Belly up to the Bar - Part 1
Updated: Feb 9
Learning the art—or act for some of us—of whiskey nosing and tasting is a most pleasurable task made more agreeable by the fact that it must be done with great repetition. But for some, it can also be an undertaking filled with uncertainty.
Many don’t know where to begin in search of training and education. More still give up, believing you are either born with the ability to smell and taste the complexities of whiskey, or see it as such a daunting endeavor, they throw in the towel before even using it.
Here is what we at Reservoir say to those folks. Do you have a nose? Does it function fairly well—air passes in and out? Can you ferret out when it’s time to change the cat litter or the baby’s diaper? If you have answered yes to all of these, then you, too, qualify as educable—and lessons last less time than it takes to make a sandwich.
This post is the first in a series of four which will help you elbow your way through the murky waters of your next “tasting” excursion—whether on your own, nestled before a fire and in your favorite well-cushioned chair, or in the company of blustery individuals claiming to be connoisseurs of the spirit world. You shall come through shining and unscathed.
Lesson #1 is actually three squished under one umbrella.
Color, viscosity, and clarity.
So firstly, Color.
To the average eye, there’s not a lot of variation.
But that’s like the execs telling the writers of MASH that the run will be limited because the Army isn’t really a pool for humor.
The color of a whiskey spans a spectrum from what’s referred to as gin clear (a new spirit) to deep treacle.
Here is a handy guide for identification that comes to you from Whisky Magazine.
Color may identify both the type of cask used and the time spent in said cask, as the hue is derived from wood contact.
Basically, the longer the maturation, the more intense the color. Reservoir gets its rich, deep hue from time in the cask and a heavy level of char in the barrel. (In a separate post, we’ll have an interesting chat about the wondrous world of “finishing techniques.”)
A note to encourage the reading of labels: You may discover a color additive used by some distilleries to enhance the outcome.
It is legal to add up to 2.5% caramel coloring (E150a) according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, but not if you plan to call your spirit Bourbon. And the rule applies to wheat, corn, and rye if the distiller plans to label their whiskey as “straight.”
The simplest way to identify your dram’s color is by holding your glass against a white background—such as a sheet of white paper. Now check the color chart. Super easy.
This is a measurement of thickness and can be a sign of a whiskey’s age.
Swirl the spirit around in your glass, then stop and assess the legs—the bands falling down the sides of the glass. If they’re as slow as a snail with a limp, you’ve got yourself an older whiskey, possibly eligible for a pension.
And if it has gams like 6-feet tall Uma Thurman, your dram is likely higher in alcohol.
Some distilleries will chill-filter the whiskey in order to eliminate any cloudiness that may occur naturally, but there is a common complaint that by discarding the oily compounds, it also negatively affects the whiskey’s flavor.
Whiskies with the non-chill-filtered style may go somewhat cloudy when water is added, but will return to its clear state shortly. Be patient. Many distillers believe you provide a richer, fuller flavor by keeping the whiskey non-chill-filtered.
(Again, like our distillers here at Reservoir.)
So there you have it. Lesson one and none the worse for wear. You’ve got a handy dandy color guide and a couple of interesting facts for your back pocket. Go forth and gleefully practice!
Shelley Sackier--Director of Distillery Education