How to Help Them Taste Whiskey Like a Pro

Whiskey isn’t for everyone, but it would be a shame to turn off anyone who has the potential to love and appreciate it. Here are some tips on how to help others approach whiskey with a mindset that gives them the best chance to enjoy it in their own way.

Devin Ershow Dec 10, 2023 - 15 min read

How to Help Them Taste Whiskey Like a Pro Primary Image

Photo: Jamie Bogner/Craft Spirits & Distilling

Having worked in a variety of roles for several whiskey companies over the course of my career, I have heard one phrase over and over, no matter where I work: “I’m not much of a whiskey drinker.”

Now, I firmly believe that some people will never like whiskey, as sad as that is to admit. For most people, however, there is a much better chance that they can learn to love whiskey—if they learn how to properly approach drinking it.

I love whiskey. As an industry professional and educator, my hope is to help other people love whiskey, too. That said, I don’t need everyone to love whiskey the same way that I do. My goal is to help broaden their understanding of how to access the flavors that hide behind the “burn” and to help them discover how they can love and appreciate whiskey in their own way.

So, let’s go through some tips and tricks that can help you help them unlock whiskey. Essentially, this is how I frame it for beginners, or for anyone who just isn’t “much of a whiskey drinker.” Consider this a sort of script for you.


Step One: Proper Glassware

When evaluating whiskey for the first time, it’s important to try to have the right kind of glass.

The Glencairn whiskey glass is the gold standard because of its shape: It looks a bit like a teardrop with a large bulb at the bottom, narrowing toward the top. This shape helps the spirit spread out in the bottom of the glass, with the taper concentrating aromas toward the opening. If you don’t have a Glencairn, that’s okay, but see if you have a glass with a similar shape, be it a brandy snifter, Teku spirits taster, or white-wine glass.

If you don’t have something like that, just prioritize using real glass. The first part of tasting is observing the color of the whiskey, so you want something that’s easy to see through. No plastic Solo cups—at least not in this stage of the game.

Step Two: Color

Look at the color of the whiskey. What are some words that spring to mind to describe it? Is it light in color, with shades of yellow, gold, or hay? Is it darker than that, leaning more toward amber, red, or dark brown?

That color can tell us a lot about a whiskey. As distillers, you take it for granted, but many drinkers don’t realize that whiskey comes out as clear as water when it’s distilled. It’s helpful to explain that most whiskeys get their color from the barrels in which they mature. Because of their climate, Irish and Scotch whiskies tend to use previously used barrels to age their whisky. Conversely, most American-made whiskeys such as bourbon are made using new charred barrels. Think of those barrels like a tea bag: When you use a fresh bag to make tea, you get a very robust flavor and color. If you use that same bag again to make another cup of tea, you still extract some flavor and color, but they are not as pronounced. The same goes for the barrels. American whiskeys tend to be darker, leaning more into the red and brown hues; Irish and Scotch whiskies tend to be lighter.


So, let’s say someone hands you a glass of whiskey. You don’t know what it is, and you can’t see the bottle. Look at the color, and you can start to make some assumptions about what might be in that glass. Let’s say the color is very dark. This can tell you something as well. American whiskeys get most of their color from the barrel in the first four years. After that, the whiskey may get slightly darker in color, but not by much. Similarly, a whiskey that hasn’t been diluted with water—also known as barrel- or cask-strength whiskey—will also have a darker shade than a diluted whiskey. So, if the whiskey in your glass is quite dark, this is telling us that it’s probably at least four years old, if not older, and possibly high proof.

Step Three: Nosing

Next, we’re going to nose our whiskey—a fancy way of saying we’re going to smell it.

First and foremost, please do not shove the glass up into your nose and take a big whiff. Whiskey is not wine. To be legally classified as whiskey, it needs to be bottled no lower than 40 percent ABV. I suggest that you start with the glass around your chest bone. Slowly bring the glass up toward your nose, keeping your mouth open as you attempt to breathe in through both your nose and mouth at the same time. Once you’ve brought the glass up toward your nose, move it slowly from left to right and back again. This process aids in something called retronasal olfaction—desensitizing our noses to the alcohol, to help us better appreciate the flavors and aromas in the whiskey.

Once you’ve performed these steps, you can get your nose into the glass and take short, gentle sniffs. Try moving the glass from one nostril to the other, as they often pick up on different things.

Again, keep your mouth open a little. When you nose with your mouth closed, it creates a wall in the back of your throat. If you’re nosing something alcoholic, those alcohol molecules hit that wall, have nowhere else to go, and so they fire back up into your sinuses. Not only can this be uncomfortable, but chances are that most of what you are going to pick up on are the astringent alcohol notes in the whiskey. Keeping your mouth open helps to soften the nosing experience. Also, you will inhale some flavor molecules through your nose. If your mouth is open, some of those molecules can land on your tongue—almost as if you’re tasting the whiskey while you nose it, which can help you experience more complex aromas.


Now comes the really fun part, where we start to put together a sensory analysis of this whiskey—but don’t jump right into the deep end. If you try to think of the entire world of aromas and flavors, your brain is going to short circuit and go blank. Instead, try to think in very simple terms at first.

Does this whiskey smell sweet, spicy, savory, earthy, or like a textile? Let’s assume it smells sweet. This sweet aroma—is it a fruity sweetness or more like a dessert? Perhaps it’s fruity. Okay, there are berries, stone fruits, citrus fruits, tropical fruits, and so on—is it one of those? Okay, go deeper.

Maybe it wasn’t fruity; maybe it was more like a dessert. There are too many desserts to start breaking them down into categories, so let’s lean on some sense memory. Does this dessert aroma bring you back to a specific dish, place, or experience that you had. Maybe it’s crème brûlée. Perfect! What’s in a creme brûlée? Well, there’s vanilla custard and, of course, the burnt-sugar caramel on top. There you go!

We start off simple. Piece by piece, we pull on that string until we can connect it to something in our sense memory. Landing on crème brûlée, for example, we can break that apart into vanilla custard and burnt-sugar caramel—very sophisticated nosing notes.

Of course, we can do that with any of the basic categories listed above. It takes practice, but you can start small and get more complex as you go.


Step Four: Tasting

Now the part we’ve all been waiting for: time to finally drink the whiskey.

That said, we’re not going to slam this down like a shot. There’s nothing wrong with shots, but what a lot of people don’t know is that our tongues are split up into several sectors. Most of our bitter taste buds are on the back of the tongue. That means that if we drink whiskey quickly, only our bitter taste buds are getting a chance to taste it. We’re also not giving our bodies any time to proof down the whiskey before the full brunt force of the alcohol hits us in the back of the throat—making us wince, cough, and turn to our friends to give them a very forced, “That was great!”

Instead, we’re going to take it slow with our whiskey. The first sip should be a small one. Give it a moment to coat your palate, and then swallow. After you swallow, exhale immediately.

Now, if this is our first alcoholic drink of the day, chances are that most of what we picked up on that first sip was alcohol and burn. This is perfectly normal. Our brains are trying to protect us from harm, and at first, they don’t know what we’re putting into our bodies. Eventually, the brain will recognize ethanol as something that is not dangerous in small doses—please drink responsibly—and will start to relax. So, if that first sip was very alcohol-forward, hot on the tongue and rough on the throat, each one will become easier as we slowly take a few more sips.

With these subsequent sips, let’s take in a slightly larger amount. Hold it on the front of your palate for a few seconds. Let it roll over your tongue, around the sides and the roof of your mouth. When you swallow again, exhale immediately. Some of the alcohol is going to evaporate inside your mouth. Exhaling releases that alcohol vapor out into the world so it doesn’t get stuck in your chest, which can be a very unpleasant feeling.


A few sips in with this method, and we should start to experience a wider array of flavors. You may notice that the flavors change from the start of the experience to the end. We often like to split the palate into three or four stages:

  • On the front of the palate are the flavors we get as soon as the whiskey hits the tongue.
  • The midpalate is where those initial flavors begin to change or evolve.
  • Finally, the finish includes the lingering flavors we experience after we swallow. If the flavors are relatively simple and don’t linger, we refer to that as a short finish. If the flavors are complex and stick around for a while, we refer to that as a long finish.

When evaluating these flavors, go through the same steps that we did with the nose: Start simple and expand until you get to something more nuanced.

Step Five: How to Enjoy It

Learning how to approach and evaluate whiskey the way that professionals do usually helps drinkers to appreciate it more than they did before. However, they may still be thinking, “I don’t know if I can drink whiskey straight like this.” That’s okay. Drinking whiskey straight or neat is a great way to understand the underlying flavor and complexion of the spirit—but it’s not for everyone.

With a better understanding of the whiskey, anyone can figure out how to make it the perfect drink for themselves. If it’s still a bit too harsh, encourage them to try adding a few drops of water. Not only does that lower the proof, making it potentially more approachable to drink, but it also breaks up the molecular bonds within the whiskey, which can help to open up even more aromas and flavors.

If that doesn’t work, suggest they try adding some ice. Now, some hardcore whiskey drinkers may gasp and clutch their pearls at that. Here’s why: Cold temperatures tend to mute the aromas and flavors in spirits. Purists say that if you remove aromas and flavors from a whiskey, you’re ruining it. I would counter that maybe all those extra aromas and flavors make it so that someone isn’t able to enjoy it. If removing them or muting them helps someone enjoy the whiskey, then what is the problem with it? The other argument against ice is that it can over-dilute the whiskey. There is a fine line between water opening a whiskey up and washing it out. If they choose to add ice, suggest a larger cube. Large ice cubes will help cool down the whiskey and won’t melt as quickly as smaller cubes.

Finally, a drinker may decide the best way to enjoy the whiskey is to mix it into something. The good news is that they’ve now learned how to evaluate the whiskey for all of its beautiful aromas and flavors. They can think about those flavors and what could complement them. There’s no need to blindly toss our whiskey into some Coke—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But anyone can find a way to enhance what they enjoy about the whiskey with the mixers they choose.

And there you have it. We’ve now successfully unlocked whiskey, and—we can hope—helped someone to find a deeper love and appreciation for the spirit that we hold so near and dear to our hearts.

Devin Ershow is the cofounder of American Mash & Grain, a whiskey blog/blending house that endeavors to elevate the profile of the American Craft Whiskey Movement. He is also the head mixologist for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. He is an Executive Bourbon Steward through the Stave and Thief Society and a Level 2 Award Recipient with Distinction from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).