Everyone has a little bit different idea of what whiskey should taste like. Whether you are a novice drinking Whiskey in a cocktail or mixed with a soda, or an enthusiast who drinks it neat, there are certain flavors that we all can understand. My first foray into whiskey was in college; and, like most people, it was all about getting the stuff down as fast as possible. “Quantity over Quality” was the maxim of the day. Maybe it was because of the student budget but mostly it was because we were uneducated to the refined essence of this magical elixir. All I tasted was “hot” or “burn” and if I was going to continue this exploration, I needed to learn how to reduce the burn. My first idea was to just dowse the whiskey with sour mix or a cola as there was no enjoyment for the whiskey itself. Soon, however, I learned that some were better than others as far as limiting that burning feeling in the back of my throat. Jack was harsh but Jim treated me a little nicer…That’s when the epiphany started… A flavor profile was starting to form. I liked things a little sweeter rather than bolder. It was not until after college that I learned some of the lingo associated with this “water of life”. Things like Proof and Alcohol by Volume (ABV) that effected that burn, yet I still did not fully comprehend that each and every whiskey had its own flavor. For the most part, I had been set with Maker’s since a good friend set us up as ambassadors and I thought that I needed to remain loyal to the brand.
Visiting the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky was an eye opening experience for me. Sampling various styles from various distilleries helped me realize that education was a very important stepping stone on my journey. I wish there had been a class in college that had helped me learn then what I have learned since. (I might have even become interested in chemistry at that point in life!) Knowing that alcoholic beverages could be savored without the burn was a fantastic thing. Discovering flavors like vanilla, caramel, nuts, citrus and floral notes was something that was completely new and exciting. This truly was the start of my Whiskey transformation and I continue to learn each and every day with every sip along the way. I even learned that I could enjoy something that normally burns going down, just by adding a little water (more on this later in the next chapter).
There are a few key things that you should know as you start your own learning adventure. There is going to be a lot of information that you will encounter that is going to be contradictory in nature and might be confusing at first. Rest assured that that is okay and you will learn your way through it. We hope that we are going to help get you there faster than we experienced it. Everyone that is associated with whiskey from novice to expert is going to have an opinion about what they recommend. The good news is that they are all going to be right – but not necessarily for you. What I mean is that just like no two people have the same appreciation for anchovies on their pizza does not mean that anchovies are bad or the pizza is ruined with them on it. It just means that some people like it. That’s all. In our section on web resources, we have a listing of hundreds of websites where individuals and groups review whiskey. They are fun to read and help you learn what you might like, or want to try, but keep in mind that the ultimate judge will be yourself. It is almost as simple as “Do I like it?” or “I don’t like it.” Don’t get caught up in that so-and-so expert rated this offering a “97”, because I am here to tell you nothing can be judged until you have a comparison. And that is how you start…. Whiskey A and Whiskey B are in front of you and then you say: I like ”B” over “A”. Period. So don’t feel compelled to purchase something just because some expert said so.
Once you have distinguished which of the two that you like, you are on your way to determining what your particular flavor profile is. This is where the fun begins. You start sampling a dram (some measure that we will discuss later) at a time. You compare the flavor to what you know, that you liked, and you move closer and closer to – or beyond – your first love. I have been working on my flavor profile for the best part of 6 years and still enjoy trying new and different whiskies. Sometimes, going into a tasting, there are some offerings that I had not liked previously or don’t think I am going to like that I still try because our tastes change, or dare I say ‘mature’, over time. As a kid, I loved grilled cheese sandwiches and ate them so much that I got burned out. Skip forward a decade without eating them and now I am enjoying them again. It will be the same along your own whiskey journey. They say that every old is new again and they have a point. As your flavor profile matures, revisit things that you have had in the past. You might be surprised. Above all enjoy yourself and as always drink responsibly. Sláinte!