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Belly up to the Bar - Part 3: We've got Proof

June 10, 2021

When someone first discovers I’m a besotted fan of whiskey, I see a slow reassessment of my character slide across their face. Their eyes widen, brows arch, and I can almost hear the reel of film footage whirring in their heads.

But this is where most people get it wrong. I’m not a leather-clad extra at the bar in some Clint Eastwood film who slugs back a few before getting on her bike to peel out of the parking lot.

I’d never wear leather. Maybe a breezy sundress.

In earnest, learning how to taste whiskey is an experience most folks want to savor. If your knees are knocking because you’re about to enter stage left for the first time, or you’re preparing to propose and are uncertain of the likely response, I suggest you choose a less expensive form of liquid courage.

Since whiskey strength varies from bottle to bottle, the correct alcoholic percentage for receiving the greatest flavors from the spirit is an ongoing debate. The majority of bottles residing on my shelves fall somewhere between 80-100 proof, unless they’re labeled as cask strength, in which they will possess the markings of 100-130 proof.

This will surely scrape the tartar off your teeth.

Here at Reservoir, we have our entry level “90,” our standard “100,” and then bottles all the way up to “107.” Proofs you can play with by adding water until you find your sweet spot.

The industry standard for barrel filling is about 125 proof, but during maturation, the spirit –depending upon the aging conditions within the warehouse—can either lose strength to evaporation or even increase in proof (again, to evaporation). (We’ll cover these fascinating bits in another post with all the “sciencey” details.)

Just before bottling, a distillery usually chooses to add water to set the proof where they feel the spirit shines. Here at Reservoir, we nail our three founding spirits at 100 proof, so that you, the consumer, can then play with the alcohol strength that suits you best, allowing you to identify all the whiskey has to offer without anesthetizing your taste buds.

So much for the lesson in percentages. Now let’s get down to the business of categorization and consumption.

If you’ve followed the two posts before this one (where in part one you learned about whiskey color, and part two gave you a clue as to just how amazing your nose is) you should be pumped and prepared to finally make use of your tongue.

After making note of what strength your whiskey is, play with it. Water (pure distilled is best) helps to release aromas. Some whiskies swim better than others. Add a few drops at a time. Too much will break down the whiskey’s structure. If your tongue prickles when the liquid passes over it, feel free to add more.

Now take a sip, but don’t immediately swallow. Some experts advise you to swish the whiskey around all the parts of your mouth: upper tongue, below your tongue, cheeks and roof of the mouth. Others suggest you chew it a few times.

Long ago, when first learning, I was instructed to take a sip and make a cup out of my tongue, allowing the spirit to rest there. Then I was told to open my mouth slightly and pull air over the surface of my tongue and the liquid, finally letting my breath flow back out my nose and mouth.

I choked a lot until I got the hang of it. Initially, much of the liquid kept violently splattering out of my mouth (and nose) so you might want to practice on your own—in private.

You should be asking yourself the same questions as in part two where you’re attempting to identify aromas. What is your tongue recognizing? After you swallow (which you can go ahead and do now), your nose will participate in helping with the task of identification.

The delivery of the whiskey’s flavors will happen at different times and in different places within your mouth, but we’ll talk more about that in part four.

Finally, notice the mouth feel, the texture and the length of the delivery.

These terms might seem foreign at first, but with a little bit of pleasurable practice, they’ll be as comfortable as old winter slippers.

Ultimately, we want you to remember that this is supposed to be fun. Except when it comes out of your nose. That would never happen in a Clint Eastwood film either.

~Shelley Sackier—Director of Distillery Education