Drinks

How to Taste Whiskey Like a Pro

From the swirl to the finish, ace your next bourbon tasting with these time-tested tips

photo: Johnny Autry

Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller makes a living off his palate. A master blender, he practices the age-old art of mixing whiskeys into balanced, sought-after final products, which means he’s constantly sampling batches to separate the exceptional from the acceptable. Here are his top tips for cozying up with a new bourbon.


THE GLASS
“Typically, I’m tasting out of a Glencairn,” Zoeller says. The tulip-shaped glass funnels aromas straight to the nose—enhancing not only scent but also flavor.


THE SWIRL
Before you take a sip, swirl the whiskey once. Look for thick, syrupy legs streaking down the sides of the glass. “That indicates weight,” Zoeller says. “When a whiskey has some weight on it, that’s when you know you’re getting into something good.”


THE SNIFF
Holding the glass about an inch from your nose, inhale with your mouth open, which helps the aromas of the bourbon get through the haze of vaporized alcohol. Then, slowly ease your nose into the glass.


THE SIP
“That first sip just slaps you in the face,” Zoeller says. “It’s like Tabasco.” Roll the second sip over your tongue and you’ll begin to pick up texture and flavors. By the third or fourth sip, you’ll get the full bouquet.

 

THE FINISH
“A good bourbon goes down your throat nice and easy and lingers on your chest,” Zoeller says. “A little bit of burn isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I try to avoid that in my whiskeys.”


THE FLAVORS

Good: vanilla, caramel, maple, leather, toffee, black cherry, honey, citrus. Not so good: grain, green wood, grassiness, overpowering sweet corn, overpowering wood. If it’s strong and spicy, it might be a high-rye bourbon—such as Four Roses Single Barrel or Old Grand-Dad. Soft and toasty? Famous high-wheat whiskeys include Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle.


ICE OR NO ICE?
There’s no shame in ice for casual sipping, but when Zoeller really wants to “get to know” a bourbon, he drinks it neat. As
for water, a splash can help open up a high-proof whiskey.
 


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