The Whiskey Issue: Tasting notes

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

If your appreciation for whiskey is limited to late-night shots of Jameson, have we got news for you. There's a whole world of the stuff to be discovered, and it comes with a storied history and its own drinking etiquette to boot.

That doesn't mean you can't have fun with it. But if you want to get into the spirit of appreciating the distilled spirit, take a lesson from Nicole Henderson, a local diplomat for Maker's Mark.

Since she was appointed six months ago, Henderson has been educating area bartenders and restaurant servers about whiskey so that they, in turn, feel comfortable serving it to customers.

Henderson's always worked in the beverage industry and has been a whiskey enthusiast for years. She's got plenty of important tips for drinking it the right way, and the first is doing your homework.

Whiskey beginners might learn best by first researching what they're going to be drinking, and where and how it's made, she said. Next, come up with a flight of related whiskeys to sample or try a few increasingly aged bourbons. When you're tasting, take notes and compare them.

"Know what you're looking for and why it tastes the way it does. I think that's kind of interesting as well," Henderson said.

Now it's time to drink - almost. Here's a look at the tasting process.


All whiskey starts as a clear liquid, and it gets most of its color and flavors from the barrels it's aged in. Generally speaking, the darker the drink, the older it is. "Legs," or streaks that form when you swirl the glass, mean it's thicker and older. Most connoisseurs will examine whiskey in a snifter or other tulip-shaped glass.


That glass also has a lot to do with how the whiskey smells. A glass that curves in a bit at the top helps concentrate the aromas, so you'll want to take a gentle sniff from just above the glass.

"It's so high-proof [that if you take a sharp breath], you really just get alcohol, and it's not all that pleasant," Henderson said. She suggests opening your mouth a bit while taking a gentle breath in, "so you can almost taste it as you smell it."

Alternatively, add a splash of water to help it open up and soften a bit.

The whiskey takes on flavors like caramel, vanilla and wood ester - a fruity taste - from aging in barrels. Also, notice the character of the grain used in the particular whiskey you're examining.


Your first taste of each new whiskey should be straight, Henderson said. Sip just enough to cover your tongue and swirl it around your mouth before swallowing, then exhale gently.

Can you taste the grains and tell what the whiskey is made from? Does it bite or burn? Is it full-bodied, or does it taste watered down compared to others you've had? How long do the tastes linger?

Henderson said she also likes to consider where on the tongue it tastes strongest, since the front of the tongue has sweet receptors, the sides taste sour and the back picks up on bitter flavors.

Have a drink of water before trying another whiskey to cleanse your palate.