What is the best American whiskey?
It's fascinating that so many people ask me, friends or their trusty "siri" or "ok google" for the best American Whiskey everyday. That, and "best bourbon," "best rye," and so many other similar requests for this ever elusive answer. Why is it fascinating? Well because "best" is subjective, of course! Yet there are thousands of resources out there espousing what is "best" when whomever is making that decision doesn't have your palate! They might not have even remotely the same preferences as you.
So first let me just say, #sorrynotsorry. Here at The Crafty Cask we won't even begin to pretend what the best of anything is. We know what we like. What we love. But we also know how to help you find your very own favorite and that's exactly what we're going to do today.
How to Taste Whiskey Like A Pro To Find Your Own Best American Whiskey
The first step to finding the best American whiskey is tasting, tasting and yup, more tasting. As you taste you will learn what you do and do not like and you will learn to identify the different flavors. Over the years we've all gotten pretty damn good at this with wine. When someone asks you what kind of wine you're looking for you can usually give them at least a little guidance as to what styles you like, right? Fruity, earthy, dry, etc…
With enough practice you'll be doing the same with whiskey and on the road to finding your own favorite American whiskey in no time. But be forewarned…each favorite will likely be replaced by a new favorite soon enough. But that's exactly the point and part of the fun of doing this yourself vs. us telling you what WE think the best American whiskey is! #yourwelcome
Ok, let's get started on how to taste whiskey and identify what your nose and mouth are experiencing with each whiff and sip. This way you can grow your appreciation for this liquid gold and discover your own favorites to tell all of your friends (and us!) about.
If you don't know how whiskey is made or simply need a refresher take a read through our Whiskey 101 article. This will give you a solid foundation as you begin tasting.
Step 1 | The Glass
So first things first is the glass you select. No we are not being whiskey snobs, the correct glass will make the entire experience easier and more pleasant for several reasons. Firstly you are going to be required to swirl your whiskey at some stage and the correct shape glass makes this infinitely easier.
You will need a tulip shaped glass such as a wine or brandy glass. Or if you're jumping in head first you can pick up a set of these Glencairn Whiskey Glasses. What you are looking for is a glass where the bowl of the glass is wide and the top is narrow. This concentrates the aromas toward your nose when you are ready for, well, your first nose.
To nose a whiskey or nosing is the act of bringing the glass of whiskey to your nose in order to smell the contents.
The shape of the glass has the added benefit of protecting anyone seated next to an overzealous swirler who swirls their whiskey like they would a wine. With a normal tumbler the liquid will splash over the sides, plus the delicious smells will escape too quickly.
Step 2 | Drink With Your Eyes
After you pour a small amount of whiskey, 1-2oz, into your glass take a minute to appreciate how it looks. Sometimes it's helpful to hold it up against a white background like a wall or piece of paper. Is it a golden, honey color? Deep brown? Highly transparent? A little harder to fully see through? As you start to build out your preferences and pay attention to how it looks in conjunction with what you discover as you go through the next steps you can start to make some hypotheses and connections between what you're seeing and what you're tasting.
Now, swirl the glass gently. Unlike wine you want small, delicate swirls. Just a swirl or two will do, then pay close attention as you put your glass down. Look at those streams of whiskey that run down the inside of the glass. These are called the "legs" and they can give you some clues about the whiskey you're about to drink. Slower, fat legs indicate a higher alcohol volume. Another reason we swirl is to speed up evaporation so that we can smell the nuances of whiskey. Before you get ready to take a sniff after your second swirl read on through the next step so you don't burn your delicate little nose hairs!
Step 3 | The Nose
A word or warning if this is your first time formally tasting whiskey or if you are super excited. DO NOT stick your nose into the top of the glass and take a big whiff. You will cough, you could sputter, your eyes definitely will water and your olfactory sense will be toast. Remember, whiskey is on the high ABV side of the drinks cabinet and taking a big, deep sniff of the alcohol fumes guarantees that you won't be smelling anything else for a while. Nosing spirits is a delicate task.
First off you want the whiskey to stand for a few seconds after swirling to let the overpowering alcohol smell dissipate a little. Then you are going to bring the glass just beneath your nose and gently sniff above the rim of the glass. Some experts also swear by slowly breathing in while making a cross with the glass under their nose so that you're smelling top to bottom and side to side to pick up nuances. Try to identify what you smell. Is it smoky or sweet? Can you pick up vanilla or maybe caramel?
There is no right or wrong answer. Take a few breaths, give the glass a swirl and smell again. Repeat this as many times as you like. Cover the glass with your (clean!) hand and tip the glass to get a little whiskey on your hand. Rub your hands together, cover your nose with them and inhale. Has any new aroma developed with the heat and evaporation?
But What If I Have No Idea What I'm Smelling?!
Sometimes it's helpful to have a resource to help you identify what is in your glass. I actually pull out my wine and whiskey wheels quite a bit! Especially since it's pretty subjective and can sometimes feel like taking an abstract stroll down memory lane. You may, for example, smell a whiskey and suddenly think of your Grandfather. If you put a bit of thought into it the reason why you think of him is because he smoked a pipe and what you are smelling is the aroma of tobacco.
Step 4 | The Palate
Now one of the things you are checking is if the whiskey tastes the way it smells or if you pick up other nuances at this stage than you did in the last one. A big part of taste is indeed smell, but that doesn't mean what you smell is what you'll taste. I've often thought a particular whiskey smells like maple brown sugar, for example, but when I taste it I can't pick that up or it leans more caramel. The wheel above can be helpful in parsing these nuances apart.
One word of caution here too – unlike wine you can't hold the whiskey in your mouth or swirl it around for very long, again, because of the higher ABV. But when you do take a small sip you do want to swirl the whiskey so that it coats your entire mouth before swallowing. And NEVER judge any taste on the first sip. The first sip or bite of anything is a bit of a shock to the system so your palette takes a second to acclimate. Take a second sip and then assess. On additional sips you can breathe in through your nose or through your mouth and see what difference that makes. When doing the latter, only suck a small amount of air in between your lips to open the whiskey further before swallowing.
Step 5 | The Finish
One of the first thing you are going to notice when you swallow is an alcoholic burn…also why you don't want to judge on the first sip. To assess the finish, note if the flavors of the whiskey that you just identified dissipate quickly or last a long time. Now you want to exhale through your nose and see if you can identify any additional complexities after you've swallowed it. If so, how long do those last? This is known as the length of the finish. Some whiskies just keep on giving while others die out almost as soon as you finish your sip.
Should I Add Water To Whiskey?
Some may describe whiskey as liquid gold in its true form that should never be tainted with the likes of water, either liquid or in the form of ice. We say, the best American whiskey is the one you enjoy drinking. If you want to add ice go for it, a splash of water? totally fine. It can open the whiskey up a bit more and help cut down on the alcohol burn for whiskies that run a little hot (higher abv), like those that are bottled at cask strength.
But. One large ice cube so it melts more slowly. And if you're adding water, one drop at a time. It's amazing how much of a difference a drop or two can have. And you can always add more but once there's to much water you're just going to have to get some more whiskey to fix it! Ok, ok…maybe that's not the worst thing in the world.
You Tell Us…What Is The Best American Whiskey?
Have you come across a crafty whiskey you love and think we should taste? While we'll never proclaim any beverage the best of anything we DO love growing our list of favorites! Or maybe you're struggling with part of the tasting process we just described above. Or have a twist to it that you enjoy doing. Drop a comment, we'd love to share in your experience. Check back for What is the Best American Whiskey | Part 2 where we'll be breaking down the different American whiskey styles and, ok, ok…maybe recommending a few of our favorite bottles for each category too.
Until then, happy whiskey exploring Tippler Nation!