There isn’t a right way to “enjoy” whiskey (primarily from the U.S. and Ireland). There isn’t a right way to “enjoy” whisky (primarily from Scotland, Japan, Canada and England) either. Drinking this elixir is a very personal experience. Everyone’s palate and life experience is different. As a result, everyone will experience the whiskey journey in different ways with varying highs and lows. Some people are intimidated by experts (some self-proclaimed) who set the bar high in terms of knowledge and personal whiskey history. Enjoyment of food, drink and pleasure is often a unique situation free from many of the strict rules governing other areas of our lives. The bottom line is: whatever you taste, see or smell you can’t be wrong. Slow down and take note of a few details. Enjoying a particular whiskey/whisky is purely personal. However, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind to help you enjoy your journey more and to truly make it your own.
The first thing you’ll need is some whiskey/whisky. It helps to have a friend in the business at either the retail or wholesale level. Of course, you may have struck paydirt if you have a friend in the manufacturing and distilling end. If they are whiskey drinkers, they can be a very helpful guide to a better and more well-rounded experience. If you don’t have a friend like this, spending some time at a bar that specializes in whiskey/whisky and at a time when the bartender is not overloaded can yield valuable information.
The second thing you will need is a glass. Once again, this is a personal preference. Some whiskey guides will advocate an elongated, tulip shape with a base or stem to help focus the aromas and prevent warming the drink from close contact with the hand. While this might be true, I prefer a thicker, heavier glass that I simply enjoy holding in my hand. I’m not as concerned about focusing the aromas or the alcohol wafting up from my drink.
After the pour, hold your glass up to the light and observe the color. This can (many times) give you some hints as to its flavor. Gently swirl it in the glass taking note of the whiskey as it drains back down the glass to the bottom. This viscosity is known as the “legs” and can be an indicator of its age. Typically, older whiskeys have slower legs.
Allow your drink to settle a bit and then move your glass under your nose several times breathing in as you do. Some experts push specific breathing for getting the “nose” of the whiskey. Most of us have been breathing for quite a while and can figure out what’s best. This can also be an important step in getting clues as to the actual taste of the whiskey. Try and distinguish specific aromas. This will take some practice.
If you are getting primarily an alcohol burn from the above step, you might choose to add a few drops of room temperature water to your glass. It is preferable to avoid water from plastic bottles and other potentially strong flavors or odors as this will directly affect your whiskey experience. The water will often open up the whiskey/whisky in terms of aromas and flavors.
Taste the whiskey. I would suggest a very small sip initially to allow the mouth to adjust. Then take a regular taste, but hold it in your mouth. Allow the liquid to come into contact with every part of the mouth. Is the whiskey thin or thick? What flavors are you picking up? Allow the tongue time to respond to each stimuli. As you swallow, you will get some whiskey burn. Concentrate on how long the experience lasts and what flavors are lingering and how many different waves hit the back of your mouth. This is known as the finish.
You can enjoy your whiskey/whisky anyway you choose. Some will prefer it in a mixed drink while others prefer it neat (straight with no ice or water). Others will insist on water or ice (even down to the shape of the ice) or even “whiskey rocks”. Regardless of your choices, one word to remember is the word “savor”. It is a verb meaning to appreciate or enjoy completely with strict attention. It may be the only strict rule that applies to ultimately enjoying the whiskey/whisky experience.