “It’s okay to add a few drops of water if you would like,” says Rossiter. In fact, doing so can actually enhance your tasting experience. “Water can allow for new flavors and aromas to develop,” he adds. Rossiter also recommends drinking water in between sampling different whiskies to rinse the palate.