How to Taste Whiskey

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Colum Egan, Master Distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, is naturally passionate about whiskey. For him, becoming Master Distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey was fate. When he visited the distillery as a paying customer almost fifteen years ago, he fell in love with the distillery and the process of making the world’s oldest whiskey.

“The history, heritage and magic of the distillery intoxicated me,” he says. “I immediately felt at home.”

Egan also points out that the source of the water supply used to make the whiskey is St. Columb’s Rill; his first name is derived from the word “Columb” and is pronounced the same way. Purely coincidence? Colum thinks not.

How to Taste Whiskey | Roulez MagazineEgan grew up in Portarlington in County Laois – the heart of Ireland’s barley-growing country where he graduated from the University of Limerick with a degree in production management. After a series of jobs in food and beverage production, Egan started working in bottling, vatting and blending at Irish Distillers Ltd in Dublin. He later joined the Old Bushmills Distillery and was soon appointed Head Distiller.

“Moving from bottling and blending to distilling and processing was a natural progression,” Egan says.

Recognized for his true devotion to Bushmill’s, leadership and innate ability for whiskey making, Egan is now the Master Distiller of Bushmills, following a year-long tutelage under the previous Master Distiller, David Quinn. “I have one of the best, most exciting jobs in the world,” he says. “It is a dream come true.”

Colum Egan shares his insights on how to properly taste the spirit.

To taste whiskey, you will need your senses of sight, smell and taste – plus a little guidance and an open mind. Remember, taste is a personal experience, so there is no “right,” or “wrong.”

Step One: Prepare for the Tasting

The tasting room should be free of extraneous smells and should have good lighting. The right size and shape of the glass is vital and makes a huge difference in the ability to nose effectively. Do not use traditional whiskey tumblers. Instead, use a snifter, which allows you to swirl the spirit and gather the aromas around the rim.

Step Two: Note Appearance

Pour about an ounce of whiskey. Hold the glass to the light, or against a white napkin, and take note of its color, depth and clarity. The whiskey’s appearance should be a guide to how it has been matured and for how long, since the color comes from the wood.

Step Three: Add Water

Almost all whiskeys benefit from the addition of water, which will open up the spirit, in most cases. It is always best to add water a little at a time. Older whiskeys (more than 20 years) or whiskeys aged in sherry can be damaged by the addition of too much water; the aromas break up and the flavor becomes flat. The water used to dilute the strength of your dram should be still and not too high in minerals. At professional tastings, distilled water is normally used.

Step Four: Nose the Whiskey

The aroma of a whiskey is called the “nose.” To determine the nose, tilt the glass, swirl the whiskey and inhale slowly. Do not sniff too intensely or too often, because the alcohol can inhibit your sense of smell. The aromas are often complex and multi-layered. With a little practice, you will learn to break smells down and identify what they are.

Step Five: Taste the Whiskey

Take a sip large enough to fill your mouth, then roll it over your tongue. It is important when tasting, to hold the liquid in the mouth and to make sure it coats the tongue thoroughly to help determine mouthfeel. First, register the texture and smoothness of the whiskey. Then, try to identify the primary tastes – the immediate flavors your tongue collects. The finish, or the aftertaste, refers to the sensation experienced after swallowing, as well as the flavors that linger in your mouth.

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About Author

Kimberly Toms is a freelance writer, filmmaker, habitual road tripper and lover of all things travel. Life as a digital marketing and eCommerce consultant has allowed for pursuit of these poorly paying arts and hobbies, while life beyond the office continually beckoned to "get yer ass back on the road and into the wilderness." The wilderness is most often where you can find her.

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