Where most people talk about all these different nuances of flavor and notes, the first thing I tasted when I started drinking whiskey was an overwhelming alcoholic drink. It can be tough to find all the different complex flavors in a whiskey, and I still struggle with this. I am not a seasoned whiskey expert, and I am not going to pretend I am.
Whiskey, especially cask strength whiskey, can have an overwhelmingly strong smell and flavor. There are several ways to make the whiskey more accessible to drink.
I think this is an important subject as whiskey can be too much for many people. The rest of the article will cover 5 tips (and some bonus tips) that are easy to implement that make whiskey a bit less overpowering.
1. Add some water to your whiskey
The first thing that I encourage you to try is to add some water to your whiskey. This water will dilute the whiskey. While this sounds like an undesired thing, it actually lowers the alcohol concentration and can open up the whiskey to reveal new aromas or notes that you previously could not enjoy.
Don’t water it down too much, just start with a little bit of water. A couple of drops can do the trick, but for other whiskeys I would recommend to add a little more. Examples are whiskeys that are bottled at cask strength. This means that the distillery did not dilute the whiskey down to a certain alcohol percentage, but bottled it straight from the cask.
Most whiskeys are bottled at 40% to 45%, but cask strength whiskeys can be all the way up to 60% alcohol. This will burn you when you do not add any water, and therefore I always add some water before drinking.
The water you should use is odorless, tasteless water to which you are to. It could be tap water if you are used to drinking that, or bottled water or even spring water. Just make sure that the water does not have a strong mineral taste as this can influence the flavor of the whisky. We do not want that of course.
2. Use the correct glass
Using the correct glass is crucial to the way you experience a whiskey. The popular Glencairn glasses are a must for everyone who wants to taste everything a whiskey has to offer. However, when you smell the whiskey from these glasses you are really getting everything straight into your nose. This can be really overwhelming, and can be too much for many people.
Instead, you can try and taste your whiskey from a old fashioned whiskey glasses. These tumbler glasses give your whiskey way more space and allow you to put your nose in there without getting blasted by the strong smell of the liquor. For me, this was a perfect way to get to know my whiskey more without only smelling alcohol.
3. Let your whiskey breathe for a couple of minutes
In a previous article I have written on this site, we already established that it can be a good thing to let your whiskey breathe for a while. It most definitely is not necessary to do so, but it could help in multiple ways.
First of all, allowing your whiskey to sit in the glass for a while before you take your first sip can reveal the notes on the nose that were previously hidden behind the alcohol fumes. This is the main reason why I sometimes let my drink sit for five to ten minutes, as it really helps me enjoy more of what the whiskey has to offer.
The second reason is that the whiskey gets time to interact with the air. Unlike wine, you should not decant your whiskey for durations up to an hour. However, it is recommend to let a whiskey sit to oxidize for just a couple of minutes. Older whiskeys should sit longer that younger whiskeys as they take longer to settle and open up.
To determine how long your whiskey should settle before drinking, double the amount of years the whiskey has been aging in a cask. A 10 year old whiskey should be left to breathe for up to 20 minutes. Of course, you can try it straight after pouring and every step along the way. Over time, you will be able to appreciate the way the flavor of the whiskeys changes after letting it settle down for a while.
4. Do not start with the most expensive or complex whiskey you can find
There are some very good starter whiskeys out there for you to try before jumping in to expensive, complex whiskeys. Personally, I still do not feel prepared to spend over $100 on a bottle of whiskey, just because I am not yet able to accurately describe the flavor of a whiskey. Over the years I have trained my nose to tell apart basic flavors in a whiskey, but I still struggle with the nuances.
Also, make sure you do not go the other way and spend your money on whiskey that is too cheap. When whiskey ages in a barrel, the wood and charcoal (the inside of the barrels are charred) filter out some of the nasty and harsh flavors. If a whiskey is underaged, there will still be a lot of the harsh aromas in there. People who have only tasted cheap low-quality whiskey often are no fan of whiskey for this exact reason.
Try aiming for a $25 – $35 bourbon and a $35 – $55 bottle of Scotch to find quality whiskey at a great price point. If you spend more you are often paying for age, as an older whiskey is more expensive, or potentially even for brand (cough The Macallan cough).
5. Try adding some ice to your whiskey
There are many people that will tell you to not drink whiskey with ice, as ice will numb your taste buds and will not allow you to all of your whiskey. Well, I would agree if you are drinking super expensive whiskey. It would be a shame to not be able to taste everything. (And even then you should just do whatever you want). BUT, it can be a very good way to make the whiskey a bit less intimidating. It can be a great way to make the whiskey a bit more enjoyable and refreshing, or to soften the alcohol burn.
If you want to get into whiskey but feel like the drink is too strong, feel free to drop in 2 or 3 ice cubes to chill it.
Bonus tip 6: Sip your whiskey slowly
Drinking whiskey is something relaxing, take your time for it! Take small sips and trust your taste buds. If you do not like a whiskey, that is perfectly fine! Even better, try to find why you do not like that whiskey. Is it too smokey? Does it taste like copper, is it to sweet?
When you know what you like and do not like, try ask for recommendations. This can be to your local liquor store employee but also to friends or colleagues who you know enjoy to drink whiskey every now and again.
Finally, getting used to the strong alcohol taste, smell and overall experiences takes time. Actually, it takes time to get used to. After a while the whiskey will not burn as much anymore. The alcohol will still be there, as it will never fully go away, it will just not take center stage anymore and will give room to new aromas for you to enjoy.